“Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy,” which airs New Year’s night on PBS (that’s PBS SoCal, for local viewers) as part of its “Great Performances” series, shares again the great open secret that American culture is to a great extent Jewish culture. More particularly, it points out the strain of Hebraic melody and rhythm in what we think of as the most mainstream popular music: the Broadway show tune.
Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart/Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, Kurt Weill, Lerner and Loewe, Frank Loesser, Leonard Bernstein, Comden and Green, Jerry Herman, Strouse and Adams, Kander and Ebb, Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz. To comprehend the degree to which this ethnic minority created a common national (even a Gentile) language, you only have to consider that the scores to “Show Boat,” “The Sound of Music,” “My Fair Lady,” “Bye Bye Birdie,” “West Side Story,” “Godspell,” “La Cage aux Folles” and “Wicked” were all by Jews, and that Berlin wrote the essential Christmas song, “White Christmas,” the essential “Easter song, “Easter Parade,” and the essential patriotic song, “God Bless America,” in whose melody Maury Yeston (“Nine”) discovers cantorial echoes. (Though Berlin’s daughter, Mary Ellin Barrett, points out that not everyone thought Berlin had a right to the material: “There were ministers who got up in church and said, What does a Jew have to do with asking God to bless America?’”
Cole Porter, an Episcopalian from Indiana, was the greatest (though not the only) exception to the Broadway rule of the Jews, but it is also noted that, before he had managed to write a hit show, Porter told Richard Rodgers he had worked out the secret to it: He would write Jewish tunes. That this is exactly what he did is demonstrated by a variety of composers at their pianos. But it’s enough to run “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” or “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” or any of his other minor-key classics through your head to hear that it’s true.
Director Michael Kantor, who has made other PBS documentaries about Broadway, skips about a bit in his story but follows a rough chronology from the Yiddish theater to today’s Great White Way, with a side trip to the Jewish summer camps where many composers, as campers or counselors, staged their first shows, or met, as Bernstein did Green, their future professional collaborators. And he covers the ongoing, mutually profitable conversation between Jewish and black musics and musicians, their modal and expressive similarities, and describes the progressive themes tackled by Rodgers sand Hammerstein in “South Pacific” and Bernstein and Sondheim in “West Side Story,” which, as Arthur Laurents, the author of its book, points out, began as a musical about Jews and Gentiles to be called “East Side Story.” Says Bernstein’s daughter Jamie, “I really think he felt somehow if he wrote a great enough piece of music, he could change the world.”
As much else in the cultural history of the Jews, it is a story of the people’s protectively veiled themes -- exile, difference, assimilation, optimism -- finally being brought into the open and named. In “Funny Girl” (Jule Styne and Bob Merrill) the great and proudly Jewish Barbra Streisand played the great and proudly Jewish Fanny Brice, and did, indeed, change the world a little. And in “Fiddler on the Roof” (Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick), which ran forever all around the world and made something universal from a story particular to the Jews: “Tradition” works for anyone who has one. And that is what we call progress.