Jackie Hoffman, beloved in theatrical circles for her take-no-prisoners approach to musical comedy (sample lyric: “fuck you for asking me to do a show for free! / fuck you and your benefit for charity”), is at once an ideal and a challenging performer for such a series. Undeniably funny and with a deep understanding of Judaism (she’s the black sheep of an Orthodox family), she knows she can draw a typical Jewish audience in with songs criticizing Jewish Buddhists (“Inner peace and joy are overrated / come back to the fold of the most-hated”) and pushy mothers on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. But when her paean to Shavuot includes lines like “Ten Commandments God gave to us so that we won’t sin again / Ten Commandments I break every day by eating pork and Christian men,” you know this isn’t your typical JCC fare.
While the publicity around this series carefully avoided the word “feminism,” I couldn’t help but watch Hoffman’s show and wonder if there was a feminist message to be divined from the woman who counts among her achievements “convincing the Hispanic security guards and bus boys of this city to use condoms” and openly resents the successes of co-stars she deems less deserving.
Jackie Hoffman doesn’t care if you find a feminist message — or any message — in her performances. And that in itself may be the embodiment of a feminist victory.
Elul is a busy month for Storahtelling founder Amichai Lau Lavie. He’s returning from Israel, is knee deep in studies, and on Sunday he began his 3rd annual 40 day blog leading up to the High Holidays, Prepent! It should be a good read.
This comes on the heels of an announcement from the decade-old Torah ritual theatre company that it is restructuring and that Lavie alsos assume the Interim Executive Director role following Executive Director Isaac Shalev’s departure after just 18 months.
“This transition comes at a time of important growth and transition for Storahtelling. Isaac, the Board and the Executive committee have all agreed that the best interests of the organization are to scale back, spend time rethinking our capacities, programs, operation and scope of mission and vision rather than continuing in the same model.”
Programs will continue and High Holidays services will happen, but how the organization will survive long term? Like other darlings of the emergent Jewish sector, the organization has faced difficulties during the economic downturn.
Briefly: Playwright and cultural icon Tony Kushner was kicked off the list of honorees and John Jay College because Jeffrey Weisenfeld is Captain McWitchHunt. Fascinating. Here’s hoping someone throws water on JW so that he melts into a steaming puddle of vindictive intolerance. (h/t MondoWeiss )
c/o Heat & Light Co., Inc.
cc: President Jeremy Travis
The faculty and students of John Jay College of Criminal Justice
899 Tenth Avenue New York, NY, 10019
May 4, 2011
To Chairperson Benno Schmidt and the Board of Trustees:
At the May 2 public meeting of the CUNY Board of Trustees, which was broadcast on CUNY television and radio, Trustee Jeffrey S. Weisenfeld delivered a grotesque caricature of my political beliefs regarding the state of Israel, concocted out of three carefully cropped, contextless quotes taken from interviews I’ve given, the mention of my name on the blog of someone with whom I have no connection whatsoever, and the fact that I serve on the advisory board of a political organization with which Mr. Weisenfeld strongly disagrees. As far as I’m able to conclude from the podcast of this meeting, Mr. Weisenfeld spoke for about four minutes, the first half of which was a devoted to a recounting of the politics of former President of Ireland and UN Human Rights High Commissioner Mary Robinson that was as false as his description of mine.
Ms. Robinson, however, was not on public trial; I was, apparently, and at the conclusion of Mr. Weisenfeld’s vicious attack on me, eight members voted to approve all the honorary degree candidates, including me, and four voted to oppose the slate if my name remained on it. Lacking the requisite nine votes to approve the entire slate, the Board, in what sounds on the podcast like a scramble to dispense with the whole business, tabled my nomination, approved the other candidates, and adjourned. Not a word was spoken in my defense. More »
For those of you living in the far flung diasporic reaches of New York City, mark your calenders for next Wednesday, July 14. Saria Idana, a wonderful performance artist, dancer and singer is bringing her one-woman show Homeless in Homeland to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe.
