PARK CITY — Sorry, Cole Porter. Your invitation got lost in the mail.
At the “Accentuate the Positive: More Songs from the Jewish-American Songbook” Deer Valley Music Festival production, selections of our country’s treasury of popular song will be performed by soloists at Temple Har Shalom. The concert acknowledges that Jewish composers and lyricists dominated on Broadway and in Hollywood during the middle decades of the 20th century.
“This primary group of Jewish-American songwriters, who wrote the majority of the popular music during the era, I call ‘the Big Five’ — Richard Rodgers, Moss Hart, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen,” says Shawn Churchman, director of the “Accentuate the Positive” concert.
The only non-Jewish exception during this golden age of songwriters is Cole Porter.
“Cole Porter had his own unique style that was very rooted in his upper-class WASP heritage,” Churchman explains. “We had a joke at last year’s concert that we were going to call the show ‘Everyone But Cole Porter.’ He was known for his great parties, so he’s up there somewhere having his own party.
“The other early songwriters came from a very rich Jewish-American musical and cultural background,” he adds. “They were able to transfer their appreciation of music into their composing and became tremendously successful.”
Since the first half of the 20th century, most of America's best songs — heard on the radio, records, TV, movies, stage and sung on the streets, at work and at home — were predominately written by Jews.
These are the popular songs that took our nation to war (“Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” by Lew Brown, nee Louis Brownstein), are sung at Christmas (“Let It Snow!” by Jule Styne, nee Julius Kerwin Stein, and Sammy Cahn, nee Samuel Cohen), are crooned by Frank Sinatra (“Old Devil Moon” by Burton Lane, nee Burton Levy) and are orchestrated to firework displays “(God Bless America” by Berlin, nee Israel Isidore Baline.)
The variation to last year’s successful concert, “Of Thee I Sing: the Jewish-American Songbook,” will be the inclusion of more contemporary compositions. The objective behind the concert’s all-new song lineup Churchman created is to entertain, first and foremost, but also to educate.
“We want to show how different writers can take the same emotional moment and write a very different song,” he says. "We will examine how contemporary writers were influenced by the early Jewish-American writers and each other.”
Churchman explains the transition the Jewish songwriters had to make until they are now completely intertwined into American culture.
“When they began, they couldn’t wear their Jewishness on their sleeve,” he says. “Then they got to a point where they could tell a Jewish story, like ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ But now they are at a point that it’s about the commonality of American experience that all good writers want to write about.”
While noting the irony that the concert theme song, “Accentuate the Positive,” was inspired by a sermon from an African-American Christian evangelist, Churchman says the influence of Jewish-American composers is widespread.
The music to “Accentuate the Positive” was written by Harold Arlen, nee Hyman Arluck, the son of a Jewish cantor (like Berlin and Al Jolson). With its upbeat lyrics — “You've got to accentuate the positive / Eliminate the negative / And latch on to the affirmative / Don't mess with Mr. Inbetween” — the song was first made famous when it was sung by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters in Paramount Pictures’ “Here Comes the Waves.” But it has also been recorded by Connie Francis, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, the rock band NRBQ, the punk band the Vindictives, popsters Cliff Richard, Paul McCartney and Dr. John, for Disney’s “The Mighty Ducks.”
Utah Symphony principal pops conductor Jerry Steichen will accompany the concert on piano, and the list of soloists is a who’s who list of Utah’s popular performers: Ashley Gardner Carlson, Mary Driggs, JD Dumas, Casey Elliott and Elizabeth Summerhays.Comment on this story
Along with his credits as a theater director, Churchman is an author, dramaturg and University of Oklahoma theater professor. With colleague David Bishop, he created the Great American Composer Series of cabaret revues, including “On the Street Where They Live: Lerner and Lowe,” “Nobody’s Heart: Rodgers and Hart,” “Rhapsody in Gershwin” and “The Music of Tin Pan Alley.”
If you go
What: “Accentuate the Positive: More Songs from the Jewish-American Songbook” at the Deer Valley Music Festival, sponsored by the Utah Symphony
Where: Temple Har Shalom, Park City
When: July 31 and Aug. 2, 8 p.m.
How much? $30, with discounts available
Tickets: 801-533-6683 or arttix.com