Jews of note: Jewish contributions to the classic American songbook

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

No one can deny the enormous, multi-decade contributions that Jews have made to American musical theater and the classic American songbook.

On the topic of Jews in Music, Darryl Lyman’s book “Great Jews in Music”  (Jonathan David Publishers, Inc., $24.95) is one of the best resources available.  Lyman notes that many Jews who became titans in popular American music descended from the klezmer tradition. 

“Whereas for many centuries a Jewish musician was basically either a cantor or klezmer (an entertainment instrumentalist, often itinerant and usually poor, who specialized in playing at weddings and other celebrations), after the gates of the ghettos were thrown open many Jews emerged to display their musical talents.” Lyman writes. “Those from cantorial backgrounds tended to become singers, conductors, or musicologists while those who inherited the klezmer tradition tended to become instrumentalists and composers of popular music.”

What follows is a sampling of some of the top American Jewish musical playwrights and composers of the 20th and 21st centuries.

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Irving Berlin (1888-1989)

Perhaps no other popular song composer more aptly symbolizes the universal impact of his work on American culture than Irving Berlin. For decades at this time of the year, Americans have heard “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” by such crooners as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra or Michael Bublé without realizing that it was written by Berlin, an East European Jew. Born Israel Balin in Russia. Berlin’s “God Bless America” was sung so powerfully and movingly by the late Kate Smith that many suggested it should replace “The Star Spangled Banner” as our national anthem. Described by Lyman as “America’s most successful popular song composer,” Berlin, a veteran of World War I, also wrote the popular classic “Always” (when he was in his 90s, Berlin refused to let Steven Spielberg use the song for a movie of the same title).  Among his specifically Jewish works is the Jazz Age song “Cohen Owes Me Five Dollars” and “Israel,” composed in 1959. Certainly American musical theater would be bleak indeed if it had not been for the works of Irving Berlin.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

During his long and productive career, Leonard Bernstein (described by Lyman as “the preeminent musical personality in the world”) achieved greatness not only as a composer but also as a conductor. Born of Russian Jewish immigrants in Lawrence, Mass., Bernstein showed a precocious interest in music as a small child. But his hard-headed businessman father strongly opposed his genius son’s total absorption in music, worrying that his son would become a klezmer musician rather than earning a decent living in a more solid profession. Bernstein soldiered on, eventually going to Harvard, where he was mentored by prominent musical figures, including Aaron Copland, at the time America’s leading composer. Always torn between his love of conducting and his creative impulse to compose, Bernstein managed to balance the two with his total focus on his musical work. His conducting included the New York Philharmonic, the New York City Symphony Orchestra, and he also guest conducted at the New York Metropolitan Opera, the Vienna State Orchestra and La Scala in Milan. After the 1967 Six-Day War, Bernstein conducted an historic concert on Mount Scopus on the northeastern side of Jerusalem. In the realm of popular musical theater, Bernstein is best known for “West Side Story” on which he collaborated with Stephen Sondheim, and which includes such songs as “I Feel Pretty,” “Maria” and “Tonight.”

Mel Brooks (1926 – )

Until relatively recently, Mel Brooks might not have been included among influential figures in American musical theater.  Brooks, who was born in New York City (and whose original name was Melvin Kaminsky), was best known as part of the legendary comedy writing team for television’s”Your Show of Shows,” working with comedy giants like Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart and his close friend Carl Reiner in preparing scripts for Sid Caesar, the show’s superstar. Brooks would move from the small screen of early TV to fea

ture films, producing and directing some of the funniest and most enduring comedy films of all time (“The Producers,”  “The Twelve Chairs,” “Blazing Saddles,”  “Silent Movie,” “Young Frankenstein” and “High Anxiety”). When Brooks re-worked “The Producers” for the Broadway stage, few theater buffs thought it would become the total smash hit of 2001, winning a then-record total of 12 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Original Score and Best Book. Brooks was the writer with Thomas Meehan serving as composer and lyricist. A few years later, Brooks and his team adapted “Young Frankenstein” to the Broadway stage, which after a slower start than “The Producers” went on to a successful run.

