Aired June 10, 2017 on Dave’s Gone By. Youtube:
Shalom Dammit! This is Rabbi Sol Solomon with a Rabbinical Reflection for the week of June 11, 2017.
Once again we have an opportunity to celebrate one of the most glorious attractions in New York and, indeed, the entire world. No, not college girls in spring dresses, I’m talking about the Broadway theater! Within half a square mile, dozens of the most brilliant playwrights, composers, actors, designers, dialect coaches — these happy few create lasting memories that straddle a magnificent line between art and entertainment. It’s kind of like what I do, without the art or entertainment.
Because I love Broadway—when it isn’t too self-indulgent, patronizing, boring, or stupid—every year I celebrate the arrival of the Tony Awards. Not because this actress is better than that one, but as an excuse to thank all the artists who contribute to the Great White Way, even the black ones. Most importantly, as a Rabbi, I like to find the Jewishness, the Yiddishkeit, in the Tony nominations. Back in the day, Broadway was Jewish. You had more Yids shlepping to the Morosco Theater than came to Ma’ariv services. Behind the scenes, too. Nearly all the classic musicals were Jew-composed. Faigelehs, too, but mostly faigeleh Jews. And the producers, the directors, the writers—David Merrick, Arthur Miller, Frank Loesser, Neil Simon, Eugene O’Neill’s accountant — all had a hand in building the Broadway we know today.
So when I skim over the 2016-17 season Tony nominees, I look for my people, and when I find them, I kvell. For example: Kevin Kline, still a matinee idol, still a comedy master as proved by his performance in Noel Coward’s Present Laughter. Kline’s mama was a Roman Catholic, and he was raised in that faith, but his papa was Jewish, so I like to think the part of him that’s shtupping Phoebe Cates is circumcised. More tricky is the star of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. Josh Groban, a pop idol in his own right, would have been Jewish if his father had more taste. Instead, papa married a shikseh and converted to Episcopalianism, which turned his son from a Hebe to a dweeb. Still, there’s footage of teenage Josh playing Tevye in a high school production of Fiddler on the Roof, so the boy’s not all bad.
Disappointingly, Kevin Kline aside, all the other lead actors and actresses in plays are jaw-droppingly goyish. I mean, if Chris Cooper had a baby with Laura Linney, it would be so white, it could hide in a box of q-tips. The news isn’t much better in musicals—Christian Borle? Christine Ebersole? Who’s next—Crucifixia Smith? However, we do have one ringer—and she’s a humdinger: Bette Midler! She’s taken Broadway by storm in a revival of Hello, Dolly!. Now, it’s never stated in either The Matchmaker or Hello, Dolly! that Dolly Levi is Jewish but…come on. If it swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, and it complains about the thinness of the local deli’s corned-beef sandwiches, it’s a Jewish duck. Especially since Dolly, which is a shoo-in for best revival, was written by Jerry Herman and the equally Jewish Michael Stewart (fka Myron Stewart Rubin, if you please. And I do please).
The other two musical revivals up for Tonys: Miss Saigon, written by Boublil and Schonberg—which is the French equivalent of Goldstein and Cohen—and the great Falsettos, by William Finn. That show opens with a song called “Four Jews in a Room Bitching” and ends with a Bar Mitzvah, so if you take away the AIDS, the infidelity, the spousal abuse, the fags, and the death, it’s the perfect Jewish family musical.
And let’s not forget the Yidlach making new musicals, too. Benj Pasek, is nominated for co-writing the acclaimed Dear Evan Hansen. Pasek also wrote songs in the almost-Oscar-winning “La La Land.” In fact, one tune did win an Oscar, and in Pasek’s acceptance speech, he namechecked a Jewish Community Center in Philadelphia! Meanwhile, the writers of Come from Away are married couple Irene Sankoff and David Hein. They’re so tribal, they wrote one play called Mitzvah, and a musical called My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding. And I thought I was Mitch McConnell’s worst nightmare.
The book for Groundhog Day was penned by someone who wouldn’t eat a hog, Danny Rubin. (Or at least he shouldn’t eat a hog.) And the director of the aforementioned Natasha, Pierre, and the whatever of whenever is Rachel Chavkin, who calls herself culturally Jewish even though she wasn’t Bat Mitzvahed. It’s okay, Ruchel, there’s always time.
Saving the best for last, two of the four Tony-nominated new plays have central Jewish themes. Oslo, by the shaygitz J.T. Rogers, is all about how two low-level Norwegian diplomats got Israel and the Palestinians to talk peace in 1993. We all know how that worked out, but the play manages to humanize everybody—amazingly, without making a false moral equivalency between Palestinian terrorism and Jewish self-protection. Yes, one of the Israeli negotiators is a total asshole, but he bargains in good faith and, well, let’s face it, Israelis…
The other Tony-nominated play is by the Pulitzer-winning Paula Vogel, and it’s called Indecent. Which reminds me of the joke about the old Rabbi having sex with a hooker. He gets on top of her, but then he starts crying. “Whatsamatter?” the hooker says. “I’m sorry,” says the Rabbi. “This is indecent.” “Indecent?” says the hooker. “No it isn’t. It just fell out.” But more to the point—yet still involving hookers—Indecent the play is all about the premiere of another play 100 years ago. God of Vengeance, by Sholem Asch, scandalized the Jewish theater community when it was translated into English and performed on Broadway in 1923. Asch’s drama told of a brothel owner who tries to go respectable but just ends up even more morally bankrupt than where he began. The play has prostitutes, hypocrisy, even a lesbian kiss. Yeah! Unfortunately, the whole cast was indicted on charges of obscenity, leading to a trial and eventual exoneration.
As for Paula Vogel’s play, Newsday Jewess Linda Winer called Indecent “a gripping and entertaining show with laughter and tears and a real rainstorm”—because who doesn’t go to the theater to experience lousy weather?
Anyhoo, when it comes to the Tony Awards, I do have one complaint. Remember two years ago at the Oscars, when no black people were nominated for anything? Even then, they had a schvartze host: Chris Rock. Can you remember the last time the Tony Awards had a Jewish host? Not Kevin Spacey, not James Corden, not Neil Patrick Harris, not Hugh Jackman. If we go back to 2008, Whoopi Goldberg hosted—but she doesn’t count. She just chose that last name because it was somewhere in her family line, and because she wanted to be taken more seriously as an actress. (Oddly enough, “Whoopi” wasn’t doing that for her.) You have to go back to 2001, when Matthew Broderick, whose mom was Jewish, co-hosted the Tonys with Nathan Lane, who really should be Jewish. And before that? Amy Irving co-hosting in 1994. Prior to that? Tony Randall, 1982. So basically, once a decade, we get a landsman on the dais. So maybe in 2018, the American Theater Wing will remember who built Broadway in the first place and pick a heimische host. It just so happens my calendar is free that night, whatever night that is. So Broadway League—you have my number, my twitter, and my umbrella, which I really need to get back from you.
Until then, this Sunday night, I will be watching the 71st annual Tony Awards, applauding for the winners, pitying the losers, marveling at the production numbers, and praying for a nip slip on the red carpet. God, I love the theater.
This has been a Rabbinical Reflection from Rabbi Sol Solomon, Temple Sons of Bitches, in Great Neck, New York. Curtain up!
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