Homeless in Homeland documents the journey of a Jewish American Woman to understand her identity along side her desire for justice in the face of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Last night I went to Storahtelling‘s Bloody Esther Purim event. If you’re not familiar with Storahtelling, founded in 1999 by Executive Director Amichai Lau-Lavie, they’re a ritual theatre company. Their shtick is bringing “translations” of ancient Jewish texts to life by renewing the words through modern interpretation. Today, Storahtelling works around the world with people of all ages, training educators and producing shows that add modern meaning to ancient texts. Additionally, Storahtelling began 5770 by establishing residency at the 14th Street Y, where they have monthly performances for kids of all ages, including StorahStage – educational programming for 2-5 year olds.
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect at their Purim shpiel, but my limited expectations were surpassed. As Hadassah, a drag queen, emceed the shpiel and narrated the megillas Esther-based story, the characters, in all their glory, and with new attitudes, came to life on stage. The
audience at City Winery had a great time and soaked up every minute of the performance.
Highlights, according to the people sitting around me:
The angel of dead Vashti, dancing around stage in lingerie and angel’s wings made at least a few peoples’ dreams come true.
Chester the court jester cuddling up to Hadassah… and his loin cloth’s meandering over the course of the night.
The enchanting Galeet Dardashti, a Middle Eastern musician, who read the megillah with such an incredibly powerful and beautiful voice.
Esther deciding that she didn’t just want to save the Jews, she wanted to personally kill Haman (and Mordechai, and the king).
Jewschool’s SBB‘s opening the show, bringing the Amalek massacre to life by screaming and running through the venue with a red-splattered white sheet, where she nearly knocked over a waitress with about 20 glasses of wine.
If you’re in the New York City area, I highly recommend checking out their other upcoming events.
I just saw Circumcise Me, the autobiographical one-man comedy show from Yisrael Campbell of Jerusalem (formerly Christopher Campbell of suburban Philadelphia). Born to a “manic-depressive Italian woman and a pathologically silent Irishman,” by the time he hit his twenties (I think), he was already a recovering alcoholic and drug addict living in L.A.
There, he converted to Judaism with a Reform Rabbi, Rabbi Jim, and got circumcised. Eventually, he wanted more, so he joined a Conservative shul and got circumcised again. Eventually, he moved to Jerusalem where he got a third circumcision.
If this isn’t a recipe for the most original hour and fifteen minutes of dick jokes I’ve ever seen, I don’t know what is. More »
For those of you in the city alleged never to sleep, Purim comes early this year with the New York City Opera‘s production of Esther, an opera by Hugo Weisgall that had its world premiere at NYCO in 1993.
May I interest you in a promotional video?
The opera wraps up its run this week, so if this tickles your fancy, don’t wait to get your Persian on. Just do the divas a favor and leave your graggers at home.
Hey all, so for those who saw my post the other day about the new play Granada, I just found out that Jewschool readers can get 3 dollars off their tickets by entering the promo code JEWSCH when they buy tickets. It’s running for three weekends starting with this one, Thursdays-Saturdays @ 8pm, Saturdays @ 3pm, Sundays @ 7pm at the Access Theater Gallery, 380 Broadway at White Street, 4th Floor. Check it out and tell ‘em Jewschool sent ya!
Polybe + Seats, the New York-based experimental theater, premieres Granada, the new play by Avi Glickstein, on November 5th at TriBeCa’s Access Theater Gallery in New York City.
Granada begins in 1992 as the King of Spain prepares to symbolically welcome Jews back to Spain after 500 years of banishment. A young Egyptian Jewish woman has been invited to stand in for all of those exiled—but following the ceremony, she reveals to Spain’s prince that she believes herself to be the resurrection of Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), philosopher, royal physician, and Jewish cultural icon. Quite suddenly, the prince’s world is not what it was before her revelation: he is pursued by a bear, seduced by a princess hatched from a grapefruit, and nearly betrayed by his trusty aide-de-camp. Is this the beginning of the Messianic age?
Bringing together characters and storytelling from Sephardic Jewish folklore and history and weaving from Spain to Israel to Morocco and back again, Granada explores issues of identity, both religious and national, and the uncanny link among followers of a tradition separated by continents but united by a state of exile.
