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Thursday, March 25th, 2004


Making Americans: Jews and the Broadway Musical


Tin Pan Academy

A review by Jenna Weissman Joselit

On September 6, 1909, Israel Zangwill's four-act play The Melting Pot came to town. It opened at the Comedy Theater on West Forty-first Street in the heart of Broadway, and forever changed the way Americans thought and spoke about the immigrant experience. Fresh from its success in Washington, D.C., where it had been seen and applauded by no less a fan than the president of the United States, the play told of a budding romance between a hot-blooded immigrant Jewish violinist named David Quixano and a seething and exquisitely sensitive social settlement worker named Vera Revendal, in whose veins coursed the blood of Cossacks. As it happened, Vera's father, a Russian nobleman, was responsible for a pogrom years before in which David's family had been massacred. An invincible obstacle to true love? Fat chance. In the New World nothing could stand in the way of Cupid -- or of Zangwill, whose characters were given to speechifying at the drop of a hat. "A fig for your feuds and vendettas! Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians -- into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American."

Shakespeare it ain't. And yet contemporary audiences, especially those known dismissively as the "subway public," could not get enough of "racial plays" such as The Melting Pot or, for that matter, its successor Abie's Irish Rose, which debuted on May 23, 1922. One of the longest-running productions in Broadway history -- Gilbert Seldes, writing in these pages in 1927, called it the "first universally popular play of modern times" -- Abie's Irish Rose transformed the heartbreak of intermarriage into the stuff of humor. A newly married young couple, Abe Levy and Rose Mary Murphy, try their damnedest to keep their marriage a secret from their disapproving Jewish and Irish families. Eventually they overcome a series of cultural mishaps that center, comically, on food (ham, anyone?) and festivity to demonstrate that, in the end, true love can win out over the claims of hearth and history.

Critics wrung their hands in despair at these overwrought, heavy-handed productions whose plots, it was said, "reach one of the furthest points north ... [on] the magnetic pole of melodrama." The Melting Pot, wrote one seasoned veteran of the stage, is nothing more than "sentimental claptrap," filled to the brim with "platitudinous Americanisms." As for Abie's Irish Rose, its characters, according to another critic, were painted "with a brush at least a mile wide." This is a play with all the "finesse" of a comic strip.

True, there was nothing the least bit subtle, coy, or coded about these or dozens of similar plays that once lit up Broadway. Everything was on the surface, immediately accessible: broad sighs, mighty guffaws, mangled English, heaps of sentiment. But that was the point. While critics squirmed in their seats, the men and women in the audience were thrilled to see their recognizably humdrum lives and conflicts dramatized -- and happily resolved -- on the American stage. Audiences came to be entertained, of course, but they left feeling heartened, welcomed, even affirmed. As one eyewitness observed, they were "warm and happy every minute they're in their seats."

Among those feeling warm and happy were immigrant Jews and their children, who, by the interwar years, took to the theater with such great avidity that they made a habit of it. At home in Broadway's plush seats, they freely transferred their allegiance from the Irving Place Theater, where Yiddish plays once held sway, to the Music Box and the St. James. History, no less than subject matter, also explains the Jews' affinity for the playhouse. In the wake of Emancipation, German Jews made a point of showing their eagerness to belong and their appreciation of Kultur by attending concerts and plays. By the 1880s, they constituted the majority of concert- and theatergoers in Berlin and elsewhere throughout Germany. The unintended consequence of this intense pursuit of culture was the creation of a new kind of singularity. Once distinctive only by virtue of their theology and ritual practices, German Jews of the modern era now stood apart owing to their passion for the performing arts.

American Jews did their theatergoing cousins one better. Not only did they integrate the theater into the rhythm of their daily lives, they integrated it into the rhythm of their lives as Jews, giving rise to a cultural phenomenon all its own: the synagogue-sponsored "theater party." Appealing simultaneously to the pocketbook and to the senses, to charity and to culture, the synagogue would purchase a block of tickets to a popular show that it would then sell to its members at a slightly inflated price; the difference would go toward defraying salaries and operating expenses. An effortless and even pleasant way to raise funds, the theater party inventively drew on the modern Jew's affection for the theater, rendering it a collective, and socially sanctioned, experience in the process.

The heyday of the synagogue theater party coincided with the golden age of American musical theater, with the staging of Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music, those glorious amalgams of song and dance which, in short order, rendered the racial play a thing of the past. But it also remained a going concern well into the 1970s, especially among suburban Jewish families like my own. I can still recall how my parents, tingling with excitement, boarded a bus with their fellow congregants that would take them from Long Island, deposit them safely in the heart of the theater district, and then whisk them back home following the play and a nightcap at Sardi's, that redoubt of urban glamour. Early the next morning they would linger over all the lovely details, recounting what it was like to be transported -- through song, dance, and stage wizardry -- to the Wild West or the Far East. What loomed large in their telling was not the thrill of recognition so much as the thrall of the exotic. Sometimes, if we were lucky, my parents would bring home the cast album. We would repair to the den, careful not to mess with the newly purchased stereo set, and immediately Bali Hai would call to us and "Shall We Dance?" would have us waltzing around the room.

Little did we suspect that these buoyant tunes were actually expressions of deep-seated anxieties about race or that the Broadway musical was itself an exercise in cultural politics. You've got to be taught, as the song says. And this is what Andrea Most teaches in her study of several classic musical comedies produced between 1925 and 1951. From Whoopee to The King and I, "musical comedies," she writes, are "narratives of a desperate Jewish desire to resist essentialized (or racialized) identity through the powerful language of theatricality." Who knew?

