Shalom Birdie: Charles Strouse’s Jewish Leitmotifs

Composer Charles Strouse’s Jewish Leitmotifs

By Benjamin Ivry

Published September 16, 2009, issue of September 25, 2009.
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The contributions of Jewish songwriters to Broadway musicals may seem overfamiliar, in part due to such distinguished examinations as Allen Forte’s “Listening to Classic American Popular Songs” (Yale University Press, 2001), itself something of a classic. Poet and editor David Lehman has just entered this crowded field with a highly personal new book, “A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs” (Schocken). New Yorker Lehman, who was born in 1948 and whose latest poetry collection, “Yeshiva Boys,” will be out from Scribner in November, is a lover of popular song, not a musicologist. “A Fine Romance” mingles free-associative autobiographical riffs alongside juxtapositions between Jewish history and Broadway:

“Oklahoma!” opened on March 31, 1943. In that month in Czestochowa, more than one hundred Jewish doctors and their families were rounded up and killed…. On the day “Oklahoma!” opened, Crematorium II made its debut in Auschwitz.

On November 10, Lehman will further elucidate his impressions in a presentation at New York’s 92nd Street Y. Among these is the striking claim that Cole Porter’s “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” contains “the sound of lamentation in the temple on the ninth of Ab,” instead of the clearly audible Spanish dance influence. Lehman even seriously asserts that Frank Sinatra makes Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?” seem “Jewish in sound and in attitude.” Are classic Broadway songs, as Lehman claims, “in some fundamental way inflected with Judaism even when the composer or the lyricist was neither by birth nor conviction Jewish”? Extending the notion, are all Broadway musicals innately Jewish, whether or not their overt subject is Judaism?

Sandy in the City: Sarah Jessica Parker with Sandy in the original production of Strouse’s ‘Annie,’ 1977, The Alvin Theatre.
Sandy in the City: Sarah Jessica Parker with Sandy in the original production of Strouse’s ‘Annie,’ 1977, The Alvin Theatre.

The proposition may be tested when a new Broadway revival of “Bye Bye Birdie” opens on October 15. “Bye Bye Birdie,” originally staged on Broadway in 1960, was composed by New York-born Charles Strouse, who explains in an endearing memoir, “Put on a Happy Face: A Broadway Memoir” (Union Square Press, 2008), that he only “grudgingly went to Sunday Hebrew School…. In fact, at my father’s insistence, I was never formally Bar Mitzvahed.” Even so, Strouse has obsessively addressed his heritage in his work, memorably in the musical “Rags” (1986). Strouse sums up “Rags”: “The poor people from Anatevka in ‘Fiddler [on the Roof’] had immigrated to America only to be met by prejudice, fear, and cynicism from Americans.” Less well remembered than “Rags,” and Strouse’s blockbuster successes like “Annie” (1977) and “Applause” (1970), are earlier shows like “Golden Boy” (1964) and especially “All American” (1962), with a book by Mel Brooks.

Something of a takeoff of Vladimir Nabokov’s 1957 novel “Pnin,” which was much admired by Strouse, “All American” portrays a Hungarian-Jewish émigré professor confronting sports madness at the so-called Southern Baptist Institute of Technology.

Strouse suggested several Jewish actors who would have been ideal as Fodorski of “All American,” including mighty talents Victor Borge, Ron Moody and Zero Mostel. Brooks wanted noted American tenor Jan Peerce (born on Manhattan’s Lower East Side as Jacob Pincus Perelmuth) to be cast in the role. All the aforementioned lost out, however, when dancer Ray Bolger, a Roman Catholic from Massachusetts best remembered for his turn as the Scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz,” got the part. The show bombed — in good part due to this miscasting.

Even Strouse’s less explicitly Jewish creations, such as “Bye Bye Birdie,” can harbor subliminal Judaica. Why else would the Jewish Theological Seminary have presented a zesty version of “Birdie” in 2005, performed entirely in Hebrew? Titled “Shalom Birdie” for the occasion, the show was cast with JTS students. All-Jewish, if not all-Hebrew, productions of “Birdie” have also been a tradition for many years, notably at Toronto’s Leah Posluns Theatre, part of The Bathurst Jewish Community Centre, among many other related venues. Something about “Birdie” is clearly compelling for Jewish audiences.

The show’s plot centers on agent and songwriter Albert Peterson, whose star client, pop singer Conrad Birdie, is drafted into the Army. Despite the generic family name, Peterson’s mother is universally seen as the archetypical, and fairly terrifying, Jewish mother. The New York Times described the character in a 1992 revival as the “incarnation of a Jewish mother joke at its most nightmarish… wearing a mink coat and orthopedic shoes.” In the original Broadway production, Mae Peterson was played by Kay Medford, an Irish-American character actress who excelled in such Jewish mother roles as the mom of Barbra Streisand’s Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl.”

Jewish details permeate “Birdie” beyond the dauntingly formidable presence of Mae Peterson. In an Act 2 song, “Spanish Rose,” Albert’s secretary and girlfriend, Rose Alvarez, mocks his mother’s objections to her ethnicity by insisting that although born in the Far Rockaway section of Queens, she henceforth plans to be “more Español than Abbe Lane.” The underlying wit of this line is that Lane, who became a sexy Latin nightclub singing star following her 1952 marriage to Spanish bandleader Xavier Cugat, was in fact born Abigail Francine Lassman to a Jewish family in Brooklyn. In such asides, as when Albert casually refers to himself as a “mensch,” Jewish culture appears in “Birdie” as a leitmotif, a running joke just below the surface for those in the know.

More profoundly, Strouse explains how he identifies with such Jewish-composer predecessors as Aaron Copland and David Diamond, both of whom advised him to embrace light music. Strouse’s vocation was decided when, during a brief stay in France, famed pedagogue Nadia Boulanger noted his talent for light music, declaring: “To make someone forget illness and suffering is also a calling.”

The humane results continue to delight audiences of all backgrounds, to such an extent that director Adam Shankman (“Hairspray”) is developing a new screen version of “Bye Bye Birdie” for Columbia Pictures, scheduled for release in 2011. Drishat Shalom look likely to be offered to Birdie for the foreseeable future.

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.

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