Photo by Carol Rosegg
“Cafe Society Swing,” a new musical that opened in New York on December 21, has so many good parts it’s a shame they don’t fit together.
The play tells the story of Barney Josephson, the son of Latvian Jewish immigrants who scrapped together a few thousand bucks and, in 1938, opened a Greenwich Village nightspot he called Cafe Society. A fan of jazz, he wanted to bring downtown the music he’d seen uptown at Harlem’s Cotton Club.
But with a difference: In Harlem, the audiences were almost all white (black customers were seated in the back behind partitions) and the entertainers all black. Even legendary musicians such as Duke Ellington had to come in through the back door.
Influenced by the political cabarets of Prague and Berlin, Josephson integrated both the Cafe Society entertainers and audience. Billie Holliday, bluesman Big Joe Turner, gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, folk singer Josh White, Lena Horne and Sarah Vaughn graced the club’s stage. Jack Guilford was a long-time MC, as was Zero Mostel. Imogene Coca and Carol Channing, among others, also appeared there.
Frank Wildhorn will be appearing at 54 Below this week.
For those who don’t know, 54 Below is a supper club located essentially underneath what was Studio 54 (where all the action used to take place).
For those who don’t know Frank Wildhorn, he wrote “Where Do Broken Hearts Go,” a number one international hit for Whitney Houston.
He also is the most successful contemporary writer of musicals on Broadway. In 1999, he had three shows on the Great White Way simultaneously: “Jekyll & Hyde,” “The Scarlet Pimpernel” and “The Civil War.” His musicals are hits all over the world.
When we spoke, he had just returned from Tokyo and Seoul, where he celebrated openings and re-openings of his work. In fact, it’s estimated that some 40,000 people attend a Wildhorn musical every day of the year. Everyone, it seems, loves Wildhorn’s work.
Except the Broadway critics. Wildhorn spoke to the Forward about the lack of love he gets from them, the Jewish project he promised his dad, and how he taught himself to play an instrument.
Curt Schleier: Critics don’t like you, do they?
Daniel Cainer’s “Jewish Chronicles,” currently at the Soho Playhouse in New York, is a delightful cabaret act filled with Yiddishkeit and Yiddish-cute.
Cainer is a British Jew who grew up in an observant household, but, inexplicably, was sent to a Church of England School. (Ironically, he notes, the school later became a synagogue, proving “God has a sense of humor.”)
Cainer became a musician and composer, and admits he didn’t have “much to do with the Jewish world until recently,” when he experienced a “midlife kosher crisis.” That’s when a rabbi came to him in a dream and told him he should write a Jewish musical.
So here he is, sitting on a bare stage behind what presumably was a Yamaha electric piano, renamed a “Yamalka” for the occasion. Over his 80-minute set he sings a half dozen songs, which doesn’t sound like much. But they are not so much songs as ballads, short stories set to music, about his family and observations of life around him.
Cainer starts with a song about two tailors set to a ragtime beat — pausing only long enough to point out to the humorless that that was a joke — tailors, ragtime, get it? Would it have worked better for you if he said shmatte time?
Photo: Joan Marcus
Joel Fields had me at “Hello.”
He began our phone conversation like this:
“A quick hello and let me tell you I can’t believe I’m getting a chance to talk to someone at the Forward. It was such a big part of my childhood. My dad, who passed away in January, was a rabbi [Harvey Fields, long time head of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles]. I grew up in East Brunswick [N.J.]. We lived in Israel. We moved to Toronto where I attended the Bialik Hebrew Day School and learned Yiddish. And the Forward was always present in our lives.”
Eat your heart out, New York Times.
Fields made his bones as a television writer. He worked on “Ugly Betty” and “Rizzoli & Isles” and is currently writer and executive producer on “The Americans,” one of those hot water cooler shows on FX.
But that’s not the reason we’re talking. Along with writer David Lee (“Wings,” “Frasier”), Fields took on the daunting task of re-writing “Can-Can,” which opens October 1 at the Paper Mill Theater. The Abe Burrows-Cole Porter musical, featuring ageless songs such as “I Love Paris” and “C’est Magnifique,” was a success in both its Broadway and West End productions and spawned a Frank Sinatra movie. But subsequent revivals failed to wow audiences.
Fields spoke to his favorite paper about how this production came about, why it took more than a decade to make it to the stage, and why he doesn’t count his Broadway chickens before they hatch.
Curt Schleier: You’re a TV guy. How did come to make a musical?
Photo: Carol Rosegg
Growing up in Australia, Danny Ginges was both fascinated and fearful of the atomic bomb, and as an adult delved deeper into the story of the scientists who created the monster. The more he discovered of these men (and woman) and their top-secret Manhattan Project, the clearer it became that one name was lesser known than the others.
Ginges was working in advertising in Sydney in 2002 when he wrote a screenplay revolving around Leo Szilard, the Hungarian-American, Jewish physicist who conceived nuclear chain reaction. A decade later Ginges?s project has evolved into the big, polished, off-Broadway musical ?Atomic,? on through August 16 at Theatre Row?s Acorn Theatre.
?When I came across Szilard?s story it both engaged me and enraged me,? Ginges said. ?My anger that such an important figure should be forgotten by history is the fuel that?s driven me this far, and continues to drive me every single day. I feel very strongly that Szilard has a message for today. Fifty years after his death, it?s high time it was told.?
Oppenheimer, performed by Euan Morton, narrates the fleet-footed show that includes a surprising mix of gleeful dancing and rock music (by Philip Foxman), a daring contrast with the tragedies of the Holocaust and World War ll (cue ?Springtime for Hitler?). Book and lyrics are by Gregory Bonsignore and Ginges, who hopes ?Atomic? restarts a dialog. ?A lot of people don?t want to deal with this event, even after this much time. But it?s better not to have things locked up in a closet.?
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