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Coming to Broadway this spring, a bevy of Jewish themes and writers

From Richard Rodgers’s melodic music to Arthur Miller’s tragic dramas to Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant scores, Jewish artists have been essential contributors to Broadway theater.

This year’s spring season is a testament to that legacy, with a list that includes Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning Jewish playwrights and librettists. I talked to three: Harvey Fierstein, a winner of multiple Tonys who has revised the book for the first-ever Broadway revival of “Funny Girl”; Paula Vogel, who is reexamining her Pulitzer Prize-winning play “How I Learned to Drive” for its 25th anniversary and its Broadway debut; and Richard Greenberg, whose 2003 Tony Award-winning play “Take Me Out” tells of what happens when a Major League Baseball player comes out as gay.

Harvey Fierstein.

Harvey Fierstein. Image by Getty

First premiering in 1964, “Funny Girl” tells the partly biographical story of Fanny Brice. The daughter of Hungarian Jewish immigrants, Brice rose from the tenements of the Lower East Side to show-business fame in the Ziegfeld Follies in the first decades of the 20th century — only to languish in a doomed relationship with an infamous gambler. In the original production, Brice was portrayed by Barbra Streisand, who soared to stardom from Flatbush, the then-Jewish neighborhood where she grew up. The revival’s star is Beanie Feldstein, whose movie credits include “Lady Bird” and “Booksmart.”

While critics raved about Streisand, they were much less enthusiastic about the musical’s book. “I don’t think it was ever really a classic book,” Fierstein, 67, said in a recent telephone interview. “I think they sort of gave up after Act One and just made it a Barbra Streisand concert for Act Two. It had its problems.”

So what has he done to improve things? “When you rewrite, when you reshape, when you come in like this, the idea is to not give up any of the stuff that people want to see. You’re coming in to fix something and hopefully not leave fingerprints, so that nobody really knows what it is you did.”

Asked what exactly he’s changed, Fierstein said, “I’ve restructured it somewhat, taken a song out, added a song, moved things around, but in such a way that you will get every thrill that you want from what you remember. There are things that have never been in ‘Funny Girl’ before that hopefully will be delightful.”

“It’s a terrific show, ” he said. “That score is such a fabulous score” — it includes the classic Streisand hit “People” — “and it’s a good-hearted show. It’s a heartbreaking relationship between two people who really wanted something to work out and it didn’t.”

Why has it taken so long for a Broadway revival — and why is now the right time? “The show has had its problems and nobody really felt like taking it on,” Fierstein said. “But we did. We did it in London. I rewrote the show and we put it up at the Menier Chocolate Factory where it was a huge hit. And we moved it to the Savoy Theater and then we took it on tour and then the plan was to bring it to New York. But then the pandemic hit and it delayed everything. But here we are now.”

“Funny Girl” was originally composed by Jule Styne, with the lyrics by Bob Merrill and a libretto by Isobel Lennart. The revival’s director is the Tony-winning Michael Mayer (known for “Spring Awakening”), completing the all-Jewish creative team.

Fierstein, who has won four Tony awards in four different categories, played the iconic Jewish storyteller Tevye in the 2004 revival of “Fiddler on the Roof.” His Jewish heritage, he said, shows in the way that he thinks, in the way that he writes — being Jewish “figures into it all.”

“I was born and grew up in Bensonhurst,” he said, referring to the Brooklyn neighborhood. “I lived Jew-centric, because on one corner was the Jewish Community House and on the opposite corner was the Yeshiva of Bensonhurst. The rabbi walked past my house six times a day. I grew up in a household that spoke Yiddish. My mother and her friends rolled bandages for the Israel Defense Fund in the basement and for cancer care, and there was a woman with the tattooed numbers on her arm from the Sobibor concentration camp, so I grew up with that reality of the inhumanity against the Jews.”

Sure, he’s also an atheist. But as he sees it, that has nothing to do with his Jewish identity. “I’m a very Jewish person. Somebody said to me, ‘How can you be Jewish and an atheist?’ I said, ‘I guess you’ve never really met Jews.’” He laughed. “Because if you took three rabbis and put them in a room together, one of them would be an atheist. Just so they could have a conversation. Jews have to have something to argue about. It’s just our nature.”

Paula Vogel.

Paula Vogel. Image by Getty

Paula Vogel’s “How I Learned to Drive” won a Pulitzer Prize when it premiered Off Broadway in 1997. Now the show, which explores a sexually abusive relationship between a young woman and her uncle, is making its Broadway debut with its original stars, Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse, and its original director, Mark Brokaw.

Vogel, 70, whose father was Jewish, is no stranger to Jewish themes. Her recent play “Indecent” riffed on Sholem Asch’s “God of Vengeance,” an early-20th century play about a daughter of a Jewish brothel keeper who falls in love with one of her father’s prostitutes.