Most's book, which eschews innuendo and mudslinging in favor of theory and nuanced interpretation, takes the often silly stuff of musical comedy very seriously indeed. A world away from backstage gossip, it offers readers a series of carefully considered case studies of what she takes to be the deeper, darker meaning of some of America's most beloved theatrical productions, many of them the handiwork of American Jewish composers, lyricists, and playwrights: Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, Dorothy Fields, Lorenz Hart -- the list goes magnificently on. Attributing to this galaxy of talent a degree of intention and common purpose that few of its stars, I suspect, would recognize, Most argues nothing less than that the "social reality of being a Jew in America is fundamentally inscribed in the form of the American musical theater."

Conflicted, beset, troubled, and ill at ease with their Jewishness, Most's American Jewish men and women are said to have created an alternative, make-believe world of happy endings and whitewashed beginnings, a world of dancing feet and full-throated song. "The Broadway stage," she writes, "was a space where Jews envisioned an ideal America and subtly wrote themselves into that scenario." If you thought Oklahoma! was a story of nation-building or South Pacific a tale of interracial romance, think again. Oklahoma!, says Most, "mirrored a long-awaited Jewish dream of homecoming," while South Pacific is the "story of Cold War anxieties and Jewish assimilationist desires." Nothing if not insistent, her book seeks -- and finds -- traces of Jewishness on the dusty plains of Oklahoma, amid the luxuriant foliage of the Pacific islands, and in the court of the king of Siam.

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera: like so many other books, Making Americans reflects both the academy's recent fascination with popular culture and the peculiar terms of its engagement. Long the stepchild of scholarship, the study of film, television, radio, and the performing arts has now come into its own, and with a vengeance. Books by the dozens are published annually, while a stream of symposia, conferences, and exhibitions attests to its steady hold on the academic imagination. Take, for instance, last year's show at the Jewish Museum in New York, "Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting," which was ably curated by J. Hoberman and Jeffrey Shandler. Though not without its revelations -- Betty Boop was a "role model for Jewish women"! -- it focused its considerable interpretive energies on a cast of familiar Jewish characters: Al Jolson, Fanny Brice, Sid Caesar, Jerry Seinfeld, Molly Goldberg (the "balebuste of the airwaves"), the "celluloid princes" of Hollywood. Drawing on film stills, radio broadcasts, advertisements, movie posters, and anti-Semitic broadsides, "Entertaining America" argued, ingeniously, that in the New World, the age-old "Jewish question" -- the assimilability of the Jews -- was worked out within the realm of popular culture rather than in the streets or in the courts or in the legislatures. When Betty Boop boop-oop-a-dooped, or Molly Goldberg leaned her head out the window and yelled "yoo-hoo" to her neighbor, or Sid Caesar threw cold water on Imogene Coca's head, they were not entertaining America or just cutting up so much as "defining what being Jewish is for many American Jews." To reckon with these characters, concludes the exhibition, is to "map Jewish presence and Jewish continuity."

Most's book is cut from the same cloth. Much like "Entertaining America," it is less concerned with the aesthetic and expressive properties of popular culture or its impact on the audience than with its purportedly covert agenda: the stresses and the strains of being Jewish. What matters here is not what theatergoers actually took away, what tunes they hummed as they exited from the theater or what they made of Anna, Aunt Eller, Nellie, or Emile. What matters is the "encoded" subtext, or what was left unsung and unsaid. Along the way the audience tends to disappear into the maw of postmodern theory, which is not, I daresay, terribly relevant to the story at hand. Nor, it seems, is the emotional extravagance, the joy, the snappiness of American musical theater; it, too, gets lost in the problematizing shuffle. After all, how can one speak of the magic of musical theater when it is understood to be the tortured workings of the American Jewish psyche or, as Most puts it, a reflection of the "hunger for inclusion"?

Most seems very pleased with the shocking novelty of her insights, but her analysis is not nearly as new as she thinks it is. Ironically, this theoretically up-to-the-minute book, like so much else about the study of popular culture these days, is really a throwback to an earlier time, in which references to ethnicity, race, and religion were casually tossed about both on stage and off; a time when critics did not mince words and playwrights did not traffic in sly, coded allusions that flew way above the heads of most audience members. Consider Alexander Woollcott's biography of Irving Berlin, The Story of Irving Berlin, published in 1925. Despite his sympathetic, even worshipful account of the songwriter's remarkable career, Woollcott could not resist the temptation to attribute virtually everything that Berlin ever created to his Jewish background. And I mean everything: Berlin's use of syncopation, his spare yet incisive lyrics, and even his penchant for the key of F-sharp are invariably linked to the "wailing" this and the "sorrowful" that of Jewish history. It is awfully hard, of course, to square "Blue Skies" and "Alexander's Ragtime Band," the song that "set the shoulders of America a-swaying," with the weight of the Jewish past, but Woollcott would have it no other way: "It is in [Berlin's] blood to write the lugubrious melodies which, in the jargon of Tin Pan Alley, have a tear in them. Back of him are generations of wailing cantors to tinge all his work with an enjoyable melancholy.... No lady is to blame. It is his grandfather."

Acceptable in 1925, such remarks about blood (and wailing cantors) now jar the ear. Surely, we now think to ourselves, the estimable Woollcott ought to have known better. We prefer to reduce people to their roots more politely, by speaking of identity, or, in Andrea Most's case, of anxieties about inclusion. Isn't there someone, somewhere, who believes that a great song is finally more a marvel than a manifesto?

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