George Gershwin (1898-1937) 

and Ira Gershwin (1896-1983)

“I like a Gershwin tune — how about you?” goes the familiar pop lyric, and who doesn’t like a Gershwin tune? George Gerhwin and his brother Ira Gershwin are the Tin Pan Alley Jazz Age geniuses whose contributions to the canon of American popular music and musical theater cannot be overstated. Lyman describes George Gershwin as “one of the most naturally gifted of all American composers, was an enormously successful commercial song writer who eventually became known for his use of popular and jazz elements in serious symphonic works.” Born in Brooklyn, George’s birth certificate listed his name as “Jacob Gershwine,” while his father’s original name was Moishe Gershovitz. He adopted the Americanized name of Morris Gershwin. After learning piano on an upright instrument his family bought in 1910, Gershwin was hired as a pianist at Remick’s, a popular summer resort in the Catskill Mountains.  He later became involved composing for shows presented by the Yiddish theater circuit in New York. From there he moved on to Tin Pan Alley, where he met such composers as Irving Berlin, Victor Herbert and his idol, Jerome Kern. His big break occurred in 1919, when he composed the complete musical score for the Broadway musical comedy “La, La, Lucille.”  He later wrote “Swanee,” which took off when popularized by Al Jolson, the first Jewish American singer-superstar. Gershwin became even more famous for his 1924 masterpiece “Rhapsody in Blue,” which he wrote at the request of band leader Paul Whiteman. He later collaborated with his brother Ira on the immortal and frequently revived “Porgy and Bess,” which some have described as the first authentically American opera. The Gershwin Brothers repertoire of immortal show tunes includes “Fascinating Rhythm” and “S’wonderful.”  Their 1930 musical “Girl Crazy” introduced Ethel Merman to the stage with the hit song “I Got Rhythm.”  The well-known “Embraceable You” was in the same show. In 1937, George Gershwin began to experience severe headaches and dizzy spells, symptoms of a brain tumor, which would cause his untimely death in 1937, at age 38.

Jerome Kern (1885-1945)

No compendium of major Jewish figures in American musical theater would be complete without Jerome Kern, described by Lyman as the “father of modern American theater music.”  Kern’s mother had a major influence on his musical growth, giving him piano lessons in his early youth and taking him to his first Broadway musical as a 10th birthday present.  Kern was born in New York City but in 1897, his family moved to Newark, N.J., where at Newark High School he was called on to play the piano and organ at school assemblies. The next year, Kern wrote the score for a musical staged by the Newark Yacht Club.  He then dropped out of high school to devote himself exclusively to building a career in music. He took a major step by studying music in Germany, where he studied in a small town near Heidelberg. His beloved mother died on Dec. 31, 1907, causing Kern to decline any invitations to New Year events for the rest of his life. While on a trip to England, Kern met and fell in love with Eva Leale, owner of the pub-hotel in which he was staying. Eva proved to be his muse, inspiring him to write  “How’d You Like to Spoon With Me?” which was one of his early hits.  His Broadway repertoire included major hits as “Show Boat,” which included the immortal song “Ol’ Man River” and “Roberta.” He collaborated with Oscar Hammerstein II on “Show Boat” and “Sweet Adeleine.”  

Marvin Hamlisch (1944-2012)

Marvin Hamlisch, a musical child prodigy, was not only multi-talented like Leonard Bernstein and the Gershwin brothers, but also extremely generous with his talent and resources and exceptionally kind and compassionate. Throughout his long career, which began when he was “just a kid” by Broadway standards, Hamlisch always seemed like the Boy Wonder of the Great White Way. His millions of fans were shocked in August 2012, when he died suddenly in Los Angeles of anoxic brain encephalopathy at age 65. Born in New York City to doting Jewish parents, Hamlisch’s career earned him four Grammy Awards, three Oscars, three Golden Globes, three Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for “A Chorus Line.” He was one of only nine artists to have won all four of the major entertainment award in addition to a fifth, the Pulitzer.  He was not surprisingly elected to the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Hamlisch’s early collaborator in music was with Howard Liebling; their pop song “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows” (recorded by Lesley Gore) became a top 20 hit in 1965, when Hamlisch was only 21. In 1976, when he won a Tony Award for “A Chorus Line,” he also was a co-producer of “The Entertainer.” Though trained at Juillard to be a classical concert pianist, Hamlisch was always drawn to the Broadway and Hollywood scenes.  In addition to “A Chorus Line,” Hamlisch won acclaim for his work with Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford on “The Way We Were.” During his too-short life, Hamlisch not only produced life-enhancing work, but also loved every minute of his life before he was stricken.  

