aired June 6, 2015 on Dave’s Gone By. Youtube clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZeVn-yaW9-g
Shalom Dammit! This is Rabbi Sol Solomon with a special theatrical Rabbinical Reflection for the week of June 7, 2015.
You know, 69 is a very fun number — but get your minds out of the gutter! I’m talking about the 69th annual Tony Awards, happening June 7th at Radio City Music Hall. This is where Broadway people pat themselves on the back–or, considering the number of homosexuals involved, pat themselves on the tuchas.
In a completely subjective and almost arbitrary way, some of the actors and directors and designers are vaunted over bunches of others, with arts journalists voting their hearts and producers on the road voting with their pocketbooks. Still, I love the theater, and any excuse to celebrate live artistic entertainment is a blessing in a world of Angry Birds, X-boxes, Netflix and other pastimes that are more sedentary, solitary, and affordable.
Of course, me being a Rabbi, I focus on other factors in the Tony nominations besides who’s the best and who’s long overdue, and which show kept my mind off my weak bladder, even late into the first act. Since Jews are a cornerstone of modern American theater, I keep tabs on where the Jewish race is in the Tony race. For example, the front runner for Best Musical is An American in Paris. This features music by George and Ira Gershwin, of the Russian-immigrant Gershowitz family that settled in Brooklyn, New York–which is about as Jewy as you can get without moving to Haifa. Or Florida.
Competing against An American in Paris is the new chamber musical Fun Home, which tells of a budding lesbian and her closeted-faigele dad. Although the graphic novel upon which Fun Home is based was written by a lapsed Catholic, the musical’s bookwriter, Lisa Kron, is a Jewess–daughter of a Kindertransport Holocaust survivor and a mother who later converted to marry him. That’s enough baggage for a miniseries, let alone a 90-minute musical.
But let’s not leave out one other tuner: The Visit, by John Kander and the late Fred Ebb (they of Cabaret and Chicago and Zorba and Kiss of the Spider Woman and The Scottsboro Boys and you get the idea). When John Kander was seven years old, his teacher caught him daydreaming in math class. “What are you doing?” she kvetched. “I’m writing a Christmas carol,” he says. Not only wasn’t he punished, they performed the song at the holiday assembly, but not before that excellent teacher asked for Kander’s parents’ permission: “I know you’re Jewish,” she said. “Is this all right?” (Why little Kander couldn’t have written a Chanukah song is a mystery. Four million Christmas carols out there, and just three Chanukah numbers: “Dreidel Dreidel Dreidel,” the Tom Lehrer song, and the Adam Sandler song, and the last two weren’t even written yet. Goddamn Christmas.)
Anyway, as you can see, Jews are well represented in musicals this year. But plays? Meh! Not one play with a Yiddish theme or, so far as I can tell, a Jewish playwright. I’m not sure about Simon Stephens, who penned The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Simon’s a Jewy first name, and a previous play of his featured an anti-Semitic character getting his comeuppance. But the other plays in the category? They’re all soaked in religion, but none about Judaism. Hand to God features a satanic hand puppet in Christian bible school . . . I guess I should be grateful that one’s not set in a synagogue. And there’s Wolf Hall, Parts 1 and 2, which spends six hours watching Henry VIII making an end run around the Catholic Church so he can divorce women instead of lopping their heads off. Now, see, if he were Jewish, he wouldn’t have either option. He’d just avoid his wives by hiding in the basement with a hobby.
The other Best Play nominee is the Pulitzer-winning Disgraced, by Ayad Akhtar. As you can tell by all the Khhh’s, he’s a Muslim. But he’s so anti-fundamentalist and so distrustful of Arab culture, if a Jew had written Disgraced, he’d be accused of anti-Muslim hate speech. Oh, sure, there’s a Jewish character in the play, and he’s a jerk, but compared to everyone else onstage, he’s Mister Rogers. Well, Mister Rogerstein.
Scrolling through the acting categories, I notice an alarming dearth of Jewish names, the closest being featured actor K. Todd Freeman–and he’s a schvartz! Thank God, therefore, for Featured Actor in a Musical nominee Brandon Uranowitz. Yes, Uranowitz. With a name like that, he must be a whiz!
I am also delighted to note that this year’s winner of the non-competitive Isabelle Stevenson Award is Stephen Schwartz. He’s getting an award for service to the industry, which, in his case, meant a bunch of charitable work and being president of the Dramatists Guild, which looks out for playwrights’ rights, right? Now, Stephen Schwartz did help create Godspell, which is all Jesus-y, but he also wrote Wicked, so he’s obviously drawn to myths and science fiction.
I should mention that two play revivals this season boast Jewish authorship. One was The Heidi Chronicles, Wendy Wasserstein’s look at a nice girl discovering feminism and motherhood, all in 160 very long minutes. Elisabeth Moss, the scientologist shiskeh who was Peggy on “Mad Men,” is Tony nominated for playing the non-Jewish Heidi. But the standout was Jason Biggs, a shaygitz in real life who plays Heidi’s shmucky boyfriend, Scoop Rosenbaum. That is, of course, the first and only time I’ve ever heard of a Jew named “Scoop.” In fact, the closest Jews ever get to a scoop is when we’re putting half a cup of flax flakes in our All-Bran.
The other play with Hebraic heritage is the classic, You Can’t Take it with You, by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. It’s about a family of creative eccentrics who don’t quite fit into society, but they mean no harm, and, in most ways, make life better for everyone around them. Come to think of it, that’s a pretty good description of my people.
Of course, on Sunday night, my people are theater people, reveling in the joy of performing, working, sharing, showing off and calling their agents. I’ll be watching, rooting, bitching, cheering, and biding my time. After all, next year they’re reviving Fiddler on the Roof, so can Shalom Dammit! be far behind? Well, yes. Yes it can. But a man can dream. Which is what theater is all about.
This has been a Rabbinical Reflection from Rabbi Sol Solomon, Temple Sons of Bitches in Great Neck, New York.
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