You Won’t Succeed on Broadway if You Don’t Have Any Jews continues at St James Theatre, London until 5 September.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
So ingrained in the Broadway cultural psyche is it that the Great White Way is founded on the back of New York’s rich Jewish heritage, that Eric Idle created the song that gives this show its title for one of the several numbers in Monty Python’s Spamalot that parodied the bombastic Broadway musical.
And as this revue (conceived and co-directed by Daniel Donskoy and Michaela Stern) demonstrates, it is a reputation that is not without merit. New York’s musical roots were planted in the immigrant communities of the Lower East Side, and as the popularity of the musical form grew, became funded by the more affluent Jewish residents of the Upper East Side. The result is a near century’s worth of material by Jewish composers and lyricists, from which an entertaining evening of showstopping tunes has been selected.
Taking a chronological approach, the show is arranged in approximate decades, each introduced with a crudely animated video and voiceover. And so begins a roll call of early Broadway’s biggest, most recognisable – and yes, Jewish – names, from George and Ira Gershwin, and Rodgers and Hart, rocketing up to the present day with Jason Robert Brown and Pasek and Paul.
While the show’s chronological structure reveals the development of the musical form over the decades, the arrangements and orchestrations are decidedly modern, in the expert hands of musical director Inga Davis-Rutter. From the moment the Gershwins’ ‘Summertime’ is presented as a romantic love ballad, sung beautifully by David Albury, it is clear that the musical numbers are not treated as ossified artefacts of another age – they are living, breathing documents that retain their relevance and power.
Almost without exception, the songs are delivered with elegance and power. In the Act I, most notable is Sophie Evans’ performance of ‘Over the Rainbow’ (the first sign that the show’s creators are in thrall to the lure of Hollywood in their definition of ‘Broadway’, written as it was for the film of The Wizard of Oz). While the actress – runner up in the BBC’s competition to find a Dorothy, and who took over the role at the London Palladium production – could reasonably be expected to perform the number well, when coupled with a sublime arrangement her rendition of the number’s lesser-known opening verses are exquisite, and makes up for some later blocking decisions that mean she is vying for stage space with her accompanying dancers.
Elsewhere in Act I, Yiftach Mizrahi delivers an energetic ‘Luck Be a Lady’, with gymnastic moves that give the show’s dancers a run for their money (Chris Whittaker’s choreography enhancing the show’s performances throughout). Recent graduate Danny Lane has the opportunity to demonstrate his powerful vocal range in full Mama Rose mode during his rendition of ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’, while the whole company brings the house down with a superb performance of Fiddler On the Roof’s ‘Tradition’, the first of several selections that celebrate Jewish content as well as composition.
With an Act II concentrating on more recent productions, the selection of numbers mixes standards with some more oblique choices. A verbally dextrous performance from Sarah Earnshaw of ‘Getting Married Today’ from Company rubs shoulders with a group performance of ‘Four Jews in a Room Bitching’ from William Finn’s March of the Falsettos and Lloyd Daniels’ rendition of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s ‘Caught in the Storm’ from the TV show Smash. The latter is the last of a number of songs whose inclusion in a celebration of Broadway is a little suspect, such as ‘Papa Can You Hear Me?’ from the film Yentl and even the Disney classic ‘Be Our Guest’, although given Beauty and the Beast’s adaptation for the stage that can at least be forgiven.
Less forgivable is the show’s removal from history of lyricist Howard Ashman, whose collaborations with Alan Menken, from Little Shop of Horrors to Aladdin are presented in both film inserts and the programme as Menken’s achievements alone. He’s not the only lyricist to be denied acknowledgement – the programme similarly fails to credit Hal David and Tom Eyen while listing their composer collaborators – but the adulatory coverage of Menken in the video clips makes Ashman’s omission all the more bewildering.
Those concerns aside, Donskoy and Stern have hit upon a theme for their musical revue which not only allows for a great selection of musical numbers, but which takes what could be seen as a derogatory stereotype and owns it wholeheartedly. The result is an evening of exemplary musical theatre history, performed with an accomplished charm that delights throughout.