Offstage, a production assistant unpacked plates of pickles and cold cuts from New York’s famed Katz’s Delicatessen. Onstage, a singer clad in sparkling, billowing pants and a bright pink hair bow adopted a cockney accent and belted out an unlikely Broadway rouser: “Who’s That Geezer Hitler?”
On this Monday morning, holed up in a low-ceilinged studio high above 8th Avenue, the cast and crew of “From Moses to Mostel” rehearsed with (ahem) relish.
“From Moses to Mostel,” which will be performed at Manhattan’s Town Hall this Saturday, February 27th, is not for the faint of eardrum. A revue of Jewish history, narrated by a wisecracking Robert Klein, it’s a jazzed- and klezmered-up whirl through the history of musicals about Jews. While shows like “The Producers,” “Cabaret,” and “The Sound of Music” have proven to be Broadway evergreens, many of their less astutely contemporary fellows — here’s looking at you, Val Kilmer-headlined musical adaptation of “The Ten Commandments” — have been forgotten for a reason. In the hands of music director Frank London, and tied together with a script by Glen Berger, bits and pieces of that forgotten repertoire are making their noisy way back to life.
The idea behind “From Moses to Mostel” emerged from a collaboration between London and Town Hall artistic director M.A. Papper. The Town Hall wanted to produce a Jewish Broadway revue, and London and Papper wanted to give it a meaningful structure. Interested in having that structure be a retelling of Jewish history, London started looking into how comprehensively Jewish-composed musical theater would be able to tell that story.
“For every important event there was something,” he said, although he ruefully admitted that “not all of them are very good.”
The process gave London a newfound appreciation for the strength of the impulse to tell stories in the Jewish people.
“We are particularly adept at transforming our history, including the most tragic, complicated events of it, into theater,” he said.
Jews definitely have a storytelling inclination, Klein agreed, especially if the story can be made humorous.
“We’re overrepresented in comedy and psychiatry,” he noted, “and underrepresented as blacksmiths and priests.”
That brand of sardonic, throw-in-the-towel humor is well reflected in the show’s premise: Robert Klein, hosting a charity benefit, is warming up the audience when he gets interrupted by a phone call from God, who politely requests the comedian inform the rest of humanity that their time is up. It turns out human existence was a prolonged audition for a play God is directing, and another planet’s denizens have snagged the part.
Klein, in a madcap bid to avert humanity’s imminent destruction, recaps the trials and achievements of the species — well, at least, its Jewish component — aided by a small chorus of singers. While many of the numbers energetically reflect Klein’s quest to save humanity (including the aforementioned “Who’s that Geezer Hitler”) a few showcase the peculiar value of world-weary Jewish humor; harassing God over his treatment of Job, Klein complains his way into “He’s Not a Well Man” from “I Can Get it for You Wholesale.”
Moments in which the script and music veer from the classic, showy Broadway spectacle to more idiosyncratic songs and themes help “From Moses to Mostel” avoid the trap of shallowness and redundancy risked by most musical revues. Ultimately, the performance is still a highlight reel, and achieving great depths of thought and feeling is neither its purpose nor its result, but the way in which it makes room for the drearier bits of Jewish history, and the drearier bits of Jewish culture, makes it feel genuine.
“From Moses to Mostel” is enthusiastic, wry, a bit disorganized, self-conscious – intentionally and otherwise — and (need I say it again?) very, very loud. Sounds Jewish to me.
Contact Talya Zax at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @TalyaZax.