News Column

Star-News, Wilmington, N.C., Ben on Film column

October 10, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 10--The Wilmington Jewish Film Festival is on track to debut April 5-6. In the meantime, it's offering what co-chairman Peggy Pancoe Rosoff calls "a little nosh."

The festival is sponsoring the screening of a documentary, "Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy," 3 p.m. Sunday at Thalian Hall.

The 90-minute film documents the monumental contribution to American musical theater by Jewish composers, songwriters, singers and actors, including Oscar Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Betty Comden and Adolf Green -- not to mention Joel Grey (who narrates), Zero Mostel, Al Jolson and Barbra Streisand.

David Hyde Pierce even pops in to sing a song from the musical "Spamalot": "You Won't Succeed on Broadway (If You Don't Have Any Jews)."

If this sounds familiar, well, "Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy" played earlier this year on PBS as part of its "Great Performances" series.

Sunday's production, however, offers something special: Michael Kantor, who wrote, directed and produced the documentary, will be on hand. He'll join in a Q&A session after the screening, on a panel with UNCW professors Todd Berliner and Philip Furia. Furia, an authority on American popular song and author of biographies of Irving Berlin and Ira Gershwin, is interviewed in the movie.

A veteran filmmaker who's worked on documentaries with Ken Burns, Kantor produced the six-hour PBS mini-series "Broadway: The American Musical," which aired in 2004, and the 2009 mini-series "Make 'Em Laugh," about the making of American comedy.

"About four years after I did 'Broadway,' this lady from Boston, Barbara Brilliant, came and said, 'I loved the series,'?" Kantor said in a phone conversation from New York. "?'But you didn't look at the fact that Jewish artists did so much."

Brilliant went on to become executive producer of "Jewish Legacy."

The real challenge, Kantor said, was figuring out what to leave out.

His film traces much of the Broadway style back to the Yiddish-language theater in New York at the turn of the century, when actors and writers crafted melodramas to appeal to the dreams of immigrants like themselves. Many of these motifs -- like the outsider trying to fit in -- would become Broadway's meat and potatoes.

Jewish cultural influence on musicals is sometimes very subtle, Kantor noted. For example, when writing "God Bless America," Irving Berlin used snatches of tune from a Jewish prayer.

Composer Michael Tilson Thomas, also interviewed on camera, demonstrates how George Gershwin recycled music from another Jewish prayer into the opening of his most popular song, "Swanee." (Tilson Thomas, by the way, happens to be the grandson of Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, two superstars of New York's Yiddish theater.)

And Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" opens with a clarinet solo that comes, almost directly, from the Klezmer music beloved by Eastern European Jews.

Kantor tried to get a film version of "You Won't Succeed on Broadway" from "Spamalot," but the rights proved elusive.

"Then we found out that David (Hyde Pierce) does it at parties," he added.

Hyde Pierce, best known as the character Niles from TV's "Frasier," sang the song solo for the documentary.

Kantor has another miniseries coming up with Jewish roots. "Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle," which premieres Oct. 15 on PBS, notes the contributions of dozens of Jewish comic pioneers from "Superman" creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster to Batman creator Bob Kane (born Robert Kahn) to Marvel Comics mastermind Stan Lee (born Stanley Martin Lieber).

Ben Steelman: 343-2208

Ben.Steelman@StarNewsOnline.com

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