This seems intriguing. I’ve heard good things about this company and who doesn’t love theater with bears somehow involved? Running the next three weekends, Thursdays-Saturdays @ 8pm, Saturdays @ 3pm, Sundays @ 7pm at the Access Theater Gallery, 380 Broadway at White Street, 4th Floor. Gonna try to catch it myself, let us know what you think of it if you see it!
Theater J and J Street organized several panels that examined the situation through film and performance. Israeli-born storyteller Noa Baum performed her show, A Land Twice Promised, a story of her friendship formed with a Palestinian woman in Davis, California. Their sons become fast friends; the women, more slowly, more deeply.
These mothers exchange their stories as they warm to one another: each coming of age in or near Jerusalem. Surviving the wars of their childhood. Each imbued with a deep fear and mistrust of the other. Their accounts give way to those of their mothers, and others. We heard the Old City fall twice, from different perspectives. (The pregnant implications: can it happen again? Will it?)
Noa is a force. I cannot better describe her. Her performance transports and transforms. After the show, there’s more: she shares her unscripted thoughts. The personal suffering on all sides is immense. It endures, and it shall continue. But it can also paralyze and poison: if the parties conceive of justice as a function of their personal suffering and the memory of their own collective pain, there is nothing for it but more of the same. More »
When I was younger, I was half convinced that all gay people were Jewish. Certainly, the only images of gay people I saw in the media were characters in the plays of William Finn, Tony Kushner, and Paul Rudnick. (That I considered Broadway plays to be “the media” is likely a unique feature of having been a gay, Jewish, middle-class kid.) I’ve remained a fan of all three writers ever since, so I was delighted to see that Rudnick had a new memoir out last month.
I Shudder is a collection of autobiographical essays very much in the David Sedaris mold, although Rudnick’s New Jersey Jewish relatives, New York theatrical exploits and Hollywood headaches provide quite a different framework for his humor. It’s to his credit that stories about his great-aunt Lil are every bit as entertaining as his account of visiting a real-life nunnery for inspiration while writing Sister Act. His only missteps come in the segments that give the book its title. Peppered throughout the book are “Excerpt[s] from the Most Deeply Intimate and Personal Diary of One Elyot Vionnet.” Rudnick certainly can write in character — his “If You Ask Me” column in Premiere magazine, written as middle-aged housewife Libby Gelman-Waxner was hysterical — but Elyot’s complaints about the insufferable people one encounters in life don’t measure up. These essays’ weakness is only made more visible by their inclusion in an otherwise fabulous collection.
Rudnick isn’t the only gay Jewish funny man with a new collection of autobiographical essays. Eddie Sarfaty, a stand-up comedian who’s probably best known to those who summer in Provincetown (where he’s had a regular gig for many seasons) has produced Mental: Funny in the Head. I’ll say up front that it’s unfair to Sarfaty to compare his book to Rudnick’s — but they came out within months of each other, and I read them back to back, so what can you do? On the other hand, I have a soft spot for Sarfaty because he performed a stand-up show as one of Keshet’s very early fundraisers, back before anyone had ever heard of us.
My feelings on Mental are much more mixed. When it’s at its best, such as when Sarfaty writes about his relationships with older relatives, it’s both funny and touching. (His publisher has posted Second-Guessing Grandma, the first essay in the book, for free on-line.) But too much of the book doesn’t measure up to its best parts, and I found myself impatient for chapters on the comedian’s sex life to end so I could get to the good bits about his European vacation with his parents. The nice part of a book like this is that you can skip past chapters you don’t like without worrying that you won’t be able to follow what comes next. The essays aren’t presented chronologically, and when events from previous essays are mentioned, they’re explained as though the reader is encountering them for the first time. I loved roughly half of the essays, but could have done without the other half. (My favorites: “My Tale of Two Cities,” about the aforementioned European trip; “Can I Tell You Something?” detailing the comedian’s experience teaching a stand-up class for amateurs; and “The Eton Club,” a tribute to a certain kind of gay culture that died off with AIDS.)
