A Look Into the (Very Jewish) History of Broadway

Alma chats with the director of "On Broadway," a documentary that couldn't have come at a more relevant time.

“It’s ridiculous, when you think about it. Why are all these people quiet? Why do they shut up and quietly listen?” says Dame Helen Mirren in the documentary “On Broadway.” “But they do. And it’s something they’ve been doing for thousands of years, listening to someone telling a story.” Though the same thing could be said about reading the Shabbat Torah portion, Mirren was reflecting on a different strange ritual: live theater.

“On Broadway” is a new documentary on the history of Broadway plays, musicals and the challenges of keeping the great American theater tradition alive. Helmed by Jewish director Oren Jacoby and produced by the same company behind 2018’s “RBG,” it couldn’t have come at a more relevant time. It’s been an “unprecedented” year for all of us, very much including Broadway, which abruptly shut its theaters in March of last year because of COVID-19 (the musical “Six” was just hours away from its opening night performance when everyone was told to pack up and go home instead).

Now, after a year and a half of darkness, Broadway has begun a tentative reopening process. “On Broadway” is both a welcome reminder of the particular power of live theater and a reflection on some of the other critical junctures in Broadway history that shed light on how Broadway could reinvent itself in the midst of this year’s deluge of change (social, political, medical and more).

I talked to Jacoby, a lifetime theater-goer who has also worked in theater, who told me about how the idea for the film came to him by happenstance at a New Year’s Eve party on the Upper West Side. It was there he met the film’s executive producer Pat Shoenfeld, the 89-year-old widow of Jerry Shoenfeld — the former chairman of the Shubert Organization, one of the largest theater owners on Broadway. She told Jacoby about the time in the early ‘70s when “Broadway almost went away,” Jacoby told me. “I said to Pat that this would be a great story to tell.”

The film brings us back to the Broadway Golden Age of the 1940s and ‘50s, and describes how Broadway has had to remake itself a handful of times to keep up with the public’s evolving tastes in a constant balancing act of art and commerce. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, major cultural and political shifts suddenly made Broadway seem old-fashioned. “In the early ‘70s, Broadway was so broke and the neighborhood was so bad that Broadway nearly disappeared,” Jacoby said. New York City’s tourism rates plummeted, and Broadway attendance was cut in half. “And the shows had become irrelevant to what people really cared about,” Jacoby said.

So the theater business reinvented itself, again and again. The documentary describes the many modes of reinvention, from “A Chorus Line” to “The Lion King” to “Hamilton.” The film is full of interviews with stars like Viola Davis, Ian McKellen, John Lithgow and Alexandra Billings, and brings us gems like Helen Mirren laughing about how much she loved the Broadway district of the ‘70s: “It was basically brothels and strip clubs. And I loved it like that. What can I say? I work in the theater! They’re my kind of people!”

I enjoyed seeing how many prominent Jewish writers, directors and performers contributed to these changes over the decades. The Golden Age musicals became Hollywood movies and produced popular songs that played on the radio. They were defined by creative teams like Rodgers and Hammerstein — the Jewish, New York-born composer/lyricist duo behind blockbuster Golden Age musicals like “Oklahoma” and “Carousel.” This era was also dominated by songwriters like Cole Porter (“Kiss Me Kate”) along with Jewish musical theater titans: composer-lyricist brothers George and Ira Gershwin (“An American in Paris,” “Porgy and Bess”), Leonard Bernstein (“West Side Story”) and Irving Berlin (“Annie Get Your Gun”), who ironically was the songwriter behind the perennial Christmas hit “White Christmas.” The celebrated composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim and director Hal Prince created shows like “Company” that brought an entirely new sensibility to the Broadway stage. “On Broadway” brings to light the massive change that Sondheim musicals introduced; they were more complex and sophisticated, more challenging, and their songs illuminated character and moved along the story. (One of the best parts of watching “On Broadway” was the Sondheim YouTube rabbithole it sent me down — you’re welcome.)

Watching the film could make any theater-lover’s mouth water. I hungrily watched behind the scenes of rehearsals for the Broadway play “The Nap,” a British comedy written by Richard Bean and directed by Daniel Sullivan. It shows the uneasiness of early rehearsals, partially due to the financial challenges that face new plays that don’t have splashy IP (think anything Disney or “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” the highest grossing straight play on Broadway). And the story of the goofy beginnings of the Andrew Lloyd Webster musical “Cats” is charming and funny, whatever your feelings are about the show.

One of the most interesting stories from the film was the conception of “A Chorus Line,” created by Jewish director/choreographer/writer Michael Bennett who later died of AIDS. The musical pioneered the widely-used theater workshop model (when a show is modestly staged before officially premiering as part of its creation process; “Hamilton” began as a workshop, for example). The film then explores the devastation the AIDS crisis wreaked on the theater community, and interviews some of those who felt its effects. “Angels in America,” the play by Jewish playwright Tony Kushner, and “Rent,” the rock musical written by Jewish writer/composer Jonathan Larson, put the gritty, painful realities of the AIDS crisis front and center. There are parallels to be drawn between the AIDS epidemic and the current COVID-19 pandemic, and it made me wonder, as Broadway begins its recovery from another disease, if we’ll eventually see onstage work that reflects the pain of this time. “I did a little research and found that when the plague hit London in the early 1600s, all the theaters were shut down on and off for four years, and it was a very difficult period,” Jacoby told me. “And during those four years, Shakespeare wrote many of his greatest plays. ‘Macbeth,’ ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ … Adversity often births creativity.”

The film illuminates the ways that financial success and great art are often at odds with each other — several artists interviewed for the film bemoaned that many recent Broadway shows are more circus acts than theater. But the reverse can happen as well. “Fences,” written by the great Black American playwright August Wilson, is still one of the most commercially successful straight plays ever, as it introduced new kinds of stories and new audiences to Broadway. “A key storyline for us was to trace how Broadway success over the past five decades has been driven more and more by how much it reflects the diversity of our society,” Jacoby told me, “in terms of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity. People realize the theater has got to touch the hearts and the souls of a wide audience in a meaningful way.”

The film includes an interview with August Wilson describing how he was inspired to write plays that embodied the spirit of the blues, and then shows a clip of James Earl Jones and Courtney B. Vance performing “Fences.” It’s during scenes like these that “On Broadway” really shines, reminding me what exceptional onstage performances look like — when you can see an actor breathing, see what he’s doing with his hands. It’s a reminder that sitting in front of live performers can be its own kind of powerful religious ritual. Live theater is great for the same reason that Avinu Malkeinu hits differently in synagogue than it does livestreamed via Zoom — some things just need to happen in person. But Jacoby was quick to add that the arts aren’t just essential for the soul; they’re also essential for the economy. “Broadway and important arts institutions are a huge economic engine for a city and a society,” Jacoby added. “People think of the arts as something extra, a luxury, but they don’t understand that the reverse is really true. You’ve got to support the arts. That’s going to be a big thing driving our comeback after COVID.”

When I see my first play since 2020, I’ll be saying a Shehechiyanu.

“On Broadway” opens in New York on August 20 and in Los Angeles on August 27, followed by a national rollout.

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