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In approaching songwriters, Busch said, “we basically gave no guidelines at all.” Instead, they were told, “Do whatever intrigues you, however you want to do it, in whichever style you want to do it.”
When it became clear that the songs could not be fitted “into some already written script,” Busch said, he and Greenberg “took index cards with the name of each song and put them on the floor, and rearranged them to see what kind of narrative naturally evolved.”
The creative team’s aim, Greenberg said, was “to capture the intelligence and the humanity of this book that is highly relatable — certainly for Jewish people, but really for anybody who is questioning the value and the resonance of their cultural and religious identity.”
Kitt, the Tony Award-winning composer of “Next to Normal” (and co-creator of the current Broadway musical “Bring It On”), joined the project and began writing songs with Pogrebin as his lyricist. Eventually, Harnick decided that “Stars of David” “should become a huge collaborative project rather than one composer trying to tackle all of these stories,” Kitt said. (According to Busch, Sondheim, who was interviewed for the book, was one of the few who demurred.)
Why did so many star songwriters participate? “When you look at the list of people, you think, ‘I’m kind of honored to be asked to be part of that group,’” Kitt said.
Just as writing the book did for Pogrebin, working on the musical inspired many of those involved to re-examine their Jewish heritage and identity.
“For the very first time in my life I went to Kol Nidre services, two weeks ago,” Busch reported. “It was very beautiful. I was very moved by it. It was exhausting, though. Do the Jews always have to stand up the whole time? Oh my God, I was getting sciatica.”
Greenberg’s reaction was different. The show encouraged him to examine “what are the cultural references that I owe to the way I was raised, and what subconsciously may have drifted in through osmosis without me even realizing it.
“For me, the idea of being Jewish goes well beyond actual observance and Jewish ritual. It has to do with something that’s cultural, something that’s a sensibility or an aesthetic.”
What he finds “inherently very Jewish — and very American” is “the whole idea of that open door — the notion that the thing that keeps a culture or religion alive is questioning, the debate, opening it up, airing it out, exploring it, never taking it for granted.”
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review.