Both Rudnick and Sarfaty profess their own distance from Jewish religion, but both books are infused with Yiddishkeit, from the focus on Jewish family dynamics to the meditations on how Hillel’s teachings might inform the way we partake in online cruising sites. Neither book is likely to inspire readers to find any great insights into Jewish culture, but I suspect most Jewschool readers will find many moments in each that provoke a knowing smirk of familiarity.
This is the fifth post in a series on Social Justice Showtunes. The series starts here with a post about the 1937 Broadway musical Pins and Needles and continues here with a post about the 1932 song “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” here with a post about South Pacific’s “Carefully Taught,” and here with a post about “No More” from Golden Boy.
Theater is, by its very nature, impermanent. While a sculptor certainly could revisit a sculpture after declaring it finished and make some revisions, change is intrinsic to performance — no two performances are ever exactly the same. Perhaps that’s why those who create musical theater seem to have a higher propensity than other artists to rethink their work, be it after the original production opened, for a film version, for a foreign production, or a revival. Sure, every once in a while there’s a Walt Whitman or a George Lucas who subjects his work to similar rethinking in other media, but in musical theater it’s almost de rigueur. In fact, some shows (such as 1927′s Show Boat) have undergone so many phases of transformation they’ve inspired a cottage industry of musical theater restoration that can rival the Biblical Source Criticism biz.
I say all this by way of introducing this week’s song, “Beautiful City,” which comes from Godspell. The musical is a retelling of the Gospel according to Matthew, emphasizing the theme of community-building and interdependence. Godspell itself has an interesting history, originating as a college production that transferred to an off-off-Broadway theater. It was given a major overhaul (including an almost-entirely-new score by Stephen Schwartz) when it moved to a commercial Off-Broadway run in 1971. Following a long and successful run, it moved to Broadway in 1976 where it ran for another couple of years.
This song wasn’t a part of those original productions. The first version of “Beautiful City” was written for the 1973 film version of the show. In the film, it’s a pleasant but somewhat forgettable soft-rock tribute to the power of doing things together, very much in the mold of “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” (aka “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke”) from the same year. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the film, but I think it musicalizes the moment in which Jesus and his community enter Jerusalem (or, in the world of Godspell, New York) prior to the events of the passion narrative. Check it out:
In 1992, Schwartz was approached to contribute a new song for a production to be put on in Los Angeles following the Rodney King riots. Schwartz revisited “Beautiful City” and refashioned it into a song about urban renewal. The production never happened, but the song has been interpolated into most subsequent productions of the show. Of the song, he says:
I feel that the new lyrics are vastly superior to the ones used in the movie, which I find “drippy” and somewhat cloying. So I would prefer wherever it is used within the show, directors use the new lyrics. I don’t feel they are too specifically about Los Angeles if one doesn’t know they were originally written for that purpose; I feel their reference to urban blight and violence is universal enough.
This rendition comes from the 2000-2001 national touring production, directed by Schwartz’s son Scott. Although Stephen Schwartz has gone on record as preferring the song performed as a ballad late in the second act, Scott Schwartz’s use of the song as a rousing second-act curtain raiser is more to my taste, at least as a purely audio experience. Plus, this series of social justice showtunes has been a little ballad heavy, and for the week of Sukkot it feels appropriate to use a more upbeat song.
Someday, someone (maybe me?) will write a more thorough exploration of Schwartz’s biblical- and religious-themed work. In addition to Godspell, he’s the songwriter behind Prince of Egypt (the animated musical retelling of the Exodus story) and Children of Eden (a musical rethinking of the first nine chapters of Genesis). He wrote the lyrics to Bernstein’s Mass and Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame as well as the Jewish immigrant tale Rags (an ersatz follow-up to Fiddler on the Roof from librettist Joseph Stein). When I was still in college, I convinced our Office for the Arts to bring Schwartz for a series of master classes and seminars with students, partially in conjunction with a production of Children of Eden I was producing for our Hillel Drama group that semester. At the time, Schwartz noted that he was raised Jewish but without a particularly intense engagement with Judaism. These days, his official stance is that he doesn’t discuss his religious beliefs so they won’t get in the way of others appreciating his work.
