Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy


Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy

Written, Produced & Directed by Michael Kantor

Narrated by Joel Grey

Music Supervisor Andy Einhorn

Edited by Kris Liem

Created & Produced by Barbara Brilliant

First Aired on PBS Great Performances, January 1, 2013



Joel Grey

David Hyde Pierce

Steven Sondheim

Sheldon Harnick

John Kander

Charles Strouse

Harold Prince

Michael Tilson Thomas

Mary Ellen Barrett

Mary Rodgers Guettel

Jamie Bernstein

Phyllis Newman

Arthur Laurents

Ernie Harburg

Marc Shaiman

Philip Furia

David Shire

Mel Brooks


Production Studio:

Theatrical: Albert M. Tapper

Video: Athena Learning



Aspect ratio: Variable/1.78:1

Resolution: 480i

Codec: MPEG-2

Disc Size: DVD x 2

Bit Rate: High (ca. 8 Mbps)

Runtime: 84 minutes

Region: 1


Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1


Subtitles: Optional English


Bonus Features

• 26 Extended Interviews (172 min)

• 3 Performances (4 min)

• Joel Grey Biography

• 14-page Booklet 


DVD Clamshell Case: DVD x 2

Street Date: May 7, 2013

Introduction [by the producer]

Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy is the first documentary film to explore the phenomenon that, over the fifty-year period of its development, the songs of the Broadway musical were created almost exclusively by Jewish Americans. These are the popular songs that our nation took to war, sang to their children at bedtime, and whistled while waiting for the bus – taken in total they comprise the vast majority of what is now commonly referred to as “The American Songbook.”



Narrated by Joel Grey, the film features interviews with Sheldon Harnick, John Kander, Andrew Lippa, Stephen Schwartz, Phyllis Newman, Charles Strouse, Harold Prince, Maury Yeston, Mary Rodgers Guettel, Ernie Harburg, Marc Shaiman, David Shire, Stephen Sondheim, Mel Brooks, Stephen Schwartz and many others. The documentary includes performances by stars such as David Hyde Pierce, Matthew Broderick and Kelli O’Hara, Zero Mostel, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Nathan Lane, Al Jolson, Fanny Brice, Barbra Streisand, Joel Grey, Dick Van Dyke, Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel.



Critical Press

New York Daily News

The fact Jewish songwriters composed many of the great tunes of Broadway is about as startling as hearing that Disney studios did a lot of animation. So this new PBS special, which tracks many of those great Jewish songwriters, from Irving Berlin up to Stephen Sondheim, doesn’t pretend to be a news flash. It’s more like a refresher course, dutifully noting names, dates and résumés while featuring dozens of clips of the music itself. . .What “A Jewish Legacy” does do is identify elements of traditional Jewish music, often the music of Eastern Europe, in songs the casual listener might have thought were just melodies of Broadway. It’s certainly clear in listening to George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” that he had been listening to the music of his ancestors. This special postulates, convincingly, that some of his show tunes reflected the same influences. So there’s some education to be had in this special, and that’s good. But mostly it’s just a pleasure to see some of the most memorable performances for some of Broadway’s most enduring tunes – David Hinckley



LensView: 9

David Hyde Pierce, in his trademark straight-faced, sardonic, tight-lipped way, begins the feature with the lyric from Eric Idle’s Spamalot “You won’t succeed on Broadway if you don’t have any Jews” – a brilliant idea, Barbara – all the more so since neither its composer nor the performer is Jewish – how Jewish is that! The remainder of the documentary is a set of diverse variations on this theme, detailing the historical and cultural influences of Jews on the American musical from Irving Berlin through Steven Sondheim, with a few nods to the post-Sondheim scene, but not much. Indeed, just about everyone of note was Jewish – a chorus that is repeated often throughout the film, usually with a tip of the hat to Cole Porter as the single important exception. (Somehow Meredith Willson gets shortchanged here.) A good deal, too – enough that it feels a little too politically correct – is made of the connection between Jewish music and Broadway tunes to Black American blues and jazz.



