On Monday night, the stars of Broadway and Hollywood crammed into one midtown New York theater to headline a benefit concert for Hillary Clinton. Predictably enough, many Jews ended up in the show, from Joel Grey of “Cabret and “Chicago” fame, to Matthew Broderick of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” to the queen herself, Barbra Streisand. In between American classics from Broadway and elsewhere, master of ceremonies Billy Crystal managed to sneak in some great wisecracks.
Here are five of the best.
1. He’s a Loser
Donald Trump is notoriously sensitive about the size of his fortune, and he’s even sued people who question his billionaire status. Crystal went in for his mark. “Our goal tonight is simple: we need to raise more money than Donald Trump lost in 1995.” he said to the crowd, mocking the Republican’s record billion dollar loss that year. He also made a pun on the show “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” rechristening it in Trump’s honor “How to Succeed in Business Without Paying Your Taxes and Filing for Bankruptcy.”
2. Tomorrow Belongs to Him?
Since Trump’s rise, Nazi comparisons have become commonplace. Crystal riffed on that as Grey was about to launch into “Wilkommen,” a song from “Cabaret.” He said that the musical “is set in Germany in the late ‘30’s — or as Trump and Pence call it: ‘the good ol’ days.’”
3. He’s A Whiner
Trump is known to hate on anyone he perceives as an enemy, taking to his Twitter soapbox to savage them. Crystal mocked that tendency on Monday night. Crystal slammed Trump’s repeated threats to sue media outlets over less than flattering stories about him. “At one point Trump was the boy who cried Wolff Blitzer,” he said, referring to the CNN anchor.
4. He’s No Jack Kennedy
Crystal labeled Trump the anti-JFK, reversing the famous line from the 35th president’s inauguration, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what the country can do for me.”
5. “Because I’m a Star”
Crystal told the audience his badmouthing of Trump shouldn’t be looked down upon, citing Trump’s own excuse for sexual assaulting women. “I can say whatever I want, because I’m a star,” he said gamely.
(JTA) — Historian Ron Chernow has written successful biographies of the likes of J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller and George Washington.
So it’s fair to say that at this point in his career, the Alexander Hamilton biographer knows the drill: There’s the author tour, the positive reviews, the making of the best-seller lists. There are scads of awards, including a Pulitzer, a National Book Award and the American History Book prize.
But the transformation of his book into a hit Broadway musical? Not so much.
Yet that’s exactly what happened to his tome about the nation’s first secretary of the Treasury.
“I never imagined that Hamilton would be turned into a musical, much less a hip-hop musical,” Chernow said in a telephone conversation with JTA. “I think I can safely say that that’s the last thing I would have expected.”
Nevertheless, the hottest ticket on Broadway today is “Hamilton,” which received rapturous reviews and has played to full houses since it opened last month.
The musical is the brainchild of Lin-Manuel Miranda, one of the brightest young lights on the Great White Way. Miranda’s first Broadway show, 2008’s “In the Heights,” was nominated for 13 Tony Awards, winning four, including for best musical and best score. It was a seemingly unlikely hit about growing up in the largely Dominican Washington Heights section of Manhattan.
But it certainly was no more unlikely than hip-hop Hamilton. “Through a mutual friend, I learned that he’d read the book,” Chernow said of Miranda. “He was still starring in ‘In the Heights’ at the time, and I attended a matinee. I went back stage afterwards and met Lin.
“He told me as he was reading the book, hip-hop lyrics started rising off the page. I was completely astonished by his response.”
Miranda assured him that he was serious.
“He made a complete believer out of me,” Chernow said. “The story of Alexander Hamilton lends itself to hip-hop treatment. Hamilton’s personality is driven and unrelenting, and the music has that same quality. The music and the man mirror each other.”
Miranda purchased theatrical rights to the book and signed on Chernow as historical consultant.
“He wanted me to tell him when something was wrong,” Chernow said. “He said, ‘I want historians to take this seriously.’”
There were very few instances where Chernow intervened; most were related to dramatic license to condense Hamilton’s life story into a manageable two-and-a-half hours. So, for example, characters Hamilton met over many years in real life meet during the same scene in the play.
“A lot of people might have started off with the unspoken assumption that history is boring — Lin-Manuel Miranda felt exactly the opposite,” Chernow said. “He felt the most dramatic way to tell the story was to stick to the facts. He felt the story was so sensational you couldn’t improve on it.”
Still, Chernow admits he was a little taken aback the first time he attended a rehearsal — the cast was made up almost exclusively of people of color. But he soon decided the casting was “a stroke of genius,” he said.
“The actors had a special feel for the material, in addition to being very talented. From the moment the cast walks out, it immediately shakes your preconceptions about the Founding Fathers,” Chernow said.