For a song from a musical about Jesus, the song is surprisingly humanistic. The rallying cry is to build “not a city of angels, but finally a city of man.” A recent British production placed this song at the end of the show, at the moment when the community must recover from the crucifixion of their leader and move onward. That might be a shocking resolution to the story of Jesus, but in many ways it feels like a very Jewish approach to the loss of a leader or even to the feeling that God is absent. We don’t wait for signs from heaven – we know what we’re expected to do, and we go out and do it.
If you’re interested in learning about a Jewish organization working on urban renewal, The Jewish Council on Urban Affairs is one of the best. Although their work is focused on Chicago, their vision and values are applicable to pretty much any city in the world.
This is the fourth post in a series on Social Justice Showtunes. The series starts here with a post about the 1937 Broadway musical Pins and Needles and continues here with a post about the 1932 song “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” and here with a post about South Pacific’s “Carefully Taught.”
Many of the best musicals had their origins in earlier theatrical works, from Oklahoma! (based on Lynn Riggs’ Green Grow the Lilacs) to The Fantasticks (based on Edmund Rostand’s Les Romantiques) to West Side Story (based on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet). Today’s entry comes from the musical version of Clifford Odets’ 1937 play Golden Boy. The original told the story of an Italian-American kid in the Depression who dreams of a career as a concert violinist, seeing a career in boxing as his only way out of the lower class.
For the musical version, Odets was recruited to adapt his own play on the strength of the new lead – multimedia sensation Sammy Davis, Jr. In the musical update, the hero’s struggle was given an added dimension in the form of an interracial love affair — still illegal in many states, and mirroring Davis’s own real-life marriage to May Britt. Odets was at a low point in his career, suffering from the blacklist and nearly broke, so despite his ambivalence towards musical theater, he was happy to be working and thrilled to have Sammy Davis, Jr. signed on.
The show was fully integrated, and it featured a kiss between the lovers, which caused quite a stir during the show’s tryouts. Davis and the rest of the company reported receiving death threats for the involvement in the show, but it was ultimately successful.
This song comes about halfway through the second act, when (SPOILER ALERT!) the lovers have broken up. Soon after the show’s opening, Martin Luther King, Jr. attended the show and admired its message, citing this song as his favorite.
In his recent autobiography, Put on a Happy Face, Strouse recalled the difficulties involved in putting on this production and working with a star of Davis’s caliber. For instance, Davis’s contract gave him approval over every single song in the score, quite an unusual agreement for a Broadway production. Since Davis was performing a blockbuster club act in Vegas at the time, this meant lots of flying back and forth between New York and Vegas for the songwriters who had to audition new songs for the star at three in the morning following his “midnight matinees.”
Sammy’s only previous Broadway outing had been Mr. Wonderful, which was essentially Sammy’s club act placed within the slightest of stories. So being part of a collaborative process for the good of the dramatic work as a whole must have been new to him. Strouse wrote:
Lee and I didn’t write the pop-style, Sammy Cahn-Jimmy Van Heusen songs that Sammy could metamorphose into jazz-sounding phrases, and Sammy wouldn’t/couldn’t/didn’t want to sing our versions of “black.”
Strouse explains at great length in his book that much of the tension between himself and Davis really revolved around Davis’ desire to swing the score in opposition to the composer’s desire to hear the score sung as written. Because jazz singing was still so closely associated with being black, Strouse fretted that his musical proclivities were being misinterpreted. He wrote:
Lee and I had wanted to write a musical true to the pain, hopes, and culture of African Americans. So, naturally, everyone involved in the writing was white and Jewish–except for Sammy, who was only Jewish… Race relations played out behind the scenes as well as on the stage. For example, if I was drinking a Coke, Sammy liked to take a sip from the same glass. He confided in me that it was really a test to see whether I liked black people. He never told me whether I passed.
Strouse and Davis eventually bonded when they traveled to Selma together for the famous march. But knowing now the way that Strouse perceived what was going on behind the scenes, it’s hard to imagine the moment when he and Lee Adams first presented this song to Davis, asking him to sing lines like “I ain’t your slave no more.”
