On New Year’s Day 2013 night at 9:30 p.m., PBS's Great Performances explores the phenomenon of the contribution of Jewish-American songwriters, actors and creative teams who have helped shape the uniquely American art form of the Broadway musical. Michael Kantor’s 90-minute documentary, “Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy” salutes the composers, (Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hammerstein to Stephen Sondheim), stars (from Fanny Brice to Ethel Merman to Barbra Streisand), and the producers, directors and choreographers who’ve kept Broadway vibrant.

As Sir Robin sings merrily to King Arthur in Monty Python's Spamalot, "You won't succeed on Broadway if you don't have any Jews." Eric Idle's cheeky lyric unfailingly generated great laughter from audiences. Even though it’s factually known that Jewish artists had help from their goyim colleagues, the lyric is grounded in truth.

Kantor, the creator of the smash, Emmy-winning PBS series, “Broadway: The American Musical” (as well as the Emmy-nominated series, “Make 'Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America”), produced, wrote and directed. His amazing research on the role of Jewish composers, lyricists and performers who’ve participated in the creation of the American musical dates back decades. He addresses what specifically is so Jewish about Broadway and why this unique art form has proven to be such fertile territory for Jewish artists.

Narrated by Tony winner Joey Grey, the special features interviews with some of theater’s Jewish A-List composers and showcases the work of Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Schwartz, Stephen Sondheim, Jule Styne, and Kurt Weill, among others. There are also interviews with Mel Brooks, Ernie “Yip” Harburg, John Kander, Phyllis Newman, Harold Prince, Mary Rodgers, Marc Shaiman, Charles Strouse and Maury Yeston.

In addition to musical clips, there’s rare archival footage of Berlin singing the quintessential American song, "God Bless America," Styne and Sondheim in rehearsal for Gypsy, and original South Pacific star William Tabbert singing, "You've Got to be Carefully Taught" with composer Rodgers on piano.

”Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy” is an Albert M. Tapper production, with Barbara Brilliant executive producing.

(pictured right: Michael Kantor)

Key Subjects: 
documentary, Michael Kantor, Broadway musicals, Jews, Richard Rodgers, Joel Grey.
Ellis Nassour
Publication Credit: 
This article first appeared in cityguideny.com, 12/12
January 2013