“Conversely, that sense of excitement is felt by the actors, who never thought they’d have a chance to play George Washington or James Madison. This show is not only theatrical, [it’s] a cultural and political phenomenon, showing us who we are as a country now and at the same time showing us what it was then. Black and Latino performers suit a story about young outsiders who created this country, including an estimate that 5 percent of Washington’s army was made up of free blacks.”
The casting is appropriate, too, in the sense that there is a sizable revisionist movement when it comes to the Founding Fathers. Hamilton, who was an abolitionist, is on the rise, while Jefferson is on the decline, in part because he was an unrepentant slave owner.
READ: Shlomo Carlebach’s life comes to a Broadway stage
“I started the book in 1998. I felt Hamilton was largely overlooked and, among the Founding Fathers, the one most demonized,” Chernow said. “Jefferson was considered the pure and virtuous tribune of the common people and Hamilton was the stooge of the plutocrats.
“Jefferson’s vision for the country was of small towns and traditional agriculture,” he added. “Hamilton thought in terms of a stock exchange and factories and large cities, which is pretty much the way it turned out. Hamilton would feel much more at home today than Jefferson.”
A lifelong theatergoer, Chernow previously had a preference for dramas.
“One of the things that’s come out of this experience that’s very pleasant is a greater understanding and respect for musicals as an art form,” he said.
Christopher Jackson as George Washington in “Hamilton.” (Joan Marcus) Christopher Jackson as George Washington in “Hamilton.” (Joan Marcus) His taste in music, which previously ran from classical to jazz to the American songbook, may have changed as well. He’s become a fan of rap — or, at least, an admirer of Miranda’s “rhymed couplets that very much reminded me of Cole Porter.”
Chernow points out that in addition to a hip-hop persona, Hamilton had several Jewish connections: His mother’s husband, Johann Michael Lavien — when Hamilton himself wrote the name, he spelled it the more traditional “Levine” — was likely Jewish.
She left him in St. Croix, met James Hamilton in St. Kitts, and the two moved to Nevis, where Alexander was born out of wedlock.
As a result, he could not be educated in church schools.
“Largely self-taught, he had little formal schooling but received individual tutoring” at a school run by a Jewish headmistress, Chernow said. At one point he could recite the Ten Commandments in Hebrew.
“Perhaps because of this exposure,” Chernow suggests, Hamilton had a particular “reverence for Jews,” he said, speaking from his home office in Brooklyn, a copy of his biography at hand. He leafs through his book to find several examples, including one from a trial, where Hamilton said, “Why distrust the evidence of the Jews? Discredit them and you destroy the Christian religion.”
For the record, Chernow — who grew up in an “overwhelmingly Jewish middle-class area” of Forest Hills, Queens — cannot recite the Decalogue in Hebrew.
“I have in recent years not been observant, but have a strong sense of Jewish cultural identity,” he said.
Chernow is currently working on a biography of Ulysses S. Grant, but things have changed.
“Ever since Hamilton, there’s been more interest expressed in all my other books, if only because my visibility is greater than before the show,” he said. “Some of the interest is pretty dramatic.”
No matter what the future holds, “Hamilton” is something special.
“In all likelihood,” Chernow said, “this is my last hip-hop musical.”
I never expected to hear Yiddish in the lobby of the Richard Rodgers Theatre for “Hamilton, the hip hop mega hit musical.
“Do you know how to get to your seat?” asked the feisty petite, blonde senior veteran usher who had just told a theatergoer “We’re all mamelige,” a reference to corn meal mush and a dish made famous in the Yiddish song “Rumania! Rumania!”
When I told Frances Eppy I was with the Forward, she exclaimed: “I’m on East Broadway!” [a few blocks from the paper’s historic 175 East Broadway address] and rattled off a roster of landmarks — “The Amalgamated, Educational Alliance” — then introduced me to house manager Mr. Tim noting, “He’s a gute neshome [a good soul].” Alluding to the number of adults with children in tow, Eppy said: “They should teach American history like this.” As she directed us to our aisle, I spotted “Star Trek”’s “Sulu,” George Takai, with whom I reminisced about his co-star and my cousin the late Leonard Nimoy.
To borrow a quote from the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” This is without doubt an extraordinarily exhilarating production with book, music, and lyrics by (and starring as Hamilton) Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Sitting in the second row and able to see the sweat on the brows of the athletically energetic cast, I felt as though watching the reshuffling of the Founding Father’s deck and the Ace that rightfully lands on top is Alexander Hamilton — an illegitimate son and poor immigrant, who was born on the Island of Nevis and who as a child on the island was taught by a Jewish woman and could recite the Ten Commandments in Hebrew!
The multi-ethnic ensemble is superb! The costuming is lavish and the hip hop patter is clear as a bell. Though familiar with the Aaron Burr character — brilliantly portrayed by Leslie Odom Jr. — thanks to Anya Seton’s novel “My Theodosia,” about his love for his daughter, Odom’s envy and distaste for Hamilton simmers with acid. Lafayette and Jefferson — as portrayed by Daveed Diggs — add both elegant swagger and comedic content to the production. And then there are the women in Hamilton’s life: his wife Eliza, portrayed with emotional heft by the beautiful Phillipa Soo, and his emotion-charged sister in-law Angelica, played by Renee Elise Goldsberry.
