Jews on Broadway

Stewart Lane must hear the same joke I do every time I mention the title of his new book Jews on Broadway to somebody: “Is there anybody else?” The answer is, of course there are, but there’s no denying that Jews have been not only hugely influential, but numerous in this field. At times the book seems awfully close to reading like a history of the American theatre in toto.

Wacko anti-Semites see this is as proof of a deliberate, century long cultural takeover. (I know — many of them find their way to this blog, using search terms like “so many Jews in show business”).  The irony of that mentality is mind-boggling, given that the first generation of Jews and other immigrants went into show business because they were poor and had nothing to lose, and most American WASPs considered entertainment and the arts beneath them both culturally and morally. The Jews have been successful in this field not only because of their prodigious creative talents, but because they got in on the ground floor. Ya snooze, ya lose, baby!

Lane makes this point by starting this story with its prologue, following the Yiddish theatre from its origins in Eastern Europe to the overcrowded, struggling Lower East Side. (The names of two Yiddish comedies made me laugh out loud: The Shmendrick and Two Kuni-Lemls.) It was the Yiddish Theatre and the likes of Jacob Adler and Boris Tomashefsky that would inspire a younger generation who would go on to found the Group Theatre and the Actor’s Studio, Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman, Elia Kazan, Clifford Odets, etc etc. (Did you know HARRY MORGAN [Dragnet, M*A*S*H] was in the Group Theatre? I’d be grateful for this book if only for that crazy piece of information!) At any rate, even a cursory familiarity with this theatrical movement will tell you that it was composed of idealists, artists and dreamers. The fact that some of them went to Hollywood and made a buck was a by-product of their integrity. Have you seen what most acting in Hollywood movies was like before they came on the scene? Facacta!

The vaudeville and musical comedy folks, however, were in it for material success, and they achieved it. The number of successful Jewish performers, songwriters, producers, playwrights and directors is legion and needs no recitation here. Lane covers all the biggies, with brief biographical sketches including the high (and low) points in their careers. The book is particularly valuable in its coverage of more recent decades, with information on contemporary professionals (including some interviews). This is material that hasn’t yet found its way into existing books and so has immediate utility. Because Lane is also a major producer (La Cage Aux Folles, Will Rogers Follies, among lots of others) there’s an element of insider autobiography to it. There’s a nice feeling of contuity from past to present that I find especially valuable, a celebration of, to cop a sentiment from Fiddler, “Tradition”.

And there are some interesting side trips. Anti-communism and the blacklist in the 1950s, which Lane speculates might have had partial motives of anti-semitism. The important  influence of the entertainers who performed in Catskills resorts on Broadway’s musical theatre. And serious playwrights from Odets to Arthur Miller to Mamet and Tony Kushner. And finally, in recent years, that inarguable measure of success in such shows as The Producers; Jewtopia; and My Mother’s Italian,  My Father’s Jewish and I’m in Therapy — irreverence. You know you’ve truly made it when you can afford to poke fun at yourself. But as Tovah Feldshuh points out in one of the book’s insightful interviews, self-deprecation has always been the source of the Jewish people’s humor. Thus, a big part, ironically, of their success in the theatre.

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