Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy

I’m in the middle of reading The Culture of Critique: An Evolutionary Analysis of Jewish Involvement in Twentieth-Century Intellectual and Political Movements by Kevin MacDonald.

Last week I watched Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy on PBS (video here.) In parallel with jewish dominance in Hollywood (prime manufacturer of Culture), the Broadway musical tradition has been demonstrably dominated by jewish composers and lyricists. While what it means, and why it is so, may be debatable, what is not debatable is the demographics. It’s an empirical fact.

From an LA Times review of the documentary:

Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart/Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, Kurt Weill, Lerner and Loewe, Frank Loesser, Leonard Bernstein, Comden and Green, Jerry Herman, Strouse and Adams, Kander and Ebb, Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz. To comprehend the degree to which this ethnic minority created a common national (even a Gentile) language, you only have to consider that the scores to “Show Boat,” “The Sound of Music,” “My Fair Lady,” “Bye Bye Birdie,” “West Side Story,” “Godspell,” “La Cage aux Folles” and “Wicked” were all by Jews, and that Berlin wrote the essential Christmas song, “White Christmas,” the essential “Easter song, “Easter Parade,” and the essential patriotic song, “God Bless America,” in whose melody Maury Yeston (“Nine”) discovers cantorial echoes…

Cole Porter, an Episcopalian from Indiana, was the greatest (though not the only) exception to the Broadway rule of the Jews, but it is also noted that, before he had managed to write a hit show, Porter told Richard Rodgers he had worked out the secret to it: He would write Jewish tunes. That this is exactly what he did is demonstrated by a variety of composers at their pianos. But it’s enough to run “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” or “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” or any of his other minor-key classics through your head to hear that it’s true.

Director Michael Kantor, who has made other PBS documentaries about Broadway, skips about a bit in his story but follows a rough chronology from the Yiddish theater to today’s Great White Way, with a side trip to the Jewish summer camps where many composers, as campers or counselors, staged their first shows, or met, as Bernstein did Green, their future professional collaborators. And he covers the ongoing, mutually profitable conversation between Jewish and black musics and musicians, their modal and expressive similarities, and describes the progressive themes tackled by Rodgers sand Hammerstein in “South Pacific” and Bernstein and Sondheim in “West Side Story,” which, as Arthur Laurents, the author of its book, points out, began as a musical about Jews and Gentiles to be called “East Side Story.” Says Bernstein’s daughter Jamie, “I really think he felt somehow if he wrote a great enough piece of music, he could change the world.”

As much else in the cultural history of the Jews, it is a story of the people’s protectively veiled themes — exile, difference, assimilation, optimism — finally being brought into the open and named. In “Funny Girl” (Jule Styne and Bob Merrill) the great and proudly Jewish Barbra Streisand played the great and proudly Jewish Fanny Brice, and did, indeed, change the world a little. And in “Fiddler on the Roof” (Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick), which ran forever all around the world and made something universal from a story particular to the Jews: “Tradition” works for anyone who has one. And that is what we call progress.

Then, last night I watched Oscar Hammerstein II – Out Of My Dreams, also on PBS (video here.) What struck me was the degree of Hammerstein’s activism. He was very active in all sorts of leftist and multiculturalist causes, and progressively infused his musical librettas with more and more ‘social consciousness’, which usually took the form of multiculturalist propagandism aimed at gentiles as something they ought to ‘learn from’ (e.g., South Pacific.) All the while, in his private life, Hammerstein was very active in promoting jewish group-identity and jewish causes.

Which is the central theme of MacDonald’s book.

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