Sing Books with Emily, the Blog

Broadway Musicals: a Jewish Legacy (FABULOUS!)

Posted on: January 14, 2013

The TiVo captured a “Great Performances” episode that I deeply enjoyed and which taught me much:

broadway musicals a jewish legacy
Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy
Directed by Michael Kantor

You can watch the entire BROADWAY MUSICALS: A JEWISH LEGACY on your computer, by clicking here:

A few things struck me deeply and I was compelled to write them down.

I love the song “Manhattan” by Rodgers and Hart.  About 18 minutes into the documentary, we get a little clip of the two men singing their song and a little insight into how they came to write it.  “Manhattan” would make a mighty fine Singable Picture Book.

About 37 minutes into the documentary, Irving Berlin’s daughter comments on her father writing the song “God Bless America,”

That song came from the heart and it was his than you to this country that had taken him in and given him the chance to become who he became.

The documentary offered a clip of Irving Berlin singing his song.  Usually, the song is sung as a full throated all out anthem, but Mr. Berlin  sang it sweetly, quietly and slowly.  I like the way Mr. Berlin sang the song in that one clip much better than the bombast we usually hear.  Reminds me of the same experience I’ve had listening to the song, “I Will Always Love You.”  Many might not realize that Dolly Parton wrote and sang that song for the movie version of “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” I really do prefer Dolly’s simple, honest version to the souped up pop-anthem that played on the radio.

About 1 hour and 15 minutes into the documentary, Stephen Sondheim has this to say about what created drama in a song:

People DO want you to come out and say something either positive or negative.  They don’t like the idea you’re saying something positive AND negative.  But even in the most simple minded musicals  you know, you get a song, an Irving Berlin musical where, “I hate you but I love you.” I mean – ambivalence is the stuff of drama…people have made so much of it.  It’s just that I tend to deal with it on a more realistic level than it has been dealt with in musicals before…but ambivalence is what drama is about.

I took a Master Class in acting at HB Studio with Elizabeth Dillon and she frequently said “Conflict!  Pray for it!”  This ambivalence that Mr. Sondheim is talking about captures confident…the conflict not just of the opposing wants and desires between two people  but conflicting emotions within oneself.  Using this makes the experience of a song richer and more relevant.

Pretty much everything said in the documentary from 1 hour and 20 minutes until the end is quotable and worthy of note.  The speakers verbalize the rich significance of the Broadway Musical to American Culture (and its role in World Culture as well).


“For generations of Jewish songwriters, Broadway has been a place of transformation.  On Broadway, the idea of outsiders overcoming obstacles could be dramatized in a uniquely American way.”
Joel Gray Documentary Voice-over

“What immigrants today are bringing to this country is not more and not less than what immigrants of earlier persecutions have brought there.  All they ever could bring was the work of their hands and the word of their heads.  That’s what they offer to this country and what the people of this country are so willing to accept.”
Kurk Weill

Addendum, 8/8/2017

Thought from Emily:

I’m watching the PBS Great Performances documentary BROADWAY MUSICALS: A JEWISH LEGACY for a second time. The first time I watched it, I was struck by what the songwriters said about writing songs, the process, and the meaning the songs had for them (and the meaning behind the songs).

This time, due to our current political environment and my horror at the antisemitism we are seeing and anti-immigration sentiments being expressed by Republicans, I am struck by what America means to the Jewish songwriters who came here from Euopean persecution and found Broadway as a place to create art and express the realization of their hopes and dreams.

One of the reasons these songs, the songs of the Great American Songbook (written, mostly, by Jewish immigrants), resonate so deeply, is because, as the Broadway musical is a uniquely American art form, the songs express aspects of the characters exploring, struggling with, and achieving the American dream. This is something every American can appreciate, regardless of skin color, religion, or origin. The songs capture the profound desire that every person has to express themselves freely in the world, and that this, even with the obstacles and pitfalls, is possible here in the United States. From every possible facet, the songs in these musicals explore that wish, that struggle, and the real possibility of achieving it with grit, perseverance, passion, love, and hard work.

Related Posts



Singable Picture Books of the Great American Songbook and Michael Feinstein’s Foundation for the Preservation of the Great American Songbook


A fun list of books to sing and celebrate Hanukkah and other Jewish Holidays and Traditions



A list of SPBs with fun and sneakily educational content.  The kids won’t even know they’re learning!


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