Berger is putting final touches on "The Imported Bridegroom," a musical play based on her 1989 film of the same name set in Boston's Jewish immigrant community at the turn of the century. Auditions were held this week for the play, which debuts Jan. 21-25 at Robsham Theater.
Art historian-turned-filmmaker-turned-lyricist Berger, who taught herself how to make movies while writing and producing the 1988 feature film "Sorceress," candidly acknowledges she knew nothing about writing musical comedy when she set out early this year on her latest venture.
Prof. Pamela Berger (Fine Arts), right, is working with composer Joanne Baker, whom she recruited from a local klezmer band. "I've had the opportunity to do something unusual," Berger said, "taking music from klezmer, the Victorian era, ragtime and Tin Pan Alley." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
"I got books out of the BC library on how to produce a musical," she said, with a laugh. "I always tell my students, once you get a liberal education, you can teach yourself anything."
A Cole Porter fan who grew up on Broadway musicals like "Annie Get Your Gun," "South Pacific" and "Guys and Dolls," Berger has thrown herself into writing songs for the show, churning out 27 to date, although not all of them will be used in the final production.
Based on an 1898 novella by Abraham Cahan, "The Imported Bridegroom" tells of a wealthy immigrant landlord in Boston who tries to buy his way into heaven by importing the best Talmudic scholar from his old village in Poland to marry his thoroughly Americanized daughter. Comedy, romance and several surprising turns ensue in a story widely praised by critics for its engaging charm.
The resulting film played to critical acclaim at art houses in Boston and several other cities. While she went on to other projects, Berger said she toyed with the concept of turning "Bridegroom" into a musical, until she finally decided to pursue the idea in earnest this past January.
Although she contacted some professional writers about creating a libretto, Berger says she found more than enough inspiration on her own.
"I looked at the book and there was some unusual and rather extraordinary language that was perfect for the first line of a song," said Berger. "For example, the old man says to his daughter, 'What, do I chase you under the bridal canopy?' No one puts that in a song. I then recast the line into a rhythm and was off writing verses. Within two weeks I had 10 songs.
"When I've been writing the lyrics for each song, a tune has come to me," she said. "On some, the tune was good enough to keep. I've had the opportunity to do something unusual, taking music from klezmer, the Victorian era, ragtime and Tin Pan Alley. This is going to be an old-fashioned musical, like one of the Rogers and Hammerstein musicals of the '50s."
Berger's tenacity on this new project has been accompanied by a little luck. Not long after she'd hatched the idea, Berger happened across a local klezmer band led by Assoc. Prof. Daniel Kirschner (Biology). Soon she had enlisted the band's pianist, Joanne Baker, as composer for the musical.
"She seemed to be able to play anything and was inventing marvelous chords to go with the melodies," Berger said. "I had a strong feeling that, working together, we could come up with some great music."
Berger also had less difficulty than most budding playwrights in finding a ready backer: Boston College advanced half the production costs against gate receipts. Colleagues in the Theater Department, meanwhile, have been generous in providing advice and technical assistance, she says.
"Boston College has really been a great support. I'm very thankful," said Berger, noting that she expects several roles to be filled by Boston College students.
Berger said she anticipates comparisons between "Bridegroom" and another well-known musical comedy centering on Jewish life.
"It's not 'Fiddler on the Roof,' but very much an American piece," said Berger, who plans to invite producers from New York, Florida and the West Coast to the Jan. 21 premiere. "No doubt people will end up comparing it. We should only do so well as 'Fiddler on the Roof.'"
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