If you’re interested in learning about a Jewish organization working on fostering a Jewish community that brings together all Jews, whether they look like Charles Strouse or Sammy Davis, Jr., check out Be’chol Lashon. As they put it in their vision statement,
Imagine a new global Judaism that transcends differences in geography, ethnicity, class, race, ritual practice, and beliefs. Discussions about “who-is-a-real-Jew” will be replaced with celebration of the rich, multi-dimensional character of the Jewish people.
This is the third post in a series on Social Justice Showtunes. The series starts here with a post about the 1937 Broadway musical Pins and Needles and continues here with a post about the 1932 song “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”
Today’s entry to the series is probably the most well-known of the songs we’ll be examining. “Carefully Taught” was introduced in 1949, when South Pacific premiered on Broadway. Based on James Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Tales of the South Pacific, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s show addressed racial intolerance head-on, which went on to win its own Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1950.
Buy the CD!
(Performed by William Tabbert, from the Original Cast Recording.)
As a stand-alone number, the song is a strong message against racism in general, and against unquestioningly accepting the values of one’s parents more specifically. Although there wasn’t a great deal of public backlash against the song, Michener recalled that the authors had faced some pressure to drop this song from the show, but, in Michener’s words, “This number represented why they had wanted to do the play and even if it meant failure of the production it was going to stay in… Courage and determination such as this counts for something in art.”
The show holds a special place in the history of the American musical, and a special fascination for fans of the form. The show represented a big step forward in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s creation of the musical-drama (as opposed to musical comedy), and Josh Logan’s direction was produced one of the first stage plays to adopt cinematic scene transitions. The show has been filmed twice (once for cinemas, once for television), and an all-star concert was also captured for PBS. The show has become a permanent feature of the high school and community theater circuits, and in the 1999-2000 season (the 50th anniversary of the show’s premiere), I must have seen a half-dozen productions around Los Angeles.
Today, South Pacific is once again running on Broadway, in a smash-hit revival at Lincoln Center. This summer, I saw the show live again for the first time in about ten years. In context, the song is sung by a young lieutenant who has fallen in love with a native Polynesian girl. He’s singing to a older French planter whose love affair with a young nurse has fallen apart over the nurse’s disgust at discovering her planter has previously been married to a Polynesian woman.
I attended the show with a dear friend of mine, who happens to be Jewish and biracial, and her parents. Her parents were swept away by the show, but my friend was left with a bad taste in her mouth. You see, for all Lt. Cable’s protestations of his love for Liat, the Polynesian girl, all we’ve seen of their relationship has been strictly physical. They don’t even speak a common language. My friend, unable (or unwilling) to be swept up in the romantic idea of the white air force office rescuing the native girl from her arranged marriage to a wealthy, elderly planter, could only see a naive young girl being rescued from one kind of concubinage only to enter a different kind of love-slavery. (It doesn’t help that both relationships — the one with Cable and the one with the planter — are orchestrated by Liat’s wily mother, Bloody Mary.)
Honestly, I was sort of split on the issue – I hadn’t considered it in that light before. I was also very sleepy the night we saw the show, so I jumped at the chance to catch a matinée later in the summer, this time with my parents and brother. Again, I found the show to be a little long for my taste — director Bartlet Sher has restored a song cut from the original production and added some extra lines here and there (in part to emphasize the young nurse heroine’s racist upbringing), and if you ask me, a two-and-a-half hour show doesn’t need any lengthening. But aside from the length, I couldn’t get my friend’s criticism out of my head, and this time I could only see the relationship between Cable and Liat as exploitative (albeit exploitative in both directions).
And yet, it’s hard to deny the impact the story had on its original audiences, and that it still has on audiences today. The song itself still resonates, and artists continue to record it sixty years after its debut. One of my colleagues in the world of Jewish education keeps the lyrics framed on his office wall alongside quotes from great rabbis as a reminder of the full range of our responsibilities as educators.
As we enter the new year together, I hope we can all think about the ways we teach the next generation and renew our commitment to creating a future free from hate and fear.
