The promise of the American Dream brought mass-migration of Jews between 1880-1920, with many settling in New York City’s Lower East Side slums. By the 1930s their children had Americanized and improved their lot and formed an increasing percentage of the Broadway audience, supporting musicals that were almost exclusively written by Jewish composers, lyricists and librettists. Not surprisingly, the Broadway musical reflected their collective journey of upward mobility. In their hands, most Broadway book musicals came to project an inclusive vision of America through a form which they inadvertently developed into a template on how to achieve those lofty ends: success through assimilation. This Broadway musical “template” has subsequently been used by other fringe groups to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the American mainstream, be it women, gays, African Americans, Latinos/Latinas, amongst many others.
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.
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Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy is the first documentary film to explore the Jewish-American influence in the development of Broadway musicals. Stuart Hecht, Associate Professor of Theater at Boston College, discussed the significance of the Jewish musical heritage at a Boisi Center colloquium on November 14, 2012. Hecht is among the experts interviewed in the PBS documentary.
Broadway Musicals premieres on January 1, 2013, at 9:30pm EST (check local listings).