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Former Hebrew tutor inspires off-Broadway song

Bravo TV’s Andy Cohen (left) and Yitz Magence met for taping  “Watch What Happens Live” in New York.
Bravo TV’s Andy Cohen (left) and Yitz Magence met for taping “Watch What Happens Live” in New York. JOE TABACCA FOR THE GLOBE

Yitz Magence has always relished having a unique name. But it is one thing to be instantly identifiable to clients and colleagues in your work as a prominent Boston real estate attorney, quite another to hear that name crooned from a New York stage.

Indeed, his peculiar yet sing-songy nickname, “Yitzy” Magence (pronounced “YIT-zee Ma-GEN-see”), has not only been immortalized in song in a new off-Broadway musical, but it has led to an unexpected reunion with a former Hebrew student whose relationship with Magence inspired the tune.

That pupil’s name? Andy Cohen, now the ubiquitous face of the Bravo network and host of its popular late-night talk show, “Watch What Happens Live.”

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Thanks to Magence’s reconnection with Cohen, 33 years after he tutored him for his bar mitzvah, it’s been a whirlwind few weeks for the 58-year-old lawyer from Newton. He and several friends flew to New York City for the first performance of “Stars of David” to hear the cast belt out the show’s comical opening number, “Yitzy Magence,” based on a story Cohen told to the show’s co-creator, Abigail Pogrebin. A week later, Magence popped up on Cohen’s show, where he chatted up fellow guests Meredith Vieira and Jesse Tyler Ferguson.

“Andy Warhol said, ‘Everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame.’ I feel like I’m getting my 30 minutes right here,” said Magence, backstage after the show. “But I’m not delusional. This is my debut and probably my closing act, too.”

Magence’s foray into the limelight began last spring when he was sitting in Fenway Park on Opening Day and saw a Facebook message on his smartphone asking whether he was the person who had helped Andy Cohen prepare for his bar mitzvah in St. Louis three decades ago.

The note was from Pogrebin, who was developing the musical based on her best-selling 2005 book “Stars of David,” in which prominent Jewish cultural figures intimately discuss their identity and faith.

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Yitz Magence (right) and  Merideth Vieira were guests on a Bravo TV show “Watch What Happens Live.”
Yitz Magence (right) and Merideth Vieira were guests on a Bravo TV show “Watch What Happens Live.” Joe Tabacca for The Boston Globe

When they connected, she sent him the lyrics to “Yitzy Magence,” which describes a talkative 12-year-old Cohen who dreaded learning Hebrew and “would fly into a frenzy” when it came to studying for his bar mitzvah — and how he “ended up with a tutor named Yitzy Magence.” The tune was written by Gaby Alter and Itamar Moses for “Stars of David,” which features original songs written by some of Broadway’s leading composers. The show is running at the Daryl Roth Theatre’s second stage, the DR2 Theatre, through Dec. 15.

Lounging in his office the night Magence appeared on his talk show, Cohen smiled as he recalled Pogrebin finding Magence’s Facebook page with a profile picture of the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia. There were no photos of Magence himself, but Cohen immediately knew it had to be his long-lost Hebrew tutor.

As for the song, “I just loved it. I thought it was so funny and very sweet. It had humor and heart,” said Cohen.

The son of an Orthodox rabbi, Magence was a very specific character in Cohen’s mind — “a pint-sized Deadhead who drove this little sports car,” the song goes. “So he was kind of cool as far as Hebrew tutors went, which is to say not very far.”

“I immediately identified with that figure of the young, slightly hippie-ish bar mitzvah tutor who was cooler than your parents but still making you do something that you didn’t want to do,” said Moses, one of the composers. “My bar mitzvah tutor was the same, and we had a similar relationship.”

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In “Yitzy Magence,” Cohen develops a strategy “to keep poor Yitzy from teaching me” by placing “props” all around his room — like baseball cards or electronic hand-held games — that could distract them from the task at hand.

“I did really try to deter him from teaching me Hebrew at every step of the way,” Cohen said, “because I just had no interest in doing the lessons. I just hated it. But I always liked Yitzy. He was a fun guy — and still is.”

Other Jewish luminaries whose tales are immortalized in the show’s song-cycle include Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Joan Rivers, Tony Kushner, Gloria Steinem, Aaron Sorkin, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Boston-bred Leonard Nimoy. Some had spoken to Pogrebin for the book; others, like Cohen, were interviewed specifically for the show.

Magence, a partner in the Boston-Newton firm Gilmartin Magence, remembered tutoring a mischievous kid name Andy Cohen but had no clue he was now a television star. When he told some friends and employees about the song and his connection to Cohen, several of them flew into their own frenzy.

“I still had no idea of the magnitude of his fame,” Magence said. “When I bring up his name, the reaction is typically, ‘Know him? I’m obsessed with him.’ ”

When the show’s producers contacted Magence, they were concerned he might be put off by the song’s portrayal of him as a hippie who would rather be “smoking up, watching the Dead play . . . instead of watching [Cohen] pray.” And when they found out he was lawyer, the red flags really went up.

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Their fears were unfounded. “I was not only not offended and absolutely loved the song when I heard it, I was actually really touched by the fact that Andy remembered so much about me,” Magence said.

Magence has come a long way from his hippie past. Gilmartin Magence is one of the top residential real estate law firms in the Boston area, handling major condo development projects, including the Residences at the InterContinental, the Ink Block project in the South End, and Twenty Two Liberty on Fan Pier.

Is the characterization of Magence in the song mostly accurate? “I was, and still am, a Deadhead. And sure, I liked to get high, but who didn’t in those days?” Magence said, adding that he has refrained for more than 30 years.

Cohen and Magence have since reconnected in a big way. In May, Magence flew to a St. Louis Cardinals’ game, at Cohen’s invitation, for Andy Cohen Bobblehead Night at Busch Stadium. He sat in a box with Cohen and his parents and watched the talk show host throw out the first pitch.

Fast-forward to mid-November, and Magence stood in the lobby of the Daryl Roth Theatre for aparty following the first performance of “Stars of David.” Not only was it his birthday, but he was a bit of a celebrity among the throng. Janet Metz, one of the show’s four performers, laughed and put her arms around Magence. “You really do exist!” she said.

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All the fun culminated for Magence with a bartending stint on “Watch What Happens Live.” Cohen’s talk show features celebrities swilling cocktails and kicking back in a wood-paneled “clubhouse” that has the loose and intimate feel of a basement rec room, with tchotchkes and bric-a-brac lining the shelves. The program has become one of TV’s hippest destinations for such A-list stars as Oprah, Cher, and Lady Gaga, in addition to the gaggle of celebrities from Bravo’s stable of reality shows.

During the 15-minute after-show, Magence presented Cohen with a belated bar mitzvah gift — a kiddush cup engraved with Cohen’s Hebrew name and his signature word “Mazel” — since Magence missed the actual ceremony 33 years ago. Ferguson, who stars in the sitcom “Modern Family,” placed the cup on a nearby shelf.

Then Magence dropped the big bombshell from behind the bar. Not only had he been Cohen’s bar mitzvah tutor, but Magence’s father, the rabbi, had performed his circumcision. As Cohen’s jaw dropped, the audience erupted in laughter. A gasping Ferguson then warbled, “We have another gift to show you!”


Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail.com.