If you’re interested in learning about a Jewish organization working on creating a Jewish community free from hate and fear, check out The Jewish Multiracial Network. To quote from their mission statement:
The mission of the Jewish Multiracial Network is to build a community of Jews of color and multiracial Jewish families for mutual support, learning, and empowerment. Through education and advocacy, we seek to enrich Jewish communal life by incorporating our diverse racial and ethnic heritages.
They’re doing important work. Check out their website for information on upcoming events and the resources they have to offer, and consider how you may help make your own Jewish community more inclusive of all Jews.
This is the second post in a series on Social Justice Showtunes. The series starts here with a post about the 1937 Broadway musical Pins and Needles.
When I drew up my initial list of songs to include in this series, there was no question that “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” would be included. Since its debut in the third edition of Americana in 1932, the song has captured the imagination of Americans with its poignant and painful depiction of the Depression-era life of a WWI veteran. The song has been continually recorded throughout the intervening decades by everyone from The Weavers to George Michael. (In 2001, The Harburg Foundation issued a CD with 18 different renditions across seven decades that really drove this point home.)
But the most famous recording remains Bing Crosby’s 1932 recording with the Lennie Hayton Orchestra:
I grew up when America had a dream, and its people, a hope. Whether we were struggling against the shackles of slavery or the shackles of scarcity, the hope was there. In 1930, the dream collapsed. The system fell apart. The people were not angry. They were not in revolt. This was a good country on its way to greatness. It had given our immigrant parents more freedom, more education, more opportunity than they had ever know. What happened? We were baffled, bewildered… and the bewildered, baffled man sang [these lyrics]…
Gorney is less well-known, although he is also credited with discovering Shirley Temple. His other big hit song was “You’re My Thrill.” (Here’s a Weekend Edition story on Gorney from 2006 with more information.)
Both men were active in progressive politics, which eventually landed both on the wrong side of the House Un-American Activities Committee and on the blacklist. Gorney seems to have been devastated by the blacklist. Harburg continued to work on Broadway (where the blacklist was pretty consistently defied) and branched out into poetry with Rhymes for the Irreverent, republished in this decade to support the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and organization fighting to protect the separation of church and state in America.
The Harburg Foundation continues to support progressive causes in the spirit of Yip’s own politics, including
projects that (a) work toward world peace, (b) work to end economic and social discrimination and exploitation, racial/ethnic conflicts, and civil injustices; (b) provide educational opportunities to low-income and minority students through scholarship organizations; (c) advance and promote new works of American political art, especially efforts involving cultural and societal issues; (d) preserve and enhance the legacy of E.Y. Harburg through new projects or revivals of his standard works in all media.
And what of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” itself? Unfortunately, it has never been as timely as it is today. Once again we have veterans returning home to the worst unemployment statistics of our generation, laborers whose industries have nearly shut down, a national debate about how to provide for our needy, and many Americans questioning whether there ever was an agreement as to what the American Dream is.
Listening to the song today, it’s the very last line that really kills me, when the singer switches from addressing the listener as “brother” to “buddy.”
Whether you think it’s up to the government or the populace (or some combination thereof) to solve the various messes we’re in — the economy, health care, etc. — this song speaks to us all. The real question is whether any of us are really listening.
If you’re interested in learning more about a Jewish organization working on issues of economic justice, check out Jews For Racial & Economic Justice. Right now, their mission is centered on New York City, but if you live outside of NY, JFREJ provides an interesting model to consider bringing to your own city.
This summer, I attended my first National Havurah Committee Summer Institute. Part of each day at the Institute is devoted to workshops, one-hour sessions created by anyone attending who wants to share something they care about with the other attendees. I was strongly encouraged to offer a workshop or two… the workshop coordinator happened to be sleeping on my couch while putting together the schedule. I flippantly offered to offer a workshop on the subject about which I know the most: showtunes. And because I’m a wise-ass, I said, “Let’s call it ‘Social Justice Showtunes.’” I imagined the Institute crowd would eat that shit up.
Turns out, I was right. Not only did people flock to the workshop, my Facebook friends were also interested in hearing more. So, over the next several weeks, I will be presenting here a series on Social Justice Showtunes, featuring songs from the musical stage, written by Jews, about social justice issues.
(Performed here by Rose Marie Jun, from the 25th Anniversary Recording.)
Today is Labor Day in the United States of America. Apparently, in Canada, Bermuda. and elsewhere, today is Labour Day. While Labor Day may be no more a Jewish holiday than, say, Yom Yerushalayim, both holidays are alike in their origins, growing out of political movements spearheaded by secular Jews.
(Yes, it’s an oversimplification to call the Labor Movement a political movement spearheaded by secular Jews. However, the Jewish Labor Committee has an extensive bibliography about the history of Jews in the Labor Movement if you’d like to learn more.)
At any rate, I certainly learned about the Jewish involvement in the labor movement and union organizing way back when in my synagogue’safternoon Hebrew School. By the time of my Bar Mitzvah, I knew more about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire than I did about anything that happened in the Tanakh between Sampson and King David.
But as with many other subjects in the world, I’ve learned even more about the Labor Movement through showtunes than I ever did in Hebrew School. Much of that knowledge comes from my familiarity with a musical called Pins and Needles .
In the mid-1930s, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union had grown so large that the union invested in forming a Cultural Division charged with spreading the union’s values to its members through the arts. Pins and Needles was a revue, a collection of songs and scenes, that grew from this effort. It was so popular that it moved to Broadway and ran for years, even getting updated as headlines changed. This show was particularly special because all the performers in the original production were members of the ILGWU. Dressmakers, cutters, embroiderers, et al took a break from the factories to sing and dance on the Broadway stage. Harold Rome, the composer & lyricist, later reflected, “I didn’t realize that the big attraction was that the garment workers themselves were doing the show and singing to the audience, creating a rapport which is very rare in the theater.”
The song “Sing Me A Song With Social Significance,” which you can hear if you click on the icon above, was the opening number of the show. Although there had been topical revues prior to this one, this song announced a new kind of topicality. Pins and Needles wouldn’t just take pot-shots at the news and events of the day. This was a show with purpose.
In 1937, the original cast album hadn’t been invented yet. (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first musical film to issue a soundtrack album, in 1937. Oklahoma was the first original cast album in the contemporary sense, although there were earlier albums that captured songs from musicals sung by the performers who introduced them. But I digress…) A few singles from the score were recorded, but only one got any significant airplay. In the words of Rome, “‘Social Significance’ in those days was not for our airwaves.” (He wrote that in the early 1960s, when Social Significance was definitely on the airwaves. How sad that we’ve since regressed.)
Fifteen songs from the show were eventually recorded in 1962 for a twenty-fifth anniversary recording. Two singles recorded by members of the original cast were released on CD as part of a boxed set a dozen years ago (that now appears to be out of print). And Rome himself some of the songs in the 1950s. It is from one of those collections, A Touch of Rome that I draw the song I want to leave you all with for Labor Day:
It’s interesting to me the difference between songs like this and the more straightforward and earnest protest songs of the 1960s. However, RubyK tells me that this song in particular fits in with the tradition of union organizing songs from the turn of the century, which makes sense given the circumstances of the creation of this show. It’s also interesting to me how racy the song is. We tend to imagine the ’30s as a more innocent time, but this song doesn’t really mince words in describing the sex life of the sweet little sewing machine girl. It’s interesting that the version recorded for the twenty-fifth anniversary recording whitewashed some of the lyrics. Who would have thought the version from the 60s would be cleaned up, while the version from the 30s was more explicit? History and memory are funny things.
As we look at other Social Justice Showtunes in the coming weeks, it will be interesting to consider the techniques the songwriters use to get their messages across in the context of the times they were writing. Stay tuned.
It’s now about 12:30 a.m. Around two hours ago, I was in a bowling alley in Asbury Park, N.J. watching a self-proclaimed “Nice Jewish Girl Gone Bad” take most of her clothes off, toss a pack of bacon into the crowd that had just finished being rubbed suggestively on her ass, and then take off a final layer of clothing, only to reveal her boobs, which were covered in nothing but pasties with more strips of bacon dangling from them.