Like the iconic “How I Learned to Drive,” the play frankly addresses topics that are hard to talk about. Indeed, theater theorist Jill Dolan has noted that Vogel gravitates toward “sensitive, difficult, fraught issues.” Vogel, reached by phone for an interview, agreed.

“I think that’s true of every artist,” the playwright said. “This is what theater is made for — for us as a community, to examine the fraught issues that are hurting us.”

And this, she said, is where her father’s Jewish heritage has influenced her as a playwright and as a person. “What I knew from my father’s side of the family is that all topics were ripe for conversation at the dinner table. No topic was barred. The whole purpose of having dinner was actually to have the arguments and the conversation. The food was nice too. But just this notion that if something is troubling us we need to examine it, we need to talk about it, we need to look at what our values are. And then we need to take action.”

Vogel is thrilled by this revival of “How I Learned to Drive,” noting that female playwrights rarely see their work revived during their lifetimes.

“Rather than doing this as a revival, we are doing it as a reexamination,” she said. “We’re going to get back into the room and we’re going to apply and share the insights and experiences we’ve had as artists and as human beings living in this world for the last 25 years.”

While 2022 is very different from 1997, the play’s central preoccupations will still ring true with modern audiences, Vogel said. “In a way, this is asking us to reexamine as audience members what I’m afraid never goes away, which is the use of sex as a kind of power — as an obsessional power.”

Richard Greenberg.

Richard Greenberg. Image by Getty

Richard Greenberg’s “Take Me Out” is another revival with modern themes. “When we first started talking about reviving ‘Take Me Out’ — it was several years before it happened — I thought, this is great,” Greenberg, 63, said in a telephone interview. “It will be a diagnostic or an image of how far we’ve come. And then things happened, and people started saying to me things like, ‘It’s so relevant now again.’And I thought, that’s good for me but terrible for the world.”

“I didn’t expect it to have the relationship to the present it does,” Greenberg added. “When we first did the play I thought we’d better do it quickly because there will undoubtedly be an active Major League Baseball player who comes out any minute now. And that still hasn’t happened. And the sort of fascistic trend in this country was not something I was expecting back then. And the kind of astonishing bald-faced racism.”

How has his Jewish heritage influenced his life, his writing, the way he looks at the world? “It’s probably not quantifiable, but it’s pervasive,” he said. “We were quite secular. I did have a bar mitzvah. But all of history courses through us. And my parents, my family, were absolutely Jews.”

“There was the sound of the way they talked,” he said. “They were either first- or second-generation children of immigrants. And you could hear it in the wit. You could hear it in the language. You could hear it in the constructions. You could hear it in the sprinkling of Yiddish that was supposed to keep me ignorant but didn’t, because I figured out what they were saying. The sound of the way the people I grew up with spoke has been going out of the world, and sometimes I’ve written plays just because I wanted to hear it again.”

A revival of Neil Simon’s 1968 comedy hit, “Plaza Suite,” starring husband-and-wife team Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker, will also debut this spring. In the three-act play, three couples, portrayed by Broderick and Parker, occupy the same Plaza Hotel suite at different times. John Benjamin Hickey is the director.

For Simon, who died in 2018, almost everything he wrote was implicitly, if not explicitly, Jewish. The speech patterns and rhythms, subject matter and concerns of his work were New York Jewish, as was he, so much that he once said Jewishness was “so deeply embedded in me and so inherent in me that I am unaware of its quality.”

Billy Crystal, who hails from Long Island, stars in and co-wrote the libretto for “Mr. Saturday Night,” the new musical version of Crystal’s 1992 comedy-drama film about the troubled life of a stand-up comedian. Music is by three-time Tony winner Jason Robert Brown and lyrics by Tony nominee Amanda Green.

The revival of David Mamet’s 1975 “American Buffalo,” about a junk shop, the American dream, American greed and a buffalo nickel, will star Laurence Fishburne, Sam Rockwell and Darren Criss. Mamet won a Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

These revivals all differ from their originals in one big way: They’re all premiering in a world plagued by coronavirus. Commenting on the situation, Vogel put what felt like a very Jewish emphasis on community.

“In the midst of Covid, plays need to give us a journey that’s collective,” Vogel said. “We’ve been isolated. We’ve been bearing the trauma and isolation alone. And to come together as an audience and have a common journey, where we go through the dark and enter into the light, I hope is going to be uplifting.”

“Funny Girl” begins previews March 26 and opens April 24 at the August Wilson Theater.

“How I Learned to Drive” begins previews March 29 and opens April 19 at Manhattan Theater Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theater.

“Take Me Out” begins previews March 10 and opens April 4 at Second Stage Theater’s Hayes Theater.

“Plaza Suite” begins performances February 25 at the Hudson Theater, opening March 28.

“Mr. Saturday Night” begins previews March 29 and opens April 27 at the Nederlander Theater.

“American Buffalo” begins previews March 22 and opens April 14 at Circle in the Square Theater.

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