While no statistics are available for this sort of thing, in all likelihood, the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s first production of its 2012-2013 season, the world premiere of a musical called Stars of David, will set the record for most Jewish-American luminaries to be featured onstage in the same play.
Based on the book, Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish, by Abigail Pogrebin, the play is a musical. It incorporates Pogrebin’s interviews of celebrities like Leonard Nimoy, Gloria Steinem, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Mike Wallace into the narrative of Nancy, a journalist (based on Pogrebin herself, who, in addition to being an author and a former producer for 60 Minutes, has written for Newsweek, New York, Huffington Post and other publications) who decides to interview well-known Jewish Americans to find out how being Jewish has contributed to their lives and successes.
In addition to doing this for research into the book she is writing, Nancy is also trying to change her relationship with her daughter, says PTC’s producing artistic director, Sara Garonzik. “Nancy never got Bat Mitzvahed, she’s doesn’t go to synagogue, but her daughter, seemingly out of left field, decides she wants to be a Bat Mitzvah, to investigate her Jewishness; she wants to have a sense of belonging.” Through the course of the play, Garonzik adds, “Nancy and her daughter reach an understanding and Nancy arrives in a new place about faith.”
A sound premise for a play, to be sure, but how did Stars of David make the very long leap from an interview compilation to a narrative musical?
Pogrebin vividly remembers her own skepticism when she was approached by longtime friend and Broadway producer, Aaron Harnick.
“He had read my book and said that this could be a musical,” she recalled. “The more we talked about it, the more it made sense to me. These are stories that were very personal and very varied — they weren’t the same story over and over again. They were very dramatic: memories of their parents in synagogue, of going to Israel for the first time, the decision to intermarry, whether their children had a Jewish identity — all those things are really emotional moments. And they did translate to music.”
Garonzik describes the “unique format” of the play as “a song cycle based on interviews.” To achieve that end, the relatively large production team, led by director Gordon Greenberg, enlisted multiple composers and lyricists to create the show’s songs. Pogrebin herself wrote the lyrics to the songs for Ginsburg and author/editor Ruth Reichl.
“A normal new musical has three, maybe four creators, maximum,” Greenberg explains. “We have 25. There are 16 different songs, each with a composer and a lyricist, most of them written with different teams. There’s Abby, who wrote the original source material, there’s Charles Busch, who’s adapting the book, there are our producers, there’s Sara at PTC, there’s Carrie Chapter, our dramaturg at PTC, and there’s all of our subjects — many of whom want a say in how they’re portrayed. Really, there’s more than 25 people. It’s a village!” Among those who worked on the score: William Finn, Tom Kitt, the late Marvin Hamlisch, Sheldon Harnick, Marc Shaiman, Duncan Sheik and Chestnut Hill’s own Michael Friedman.
Greenberg, whose role he describes essentially to “be the hub of this giant wheel with all of these spokes,” says that, thanks in part to his acting experience, he is well-suited to direct Stars of David.
“A huge amount of what I know about Jewish identity comes from the plays I was in — many Neil Simon and Herb Gardner plays.” He believes there is a universal appeal to the play that goes beyond the curiosity factor of seeing Jewish celebrities portrayed singing onstage, and beyond appealing to a primarily Jewish audience.
“I think it’s an incredibly relevant subject for people of all cultural and religious backgrounds,” says Greenberg, one of the most acclaimed and in-demand directors working today (in addition to helming Stars of David, he is working on six other productions, including a Disney Channel musical and a West End revival of Guys and Dolls).
“The idea of religion in the world today is not very hip, and not very chic to talk about or think about. I think that looking at all of these well-known personalities and how they navigate the spiritual landscape of the world — to me, it’s an emotional, intellectual and spiritual inspiration.”
He’s not alone. Garonzik says that working on the play has caused her to re-examine her own Jewishness. And Pogrebin, who, prior to working on the book that became the play’s source material, was as unaffiliated and detached from Judaism as the play’s central character, now serves on the board of her New York synagogue and even hosts a monthly Torah study group in her home.
And while there is no guarantee that area synagogue rolls will swell post-performance, who could pass up the opportunity to not only watch a production that has such a distinctive take on what it means to be Jewish in America, but to walk out of the theater singing the words of “Smart People,” featuring the hyper-loquacious stylings of Aaron Sorkin?
Stars of David begins previews on Oct. 17 and runs through Nov. 18. For more information or to order tickets, go to philadelphiatheatrecompany.org or call 215-985-0420.