PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


'Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy': The Parallels Between Traditional Music & Modern Compositions

This is a truly mesmerizing documentary to watch, both in terms of its content and because of its blindingly optimistic points of view.

Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy

Director: Michael Kantor
Distributor: Acorn
Release date: 2013-05-07

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.


The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.


1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.


'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.


The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.


Mary Halvorson Creates Cacophony to Aestheticize on 'Artlessly Falling'

Mary Halvorson's Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her.


15 Overlooked and Underrated Albums of the 1990s

With every "Best of the '90s" retrospective comes a predictable list of entries. Here are 15 albums that are often overlooked as worthy of placing in these lists, and are too often underrated as some of the best records from the decade.


'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.


20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.


Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.