The good news – since the basic thesis is really old news – is that much of the footage and many of the photographic material is not the same old, same old that we’ve seen countless times in other places - not entirely; the bad news is that there are precious few clips of staged musicals, unless they are relatively recent revivals. (I often wondered why such an oversight persisted for as long as it had.) Performance is edited in clips, truncated, but not so much that we feel cheated - the emphasis here is on the contributors and the effects, not so much the results on stage. We hear anecdotes and enjoy insights from many theater people through recent interview clips – composers, lyricists, producers, adult children of famous composers, and Michael Tilson Thomas, Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony and protégé of Leonard Bernstein. Extended clips of these interviews and more can be found on the Bonus Disc.



Curiously absent from the never-ending litany of Jews is any mention of Barbra Sreisand. Oh, she’s there all right - in clips and anecdotes; we even see her name subtitled over a performance of Funny Girl and on a marquee, but no one says ever her name! It’s always “she” or “the woman,” as if she were an intern. One wonders if Her Barbraness is so iconic that she doesn’t require naming out loud or, just as weird, that permission was not obtained. Whatever the reason, the omission is very odd. Beyond this curiosity, and partly because of it, I expect to return to this film again, and again. Refrain.



Video: variable

This documentary, like many of its sort, relies on both archival footage and interviews shot in more agreeable circumstances. The latter is all shown in nice looking widescreen anamorphic color; however, there is no attempt at consistency in terms of color and contrast since the interviews were shot under as many different circumstances as subjects. Performance clips suffer more in terms of image quality than the photographs and newsreel footage. I didn’t come with higher expectations in this area, so I’ll leave it that.



Audio & Music: variable/10

Strangely, pointlessly and wrong-headed, Athena offers only a 5.1 Dolby Digital mix instead of the more sensible 2.0 PCM. If the idea was to take advantage of any possible ambiance, the only segment that did so was a duet from Wicked that sounded hollow and possibly out of phase – easily the worst sounding performance clip in the film. The rest of the documentary scored no advantage I could tell from its being in 5.1. On the other hand, despite the mixed and sometimes compromised music tracks, a Dolby surround mix only makes things less clear and less dynamic. Carping aside, the result is good enough and the material does not cry out for better.



Bonus: 9

Many people interested in the featured documentary will have already seen the show on PBS just a few months ago, but the best reason to invest in this release is for the Extra Features which total just under three hours. First up is a smorgasbord of “Extended Interviews” in large part from people we met on the documentary: composers, lyricists and producers still living, and close relatives of some of the great ones that aren’t. What is remarkable, considering the number of them, is that they do not cover the same ground as each other nor do they very much duplicate material covered in the documentary. There is some wonderful stuff here – all optionally subtitled: Theodore Bikel, who played Capt. von Trapp in the original Sound of Music, talks about growing up in Austria when the Nazis marched in; Mel Brooks reveals the real Max Bialystock; Mary Rodgers Guettel and Mary Ellin Barret, the daughters of Richard Rodgers and Irving Berlin, reminisce about their early memories of their fathers, their “Jewishness” and their agnosticism; and Python’s Eric Idle enlarges the history of the musical in his discussion of British influences. And, as they say, much more, all in pretty good-looking anamorphic 16x9. This is a real treasure. The only reason the Bonus score is 9 instead of 10 is that there is no Play All function for the 26 individual interviews – a menu decision that passes all understanding.



The Bonus Disc also includes three offhand performances: Amanda Green sprechtstimmes a verse of “If You Hadn’t But You Did” from Two on the Aisle by Styne, Comden & Green. Stephen Schwartz accompanies himself on the piano in his own song “Magic to Do” from Pippin and Marc Shaiman does likewise for “A Doctor, A Doctor” which he wrote for his sister’s wedding. A brief Biographical note rounds out these wonderful bonus features. In the case we find a 12-page booklet with short essays on the Jewish influence on Musicals and Broadway by Barbara Brilliant, the creator and Executive Producer of Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy; Michael Kantor, the show’s writer; several of the “witnesses” in the documentary; and theater critic John Lahr (and son of Bert); and Stephen Whitfield, Brandeis University professor of American Civilization.



Recommendation: 9

The documentary is very good; the bonus features are better still. You may have seen the former, but not the latter. What’s not to buy?  

Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

April 15, 2013

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