You Won’t Succeed on Broadway if You Don’t Have Any Jews is a pithy, smart, hugely enjoyable satirical number from the Monty Python musical Spamalot. This show is none of those things, and using that song’s title as a peg on which to hang a trite and tiresome compilation of Broadway’s greatest show tunes delivered with such banality and archness is little short of criminal deception.
Narrated by an expressionless American voice-over with a script derived from a busy half-hour on Wikipedia, it claims plausibly enough that he roots of early Broadway tunes lay in prayers and folk tunes shipped over from the shtetls by émigrés from Russia and Europe at the beginning of the last century. It further suggests there’s a specifically Jewish talent for songwriting and the crafting of stage shows in Manhattan, but explains the phenomenon no better than the specifically Jewish talent for dentistry across the Hudson in New Jersey where they dominate that profession too.
It also fails to mention that Broadway’s most prolific composer lyricist and arguably the best of the bunch, Cole Porter, was an Episcopalian.
The analysis has been done much more intelligently in Michael Kantor’s 2013 TV documentary for PBS ‘Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy’ with insights from great performers like Nathan Lane, Zero Mostel and Joel Grey. Oh, and Broadway’s most enduring and successful leading lady and arguably the best of the bunch, Ethel Merman. Who was also an Episcopalian.
The performances have been done much better – well, pretty much everywhere. When you rip numbers like unborns from their narrative musical theatre contexts, you have to add value and originality in return. Here, while most of the singing is competent, it’s terminally bland and the poverty and naivety of the staging can’t be overstated.
Piling cliché upon cliché, there’s stagey eyeballing the audience, chaps resting their faux-matey elbows on each other’s shoulders like knitting patterns, naff ballet, dated choreography that points every damn word, lifeless orchestrations – who on earth puts on an evening of show tunes without a drum kit? – and a musical director who must be out of the eyeline of all the performers given the high incidence of mis-timed entries. Add in the arrogance to pick only the most well-known songs from the most well-known shows and deliver them denatured and swimming in reverb and you have the entertainment on a third-rate cruise ship, possibly the one from Voyage of the Damned.
The production comes ‘fresh’ – there’s a misnomer – from performances in Israel where even the Jerusalem Post gave it a mediocre review and recommended they ‘tone down the schmaltz factor’.
Beyond Redemption. To coin an Old Testament phrase.
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