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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

American Dreams: Jews and Broadway

Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Event Recap

On November 14 the Boisi Center hosted a lunch colloquium featuring Stuart Hecht, associate professor of theater at Boston College and author of the recently published Transposing Broadway: Jews, Assimilation and the American Musical. Hecht spoke about the influence of Jewish Americans—especially second generation Jewish immigrants in New York—on the development of the Broadway musical. These musicals, Hecht argued, presented a template for success in America, an inclusive vision of America where assimilation is the key to upward mobility. For Jewish composers, lyricists, and audiences, the Broadway stage became a “cultural Ellis Island,” revealing the gateway to achieving the American dream.

Until the 1930s, Hecht noted, Jews portrayed their aspirations for assimilation predominantly through narratives about upper-class white characters. This dynamic began to change with the 1943 premier of “Oklahoma!” This musical featured a comedic secondary character, the Persian peddler Ali Hakim, which marked the introduction of increasingly prominent characters from marginal social groups. By the 1960s, characters from these groups became more commonplace and were even the central protagonists in some shows. The gradual incorporation of these characters into the Broadway mainstream reveals the inclusive vision presented in musicals composed by Jewish Americans.

After seeing how the Jews had used the musical, other underrepresented social groups followed suit, leading to the production of “Hair,” “Rent,” “The Color Purple,” and “The Book of Mormon.” These plays resonated with American audiences, who found they could empathize with protagonists from marginal racial, ethnic, sexual, or religious identities.