But when it comes to out and out tongue-in-cheek comic relief there’s Jonathan Groff’s delightful impersonation of ermine-caped, bejeweled, crowned, scepter-in-hand King George III, which had the audience roaring.
Yet the heart and soul of this groundbreaking, stellar production is that of Miranda, who inhabits Hamilton with a passion and level and energy that leaves you breathless. By the end of this musical gem, you thank Providence, for gutsy, persistent genius Hamilton. Good luck getting tickets. And let’s hear it for keeping Alexander Hamilton on U.S. ten dollar bill!
“I’ve always been in love with dance and always will be,” honoree Joel Grey told the audience at the 33rd Annual Fred & Adele Astaire Awards 2015 held at NYU Skirball Center of the Performing Arts. Recipient of the Douglas Watt Lifetime Achievement Award, Grey lauded a roster of Broadway choreographers noting: “My life was in their hands—especially Bob Fosse—for helping me in my career.”
As it happens, the first Astaire Awards gala I attended in October 1986 at the Plaza, honored Bob Fosse and the award presenter was a stunning Ginger Rogers in a peach organza “Gone With the Wind” genre gown who was miffed that groups of people wanted a photo with her. Hands on hips, she exclaimed: “Isn’t anyone going to take a photo of just me!” Fosse graciously posed with “ just” her.
Jennifer Grey, teary-eyed daughter, actress and award presenter, recalled sitting in the dressing room as a six-year old watching her father put on his face makeup to become ‘The Emcee” [in” Cabaret”]. “This world is just markedly better for him being here.”
Describing his ”rough” path to dance, Joel Grey shared childhood memories such as his dance teacher yelling at him, his first paid performance in a Jones Beach Dance show and, after nearly giving up, Hal Prince giving him the call for a show “he thought he’d be good for,” otherwise known as “Cabaret.”
In her introduction of film mogul Harvey Weinstein, recipient of the “Outstanding Achievement in Musical Theater and Film” Award, presenter Tovah Feldshuh touted his commitment to dance in his movies despite not being “a guy who started at the ballet bar… There’s a reason why Harvey Weinstein is thanked more than God,” said Tovah. “He believes in us, he believes in artists.”
Following a rendition of “Neverland” from the musical “Finding Neverland,” which he produces, and a video tribute of dance sequences from his movies — including “Shakespeare in Love” and “Pulp Fiction,” — “Finding Neverland” choreographer and award nominee Mia Michaels presented the award to Weinstein telling him: “Harvey, you make the world and the arts a better place.”
Weinstein informed that [though] “Finding Neverland” was not nominated for any Tony Awards “it makes $1 million per week.” He urged: “We need new voices on Broadway. We need new guys like me on Broadway.” Weinstein recalled that while in film school he got his first introduction to dance when his then girlfriend dragged him to see the musical “Chicago” and was mystified by the choreography of Bob Fosse. “I told my girlfriend, I’m going to make that into a movie.”
A number of years ago Harvey Weinstein’s brother Bob Weinstein commissioned Karen—this column’s photographer/illustrator— to produce a large poster featuring caricature illustrations of all the Miramax films’ stars which Bob then flew to L.A. and presented as a gift to Harvey at that year’s Academy Awards.
Astaire Award Honorary chairs wereDavid Schiff, Jean Shafiroff, Countess Luann DeLesseps, and Wendy Federman. Leading a roster of name guests, award presenters and recipients were Patricia Watt Executive Director of the Awards and Jessica Zippin, Executive Director of the Douglass Watt Family Fund for the Performing Arts.”
The magic of Broadway is far more than the amazing casts’ ability to do it — and do it right — eight times a week.
The magic is the ability to stage something original (or sometimes translate it from film) that speaks to a broad audience. That touches their hearts. And, sometimes, tells a story that is both completely foreign and altogether familiar.
The Jewish-American role in that magic is well-documented and it was on fine display in the 2015 Tony Awards on CBS Sunday night. Just look at the late talents behind this year’s amazing musical revivals, like Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town and Best Revival of a Musical winner, The King and I (Richard Rodgers).
Actress and playwright Lisa Kron, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor — her dad’s parents were killed in Chelmno — took her place in that narrative with two top Tonys, one of them a historic win, for a story that bills itself as a new kind of American musical.
If you’ve not heard of it yet, you have now. It’s this year’s Tony-winning Best Musical called Fun Home.
Its themes couldn’t be more timely in this year of tragic stories of the struggles of gay and transgender youth and the triumphant coming out of actor Joel Grey as a gay man, and Olympic champion Bruce Jenner as a trans woman, Caitlyn.
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