Thursday, June 28, 2018

Jews on Broadway: An Historical Survey of Performers, Playwrights, Composers, Lyricists and Producers 2d ed. Edition by Stewart F. Lane (McFarland)

From the Ghetto to the Great White Way

History books come in all shapes and sizes, from many different perspectives. Each point of view requires a different critical eye. There are those written from the comfortable distance of scores of years or even scores of generations. Then there are the eyewitness accounts of bystanders in great historical moments. Jews on Broadway is neither of these; it is a book by a player, an important participant, in the story the book describes. This firsthand “and then I wrote” point of view gives a lively, almost breathless narrative about a period of American culture and history much loved by Stewart F. Lane because he was an important contributor to its development. Of course he was not there in the early years that he examines, but he writes of those years as if he had been. This is what we would expect from a man whose Web site is!

The subtitle of the book is “An Historical Survey of Performers, Playwrights, Composers, Lyricists and Producers.” Lane was one of the latter, a producer, and the book is, as the title notes, a survey. Not intended to be an exhaustive historical tome interpreting and exposing in excruciating detail the 140 years included in the book, it is an overview, giving readers a loving and knowledgeable perspective of this important contribution of Jews to American culture, and through that rich gift, to the image of the United States around the world. Lane follows a linear narrative, from one generation and decade to the next. For the newcomer to Broadway history or the “was he/she Jewish?” reader, this is a fine introduction to the rich and complex history of European immigration; nineteenth- and twentieth-century American cultural development; and in the final chapters, an explanation of the sociopolitical issues that have influenced most recent history.

Lane provides a frame for the story he tells, beginning with a preface that examines the historical Jewish theatrical genre, the Purim Shpiel, and moving immediately to the world that early Central and Eastern European immigrant creators found when they arrived in America, the so-called Goldene medinah, the Golden land, bringing their Yiddish language and cultural traditions with them to the Lower East Side of Manhattan where first they settled. While they came inspired by the dreams of streets paved with gold, they found abject poverty, deplorable conditions in overcrowded tenements, and a language and culture completely foreign to them. These immigrants turned to the popular Tin Pan Alley tunes and shows of the Lower East Side community for entertainment, but Lane describes these great Yiddish productions as important sources of acculturation, assimilation, and education for the new immigrants. He regales the reader with stories of the great men and women who created a new industry in the Lower East Side--composer and producer Abraham Goldfadn, entrepreneurs Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, and theatrical patriarch Jacob Adler, all of whom were writers-producers-performers and matinee idols. Molly Picon, Anna Held, David Kessler, and Muni Weisenfruend (Paul Muni) were among the many stars who illuminated the Yiddish theater and moved to the mainstream American theater during their illustrious careers.

The American musical and dramatic theater was profoundly affected by these early Jewish immigrants--even more the film industry, although Lane does not deal extensively with that most American and Jewish entertainment genre. It is clear that one could not understand Broadway and the American theater industry without appreciating the role that Jews played. Lane moves from the Yiddish theater story to the foundation of the Broadway theater as we know it. He covers the story of the Shubert brothers, Sam, Jacob and Lee; Charles Frohman; Oscar Hammerstein I; and David Belasco, all of whom built and managed many of the theaters still enjoyed today.    

Obviously the chapters about events that he witnessed and the people with whom he worked and befriended are the most personal. He describes himself as “another Jewish boy from Long Island (who) grew up with a love of theatre” (p. 171). Of course Lane built that love of theater into a theater owner partnership with James Nederlander, and produced several of the most successful Broadway musicals of the 1980s and early 1990s, including Woman of the Year (1981), starring Lauren Bacall (Betty Persky); Jerry Herman’s courageous and boundary stretching gay romance La Cage Aux Folles (1983); and Cy Coleman (Seymour Kaufman), Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Peter Stone’s biographical musical The Will Rogers Follies (1991), which starred film actor Keith Carradine. With his great success, Lane writes “I was lucky to be working and living in New York City at a time when I was not a victim of the prejudice or persecution that befell so many Jewish people who had come before me. While I was grateful like so many Jews in the theater industry, I was aware that our Broadway success did not mean we could ever take our good fortune for granted” (p. 175).

The last section of the book, Lane’s attempt to look at the present state of Broadway, is the most difficult to document thoroughly and the result is random and scattered. His narrative storytelling style is jettisoned for a very brief section-by-section homage to the names on theater marquees of today: composers, lyricists, producers, directors, and stars, including Mel Brooks, Marc Shaiman, Adam Guettel (grandson of Richard Rodgers and son of composer Mary Rodgers), Anita Waxman, Idina Menzel, Daryl Roth, and others. The potential list is long, those included are few!  

The story Lane tells is a fascinating one, filled with names, places, gossip, and scores of personal accounts. He does not provide many footnotes referring to secondary sources, preferring personal interviews, Internet articles, and his own life experiences to tell the story--but he tells it very well. Another enrichment of Jews on Broadway is the bibliography and “further reading” sections. Most of Lane’s sources are online articles, interviews, or Web sites, marking a differentiation from most other Broadway theater histories. His sources and citations are followed by a personally selected and by no means inclusive collection of biographies, autobiographies, and general music theater histories that serve as an easy entry into this burgeoning field of popular scholarship. On a hypercritical note, Jews on Broadway would have benefited from a copyeditor as there were numerous typographical errors and misspellings, but that is a catty critique of an otherwise engaging and entertaining book.

In his 1937 International Ladies Garment Workers Union musical Pins and Needles, Jewish composer-lyricist Harold Rome wrote a song that, with a little paraphrase, defines well Lane’s book. Rome wrote “Sing me a song of social significance.” Lane wrote a book with social significance. They both succeeded in their goals. In his epilogue to the book, Lane writes: “As the makeup of our country changes, it should be reflected in our culture. All this notwithstanding, the Jewish contribution to American theater continues to reshape and redefine us as a people and as Americans” (p. 196). Jews on Broadway is an entertaining, accessible introduction to this most American and Jewish art form.    

No comments:

Post a Comment