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PBS documentary to examine Jewish impact on Broadway

Irving Berlin (Culver Pictures)

Why has the Broadway musical proven to be such fertile territory for Jewish artists?

From Broadway’s golden age, names like Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, the Gershwins, Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim immediately come to mind. More recently, Broadway babies such as Stephen Schwartz, Marc Shaiman and Andrew Lippa continue to leave their mark on musical theatre. Filmmaker Michael Kantor, who won an Emmy for his 2005 “Broadway: The American Musical,” focuses on this question in “Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy,” which will air on Sunday, Jan. 13 at 1 p.m. on Arizona Public Media’s “Great Performances.”

Narrated by Joel Grey, this new 90-minute documentary combines performance footage with dozens of interviews that include Michael Tilson Thomas, Laurents, Harold Prince, Mary Rodgers Guettel, Lippa, Shaiman, Sondheim and Mel Brooks.

“What is remarkable about Broadway,” says Kantor, “is that the artists by and large did not set out to express their Jewishness. Many were non-observant, and the whole phenomenon was part of the assimilation process.”

At the same time the accumulated stagecraft and

storytelling of the American Yiddish theatre, not to mention the minor key melodies of Yiddish folk music and Jewish liturgical melodies, deeply and fundamentally informed the work.

“Until ‘Fiddler’ in the early 1960s, the great American songwriters created shows that were never overtly Jewish, in fact they often were about other ethnic groups,” Kantor continues. “But they were usually stories about outsiders or strivers, people overcoming injustice and adversity, and, above all, finding happiness. The ethical, sociological and musical underpinnings of the songwriters’ Jewishness were expressed in a uniquely American way. In fact it is fair to say that there are three quintessentially American art forms — jazz, abstract expressionism in art, and the American musical.”