At one point during the fascinating new PBS Great Performances special “Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy,” Mary Rodgers Guettel, daughter of famed composer Richard Rodgers, furrows her brow and thinks back on her father’s contemporaries and says, “I’m trying to think if there was anybody not Jewish.”
While there were certainly composers for the Great White Way who were not — notably Cole Porter — the very long list of Jews in the nascent days of the art form is staggering.
It includes, but isn’t limited to: Rodgers and his collaborators Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II, Irving Berlin, Stephen Sondheim, George and Ira Gershwin, John Kander and Fred Ebb, Stephen Schwartz, Jerome Kern, Leonard Bernstein, Jule Styne, Sheldon Harnick, and Marc Shaiman; and it covers dozens of shows including “West Side Story,” “South Pacific,” “Showboat,” “Porgy and Bess,” “Chicago,” “Gypsy,” “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Annie,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Cabaret,” “Funny Girl,” “Oklahoma!,” “Wicked,” and “Hairspray.”
Understandably then, the 90-minute special, airing Tuesday at 9:30 p.m. ,on Channel 2, kicks off with David Hyde Pierce singing the cheeky “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway” from “Spamalot,” which wryly observes “you won’t succeed on Broadway if you don’t have any Jews.”
The film, narrated by Joel Grey, explores why that is through a series of archival and current interviews with the composers themselves and their peers, children, musical descendants, and theater historians.
This is a uniquely entertaining group of talking heads. One passage explores how bent and “blue” notes were common in Jewish music, and how that dissonance was symbolic of angst and struggle. “Doesn’t that sound Jewish to you?” asks composer Stephen Schwartz (“Wicked”) after playing some minor chords. He then plays a brighter tune and says, “That sounds sort of Episcopalian.” Another passage marvels over how Irving Berlin became inextricably linked to Christian holidays though “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade.”
From discussions of the influence of Yiddish theater to the importance of piano lessons and summer camps — Bernstein and Adolph Green became lifelong friends and collaborators after meeting at Camp Onota in Pittsfield — the film covers a lot of ground.
Poignantly, it also deals with the role that assimilation played in both the composers’ personal lives and their stage creations, where they would often create outsiders dealing with obstacles — say a Cockney flower girl or a biracial riverboat singer — that served as stand-ins for their own journeys in early-20th-century New York. And in doing so, the film illuminates the ways that tradition, chance, and inspiration intersect to create something new and uniquely American.Sarah Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.