The United States of America have always been considered the land of opportunity, the place where immigrants came to escape the restraints of their past, the land where everyone had the same chance to change and improve their lives and the lives of their children. Beyond this romanticized view, we also find that historically, the events that forced people to leave their home countries are in one way or another perpetuated in this land of dreams. Throughout its history, America has also been known for slavery, wars and racism, all of which help make Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy a truly mesmerizing documentary to watch, both in terms of its content and because of its blindingly optimistic points of view.
The film centers around the question of why is it that the world of musical theater has become such fertile territory for Jewish artists to thrive. The answer, to anyone with a sense of American history and pop culture, is not only simple, but very evident, given that Jewish communities, as perhaps all minorities forced away from their homes, have always excelled at creating art that sets them apart, while representing their struggle. It’s the very same notion that took the legendary idea of the Golem and turned it into comic book superheroes and the reason why Superman originally battled the Nazis.
This, however, doesn’t mean that the documentary isn’t worth its time, because it’s narrated, crafted and structured with such lovingness that every revelation sounds fresh, if only because of the chirpiness with which it’s told. In fact, the documentary is so set on being feel-good that David Hyde Pierce begins the film by singing how Broadway and King Arthur’s court were similar… or something like that, before going full throttle into a history lesson, that’s more of a refresher course than an actual lesson, narrated by Joel Grey.
For anyone who knows their Broadway history, there will be nothing new to find here, except perhaps for clips that are announced as newly discovered and recent interviews with Broadway experts and artists reinforcing what vintage newsreels are saying. The Broadway musical as we know it sprung from the Yiddish theater, which incorporated traditional songs with stories about exile and morality lessons. The theater served not merely as a way of entertainment, but as a way to educate the masses who, upon arriving on the new world, shied away from temple and orthodox traditions.
According to this documentary, this is the reason why many famous Broadway musicals are about heroes trying to fight a corrupt system or trying to be brave against a world that attempts to destroy them. This sense of pride can be traced to the idea that the Jews are the “chosen people”, but it can also lead to some twisted sense of cultural pride which is something the film never discusses and something that might’ve made for a much more rewarding experience, given that it would’ve allowed audiences the chance to experience the same feeling of enlightenment that early musicals allegedly did.
Director Michael Kantor does a decent job of finding parallels between traditional Jewish music and modern compositions. In fact there’s a moment when he juxtaposes Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with an older Jewish melody that not only succeeds in showing us Gershwin was deeply influenced by the music of his ancestors, but makes a whole new point about why, for example, this piece attracted Woody Allen who used it with such majesty in his film, Manhattan. Its as if all Jewish creators were bonded by an invisible string related to their origins.
The documentary includes clips and interviews featuring Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Schwartz and Stephen Sondheim and shines when it features any of their performances. At times it seems as if the filmmaker is trying too hard to draw parallels between their work and older compositions which leads to moments that might alienate audience members (a recurring joke states that Cole Porter was the only non-Jewish one, but might as well have been), but there is no denying that the music featured in the film is exemplary of how sublime American genius can get to be.
With so many rich performances, it seems a shame to think that the documentary’s angle can feel so reductive, when there are larger topics at hand, for example the way in which the gays, like the Jews have found parallels between their struggles and those portrayed by musicals. Ironically, the film’s ethnocentrism might be its biggest strength and its biggest weakness.
Athena has done a superb job in bringing the documentary to home media. The set includes the 84 minute-long documentary and includes an extra disc with over three hours of bonus material, featuring what we’re here for in the first place: performances. Clips that were shortened for the main feature appear in all of their glory in the bonus disc making for an evening of true pleasure for Broadway lovers. As a whole, the set offers something for both experts and newbies, although the way in which the film seems to be marketed might alienate some who feel like it’s patronizing.