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5.18.18: Jewish American Heritage Month - Broadway Musicals

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west side story marquisThe Broadway musical is one of two quintessentially American genres of music. Like jazz, the Broadway show is an art form created by outsiders that has had a profound influence on American music.

The United States provided the opportunity for immigrant Jews to live the American
dream. Jewish lyricists, composers, and musical book writers returned the favor, giving back what some scholars call America’s classical music.

Many Broadway musicals are about outsiders fighting to make their way in the world. In dramatizing the stories of others, Jewish writers and composers explored their own journeys. Lyrics such as “I want to be in America” from West Side Story or “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear” from South Pacific are clear reflections of the Jewish experience. Yet it wasn’t till 1964 that Jews told their own story on stage, in the enormously successful Fiddler on the Roof.

American-Jewish composers and lyricists often probed social themes—women’s rights, in Annie Get Your Gun; interracial marriage, in Showboat; and love, loss, and hope, in Carousel’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” times square musicals

Today, Broadway musicals continue to entertain millions. To quote Stephen Sondheim in Follies:

Good times and bum times,
I've seen them all,
And, my dear, I'm still here.

Plush velvet sometimes,
Sometimes just pretzels and beer,

But I’m here.

The Broadway musical is still here. It is the Jewish gift to America that keeps on giving.
Written by BARBARA BRILLIANT, a television host and producer, musician, and journalist. She is the creator and executive producer of the PBS Great Performances program Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy, for which NMAJH also served as a producer.


Left: Outside the Winter Garden Theatre after the Broadway Opening of West Side Story, photographer unknown. Leonard Bernstein Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.
Right: The intersection of Broadway and 42nd
Street, at the south-east corner of Times Square, New York, photograph © Randy Lemoine.


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