Celebs’ Jewish Lives Celebrated In Song


Ever since the rise of celebrity culture a century ago, Jews have been among the most lionized figures in our society. But how do the most prominent American Jews relate to their Jewish identity?

A new Off-Broadway musical, “Stars of David,” based on Abigail Pogrebin’s best-selling book of the same title, turns self-revealing interviews with Jewish luminaries into songs about how being Jewish has conditioned their lives. The musical opens next Thursday with Janet Metz, Alan Schmuckler, Aaron Serotsky, and Donna Vivino in the cast.

“Stars of David,” directed by Gordon Greenberg, was conceived by Aaron Harnick (Sheldon Harnick’s nephew) and first presented last year at a theater in Philadelphia, with a book by Charles Busch. The songs are written by a myriad of well-known musical theater composers including Michael Feinstein, Jeanine Tesori and the late Marvin Hamlisch. Among the interviews that have been musicalized are those of Leonard Nimoy, Mike Wallace, Gloria Steinem, Edgar Bronfman, Ruth Reichl and Gwyneth Paltrow.

In an interview, Pogrebin told The Jewish Week that while she hesitated a bit when Harnick first suggested the idea, it did make a certain amount of sense to turn her book into a musical. “The interviews ended up being quite revelatory,” she said. While her interviewees were used to anatomizing their lives and careers for reporters, few of them had ever spoken publicly about their Jewish identity.

Nevertheless, Pogrebin recalled, they were “more intimate and candid than I expected them to be. The ingredients for a musical, the drama and emotion, were all there.” Because the interviews did not fit into a single coherent narrative, Busch’s book has been dropped; the New York version of the show presents them in a concert format instead.

Finding the right composer and lyricist for each interview turned out to be a “big hurdle,” Pogrebin noted, especially because of the need to get approval from each interviewee for his or her song. “These are people who are very careful about their public persona,” she pointed out. “They don’t want to be shown in an undignified way. Some of them rejected their songs.”

But most of the songs worked surprisingly well, from Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire’s “Smart People” (about playwright and TV writer Aaron Sorkin) to Sheldon Harnick’s “Book of Norman” (about TV producer Norman Lear) to Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s “The Darkening Blue” (about fashion designer Kenneth Cole.) “People are always curious about the lives of well-know people,” Pogrebin pointed out. “They want to go behind the velvet ropes.”

In her extensive travels to promote the book, which has gone through eight hardback printings as well as a paperback edition, Pogrebin found that Jews, having “not just survived but thrived despite the odds,” look to people who “exemplify that survival, who have come through the fire with flying colors to become leaders in so many fields in our society.” After her book talks, audience members flocked to her to tell their own tales. “Jews read themselves into these stories,” she said.

Few of the interviewees in her book, with the notable exception of New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier, perform Jewish religious rituals, and Pogrebin still wonders if public prominence is “compatible with an observant or identifiably Jewish life.” When she spoke to federation and synagogue groups, people “wanted these famous people to see the light and come to their shuls and JCCs to find out what they were missing.” Ironically, Pogrebin (the daughter of pioneering Jewish feminist Letty Cottin Pogrebin), who was herself raised without much Jewish education or observance, did “see the light.” Not long after writing the book, she joined Central Synagogue, started auditing classes at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and began hosting a Torah study group in her apartment with visiting rabbis from the egalitarian yeshiva Mechon Hadar.

Daryl Roth, the well-known Broadway producer who is presenting “Stars of David,” often champions playwrights and composers who work with Jewish themes. As a child growing up in Wayne, N.J., Roth was the only Jewish student at her school. Her upbringing, she said, formed her sense of Jews as outsiders, and inspired her to want to bring a Jewish sensibility to her work.

“I’m always very interested in pieces that deal with identity,” Roth remarked. “All of us question who we are and where we came from. Judaism is by nature a questioning religion.” The show is designed, she said, to be produced in synagogues, JCCs and other Jewish venues throughout the country.

One of the composers for the show, Amanda Green, is the daughter of legendary Broadway and Hollywood lyricist and playwright Adolph Green and actress-singer Phyllis Newman. For “Stars of David,” she composed songs based on Pogrebin’s interviews with Joan Rivers and Fran Drescher; the first, “High Holy Days,” revolves around Rivers’ love of the Days of Awe, while the second, “Just Be Who You Are,” traces Drescher’s road to self-acceptance in the face of crude ethnic stereotypes.

While Green said that she grew up in “cocoon of celebrated and successful Jewish composers and lyricists,” few of them worked with Jewish themes. Green found a common thread in the two entertainers that she wrote about, in that both have “big personalities” along with “ingenuity, smarts, ambition, and heart.”

Few musicals have been based on interviews; one notable exception is Hamlisch’s “A Chorus Line,” which was shaped from oral histories of non-celebrity Broadway dancers known as “gypsies.” Another is “Working,” the 1970s musical based on interviews by Studs Terkel; Greenberg came to “Stars of David” after working with composer Stephen Schwartz on a recent revival of “Working” in Chicago.

What was extraordinary about the interviews in those shows, Greenberg said, is that “the interviewees were so anonymous; they were not people whose voices were often heard. Audiences were amazed, he said, that a construction worker “had such beautiful poetry to his thoughts, dreams and hopes.” Greenberg is struck by how much the songs in “Stars of David” do a similar thing, albeit with celebrities, in showing how “we’re all connected under the skin.”

“Stars of David” opens Nov. 13 and runs through Dec. 15 at the DR2 Theater, 103 E. 15th St. Performances are Tuesdays at 7 p.m. and Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 3. For tickets, $75, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.