New journal celebrates the diversity and depth of American Jewish songwriters – Twin Cities
What do “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”, “Over the Rainbow”, “Piano Man”, “Send in the Clowns” and “Da Doo Ron Ron” have in common? They were written by American Jewish composers.
The Minnesota Jewish Theater Company pays homage to this rich songwriting tradition with the new magazine “Promise of America: A Celebration of Jewish American Song”. Virtual production will begin at 8 p.m. on February 13, with additional online screenings through February 21. Tickets are $ 15 via mnjewishtheatre.org.
Planning the MJTC season in the midst of a pandemic, artistic director and production founder Barbara Brooks had to get creative.
“I wanted to keep the audience engaged,” Brooks said. “People are so isolated right now that it’s hard to have that sense of community and joy. I thought about what we could do that might make sense in isolation. Music has always been a big part of my life, why not do something about it?
Brooks turned to Kevin Dutcher, a regular at MJTC, a musician who teaches at Horace Mann Elementary School in St. Paul, to come up with a list of possible songs for the review.
“The first list was four pages long,” Dutcher said with a laugh. “I decided to limit ourselves to mostly familiar songs and mostly familiar artists, but maybe their less familiar works. And then also expose the public to new things.
Dutcher eventually narrowed the list down to around 50 songs and he and Brooks went back and forth to condense the lineup to the 27 songs that made the final cut. (He was adamant about getting a Lou Reed number into the mix and kept adding Reed’s classic Velvet Underground “I’ll Be Your Mirror” when Brooks wanted to drop it.)
“It got to a point where it was a nice cross section,” he said. “It’s a celebration of the start of a conversation about American Jewish songwriters.”
The selections range from “My Yiddishe Momme” to the vaudeville era – “it reflects so much the Jewish experience and comes to terms with what assimilation meant,” Brooks said – to Broadway, rock and pop contemporaries. They even worked on a song by Nissim Black, an Orthodox Jewish rapper.
One thing surprised Dutcher during the process. “I never really thought about it, but the vast majority of classic Broadway standards and songs were written by American Jews,” he said. “Almost all of them. It really blew me away. We could do 10 highlight shows out of them.
It also involved some tough choices, Brooks said. “There were some composers – Sondheim, Bernstein – where it was really hard to pick just one song.”
Why did the Jewish people in particular write so many American classics?
“I obviously can’t say for sure,” Brooks said. “I think for many Jewish families music, culture and education have always been very important. Maybe as these individuals grew older they were surrounded by culture. “
Brooks asked playwright Jo Holcomb to write the book. “We thought we could do a music review that had a story,” Holcomb said. “But it turned out that we couldn’t do that, we couldn’t have actors on stage at the same time.”
Instead, Holcomb ended up writing something more akin to a documentary, with actors presenting each song with information about the composer and his life. “They talk about the evolution of some composers and how they included their heritage in what they wrote,” said Holcomb. “In a way he does (tells a story), but not as much as we initially hoped.
“I was surprised by the extent of the music. I think Bernstein embodied that the most. He had this range from popular to classical, from symphonies to “West Side Story”. “
A cast of three actors recorded their parts remotely and Dutcher, along with local musician Al Church, provided the music. “I think Kevin did a great job organizing and finding ways that could accommodate three voices,” said Brooks.
While “Promise of America” was written specifically for the pandemic, Holcomb said she would like to see it staged again in a post-pandemic world.
“I would love to see it done in full production mode, with actors able to share the stage,” she said. “He has great potential.