By the time that Kutsher’s Country Club fell to the wrecking ball in May, the Catskills were already long past their prime as a Jewish vacation paradise. In fact, the popularity of the “Jewish Alps” was already waning in the 1970s, when “The Gig,” Doug Cohen’s new musical about a group of amateur jazz musicians who land a prized booking in the Borscht Belt, is set.
“I wanted to capture that time when there was still a sense of celebration but everyone knew that the party would soon be over,” Cohen told The Jewish Week. “The Gig,” based on the 1985 Frank Gilroy (“The Subject Was Roses”) film of the same name, won a Richard Rogers grant and the inaugural Noel Coward prize for new musicals. It runs next week at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF) at 555 W. 42nd St. ($25, www.nymf.org)
The son of a Reform rabbi, Cohen joined his father at rabbinical conventions at Grossinger’s during the week before Christmas. “The hotel was the private playground for the rabbis’ children,” Cohen recalled. “My sister and I were the only ones on the ski slope, and then we went to the night clubs and heard the different comedians.”
In writing the book, music and lyrics for “The Gig,” Cohen turned to the Gilroy film for inspiration. A group of six men (a used car salesman, a deli owner, a real estate agent, a dentist, a financial adviser and a teacher) who love to jam together, are offered what seems like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a professional gig at a small, struggling (fictional) Catskills resort called Paradise Manor.
But the “dream” gig is not what it is cracked up to be. “They are exposed to the underbelly of the profession,” Cohen explained. “Their rooms have no windows, they get inferior food, and they are asked to play background music during dinner for geriatric customers. Their dream is stifled; they can’t express who they are.”
But their love of music shines through. “These are really entertaining guys to spend time with,” Cohen pointed out. “They have such joy for their music,” as summed up in one of the show’s numbers, “Farewell Mere Existence, Hello Jazz.” When the musicians are jamming together — they “sing” the harmonic lines of their various instruments a cappella during the jam sessions — Cohen noted that “they’re in nirvana, even though some of them are 20 years past their prime playing days. They almost feel as if they can reinvent their lives during those two weeks.”
As the deli owner asks the others, “When was the last time that you did something that you really wanted to do?” For Cohen, “The show is much more than a visit with a bygone era. It focuses on the creative impulse and the joys (and challenges) of being part of a group.”