PBS review: 'A Jewish Legacy' celebrates enormous influence of Jewish Broadway composers

Published: Sunday, Jan. 6 2013 3:00 p.m. MST

Composer Irving Berlin is celebrated in the new PBS show titled "Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy."

© Culver Pictures

Israel Isidore Baline, composer of “God Bless America,” “Easter Parade” and “White Christmas,” was the most American of songwriters.

Perhaps you know him better as Irving Berlin.

A vast majority of the composers of the standards in the Great American Songbook were Jewish, along with virtually every great Broadway composer of the 20th century. “Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy,” repeating Monday, Jan. 7, at 1 a.m. on KUED, makes the convincing argument that musicals as we know them today and many classic American songs would not exist without Jewish composers.

The PBS documentary celebrates Jewish composers and lyricists and features an entertaining smorgasbord of show tunes and superstars of the Great White Way.

There are illuminating conversations with pre-eminent talents, including Stephen Sondheim, John Kander, Charles Strouse and Harold Prince, along with younger artists like Andrew Lippa, Stephen Schwartz and Marc Shaiman. Composer Mary Rodgers Guettel (“Once Upon a Mattress”) gives insight into her legendary father, Richard Rodgers, and another interview is with her son, Adam, composer of the sublime “The Light in the Piazza.”

Most enjoyable are the rare archival clips, including rehearsals for “Gypsy” and an original “South Pacific” star singing “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” with the composer at the piano. They are interspersed with performances from a wide range of shows such as “The Producers,” “Cabaret,” and “Wicked.”

Jewish stories are told in many of these musicals, but they are disguised as stories about outsiders and misfits dreaming of belonging: the Puerto Ricans of “West Side Story” and the racially mixed outcast of the Julie La Verne character in “Show Boat,” among others.

It wasn’t until 1964 that a clearly identifiable Jewish story was told in “Fiddler on the Roof.” The Fanny Brice musical biography came the same year in “Funny Girl.”

“A Jewish Legacy” opens amusingly enough with a tongue-in-cheek affirmation of the show’s central theme by using a lyric from “Monty Python’s Spamalot” that generated knowing guffaws from theater audiences. David Hyde Pierce, one of the show’s lead actors, sings: “In any great adventure, if you don’t want to lose … you won’t succeed on Broadway if you don’t have any Jews.”

Viewers will learn a colorful word: “Yiddishkeit,” meaning all things Jewish.

Narrated by Joel Grey, the film was written and directed by Michael Kantor, whose “Broadway: The American Musical” won the 2005 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Nonfiction Series.

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