Jews & Musical Theatre

Jews had a hand in writing nearly all the great musicals of the 1930s and '40s.

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There were Jewish jazz musician-composers--like Benny Goodman, Mel Torme, and Artie Shaw--who played with black musicians and who consciously aimed to develop, not debase, jazz forms. They did not seek to transpose the complexities of jazz into catchy show tunes. Certainly, they did not appear on stage with blacked-up faces, repeating the parodied ges­tures of the stage "coon."

George Gershwin

Towering over all the other Jewish composers of Tin Pan Alley stands the figure of George Gershwin. Not only could he write a hit tune and turn out perfectly crafted songs for shows, but he wrote longer orchestrated pieces which bridged the gap between high and popular culture. He combined the traditions of European classical music with pop, jazz, and blues. Rhapsody in Blue is a classic case in point. It is neither a symphony nor is it jazz in a nar­row sense. Nor is it an overture to a musical. It combines different musical forms to create something new.

In doing this, Gershwin was representing the position of the immigrant, wide-eyed and open-eared in the newly adopted lands. As Jeffrey Melnick claims, it is no coinci­dence that it was a Jew who tried to forge unity from such musical diversity, in order to synthesize a new American music. A Jew, such as Gershwin, did not want to remain stuck in the confines of tradition but was eager to embrace new musical influences. He had no hesitation--no restricting prejudices--against celebrating the art of black Americans. In fact, Gershwin grew up in Harlem and from an early age he was fascinated by the music he could hear on the streets. Later, with his brother Ira, George would visit the music cafes and get to know local black musicians and composers, such as Willie "the Lion" Smith and James P. Johnson.

In Gershwin's musical synthesis, Jewish music was not to the fore. Some claim that echoes of klezmer music can be heard in the famous opening bars of Rhapsody in Blue. Tellingly, this echo is soon swamped in the main piece by modern rhythms. Gershwin had made plans to write a musical version of the old Yiddish folktale, The Dybbuk. Significantly, nothing came of this. Porgy and Bess, deal­ing with black characters in the Deep South, emerged instead. George and Ira collaborated with DuBose Heyward to turn the latter's novel into a musical. Thankfully nothing came of an earlier plan to commission Hammer­stein and Kern to write the score and then to use Al Jol­son in the main role, complete with blackface.

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Michael Billig

Michael Billig is professor of social sciences at Loughborough University.