Alan J. Lerner (1980-1986) and Frederick Loewe (1901-1988)

Lerner and Loewe go together like the Gershwin Brothers, Rodgers and Hart and Rodgers and Hammerstein.   Between the lyricist Alan J. Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe, the duo produced such classic hits as “Guys and Dolls,” Where’s Charlie?” “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” “My Fair Lady,” “Gigi” and “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.”  Each of these Broadway smash hits are still popular in revivals and contain memorable show tunes in the top tier of popular American musical theater artistry.  Their most successful collaboration was “My Fair Lady,” which includes such songs as “I Could Have Danced All Night,” and “On the Street Where You Live.”

Richard Rodgers (1902-1979)

Lorenz Hart (1895-1943)

Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1969)

Just as Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe are linked together in popular music, so too is Richard Rodgers, with his two long-time collaborators, Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II.  Composer Rodgers was born in Long Island, N.Y.  His parents loved the musical theater and at home they often sang songs from Broadway shows. As a toddler, he discovered that he could accurately reproduce the melodies on the piano.  Formal piano lessons were not successful, since he was so accomplished at playing by ear. Rodgers began to improvise his own melodies at the piano at the age of nine. In 1917, his older brother, Morty Lerner, a student at Columbia University, took him to the university’s annual Varsity Show. When Rodgers expressed admiration for the show’s lyrics, Morty introduced him to the lyricist, the prelaw student Oscar Hammerstein II. Years later, after successfully collaborating with Lorenz Hart on a number of major Broadway hits, Rodgers was to team up with Hammerstein for even more mega-hits. Rodgers took up with Hart after he left Columbia. They worked on “The Melody Man” in 1924, but their first big hit was “The Garrick Gaieties,” performed in 1925. Among their later successes was “A Connecticut Yankee,” which featured such songs as “With a Song in My Heart” and  “Sprint is Here.”  Their 1937 show “Babes in Arms” included such songs as “The Lady is a Tramp” and “My Funny Valentine.”  Sadly, Hart’s excessive drinking caused a rift in the team, and caused Rodgers to link up with Hammerstein, and their first show was a smash, “Oklahoma,” which was followed by “State Fair,” “The King and I,” and “The Sound of Music,” the latter of which was aptly named because of the enduring success of most of their shows and the immortal popular songs each of them produced.

Stephen Sondheim (1930-  )

Stephen Sondheim, a major force in contemporary musical theater, was born in New York City. Like other Jewish child musical prodigies, Sondheim began to pick out tunes on the family piano at the age of four. When he was 10, his parents divorced and he went with his mother to live in Doylestown, Pa. One of his family’s friends there was the great musical theater lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, who encouraged the young Sondheim’s fascination with musical theater. After graduating from Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., in 1950, he won the Hutchinson Prize, a two-year fellowship that enabled him to study composition privately with avant-garde composer Milton Babbitt in New York City. But like Hamlisch, he was drawn not to classical music, but to popular musical theater. His first big break came when Leonard Bernstein asked him to write the lyrics for “West Side Story,” first performed on Broadway in 1957. He performed both music and lyrics for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (1962), and he later had a smash hit with “Company,” which was followed by “A Little Night Music” and “Sweeney Todd.”  He surpassed even these shows with “Sunday in the Park with George.”  Enduring show tunes from his work include “Comedy Tonight,” “Side by Side by Side,” and “Send in the Clowns.”

The ‘Fiddler’ Team

Among the Jewish composers who deserve honorable mention are the team who took the Yiddish stories by Sholom Aleichem about “Tevye, the Dairyman” and transformed it into the immortal “Fiddler on the Roof.” That show, which for years held the record as the longest running Broadway show as a collaboration among Joseph Stein, book; Jerry Bock, music and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick.