We owe the phrase “you won’t succeed on Broadway if you don’t have any Jews” to Spamalot – so it only officially entered the theatrical lexicon circa 2005 when the Monty Python musical opened on Broadway (and I first heard it live a year later, when it had its West End premiere at the Palace Theatre). And yet such is the strength of the truism, it feels like we’ve always had it.
“The audience won’t care, sir,
As long as you don’t dare, sir,
To open up on Broadway
If you don’t have any Jews.”
– Monty Python’s Spamalot
This show – the brainchild of two young Jewish theatremakers Daniel Donsky and Michaela Stern (who have directed, choreographed and produced it care of their company, Collaborative Artists) – unashamedly takes its title from the Spamalot number and lovingly sends itself and its (largely Jewish) cast up by giving it a rousing curtain-call rendition at the end of the evening.
But the Pythons are preceded by the proof and the pudding: song after song after song of some of Broadway’s best-known hits from the 1930s right up to the modern day: the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Leonard Bernstein, Lerner and Loewe, Frank Loesser, Kander and Ebb, Stephen Sondheim, Jason Robert Brown … for starters.
Just think about that: without Jewish artists, we’d have no Porgy and Bess, Crazy for You, Pal Joey, Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music, Carousel, Annie Get Your Gun, My Fair Lady, Gypsy, Guys and Dolls, West Side Story, On the Town, Sweet Charity, Cabaret, Godspell, Wicked, Hairspray, Parade, Company, Wicked and on and on and on.
But why is this so? A programme note explains: “It all began with the immigration of over two million Jews to American at the turn of the 20th century; they arrived in the United States searching for the freedom to express themselves, for the right to be individuals, and many started to tell their stories through the arts. The melodies these Jewish writers composed for jazz standards and Broadway shows resonated with a wide audience in a time of recession and crisis; many saw the theatre as an escape from their grey and heavy day-to-day life. Broadway flourished, as did the population of Jewish immigrants who began to assimilate and become hugely successful in the arts.”
“There’s a very small percentile,
Who enjoys a dancing gentile,
I’m sad to be the one with this bad news!
But never mind your swordplay,
You just won’t succeed on Broadway,
You just won’t succeed on Broadway,
If you don’t have any Jews!”
The poster-child for this type of assimilation is composer Irving Berlin. Born as Israel Isidore Beilin in Russia, who in addition to his stage hits, went on in his adopted homeland to write the alternative national anthem “God Bless America” as well as the festive standard “White Christmas”.
Donskoy, an actor himself who performed in earlier iterations of the show, tells me that he was inspired to create You Won’t Succeed because of some of his own audition nightmares. With the ongoing crisis in the Middle East, he was increasingly encountering anti-semitism when going up for jobs in theatre. He wanted a show that celebrated his Jewish roots and which demonstrated that, without Jews, there simply wouldn’t be theatre, or at least musical theatre, as we know it today. The show had a West End one-nighter at the Garrick Theatre and went down a storm at the English National Theatre of Israel before this, its first major London season.
Collaborative Artists make a persuasive case offstage and onstage, where documentary-style video clips provide context between a succession of big company, song-and-dance numbers. And – is it any surprise? – the numbers that get the most enthusiastic response are the ones that explicitly celebrate Jewishnessness: “Tradition” (from Fiddler on the Roof), the hysterical “Four Jews in a Room” (from William Finn’s March of the Falsettos) and that great curtain-call crowd-pleaser “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway if You Don’t Have Any Jews”.
Is Eric Idle Jewish, by the way? That would be perfect.
You Won’t Succeed on Broadway if You Don’t Have Any Jews continues at the St James Theatre until 5 September 2015.
Name That Jew…
Here’s a little page from my Broadway scrap album. These are all famous Jewish composers, lyricists and, you’ll notice, quite a few song-writing partnerships. Many of them have been mentioned above. But can you identify who’s who?
Let me know what you think (via the User Comments below would be very helpful), and I’ll update the page with the correct captions next week…