‘Wait… wait… Hammerstein…Bernstein…Sondheim… Gershwin – they were Jewish? You could knock me down with a matzo.’ Thus will not be the train of thought of any but the dopiest of theatre-goers. The title of this show (yanked from Spamalot)has the remarkable property of being both obvious and wrong. I have been known to make the broader claim that to make it in musical theatre, you have to be gay, Jewish, or Andrew Lloyd-Webber, and even that was roundly scuppered by Tim Minchin, who as far as I know, is none of those things, and yet wrote possibly the best musical of all time. Things do make it on Broadway without Jews, but no one’s going to argue they’re in the majority.
So, what’s to go wrong: a show celebrating the best of Jewish show songs, which by more than coincidence is the best of – er – all show songs? Well, since you ask, given the subject matter, it’s just a tiny, tiny bit clanky. There’s a front projection show reel with animations which are slightly rubbish, while an Orson Welles kind of voice tells the story of how Jews came to New York from Europe between the wars, and rapidly proved that frankly, they could write shows that were so, so much better than Music Hall or Vaudeville, and effectively defined the genre of musical theatre. So you get a chunk of history and then the cast perform some songs from that chunk – usually the most famous song from each show (although Fiddler on the Roof did not get If I were a Rich Man). These segues are not always seamless. One sequence finishes up talking about the quintessentially Englishness expressed in My Fair Lady, only to be followed by a rendition of Luck, be a Lady from Guys and Dolls.Remarkable, incidentally, how the addition of a solo violin makes you realise how – well – Jewish – it sounds. There’s no doubting it – musical theatre owes a lot to the Jews. Did you get that bit?
The performances are very good, an ensemble of capable singers and flexible dancers, and of course, who’s not going to want to hear all of these songs performed, for any excuse, if it is done well? In particular, Hey Big Spender, the aforementionedLuck, Cabaret and Everything’s coming up Roses – unaccountably performed by a man, here – were all showstoppers.
You kind of wish they’d left out mentioning the Jewish thing, though. We heterosexual gentiles who aren’t Andrew Lloyd Webber (or Tim Minchin) know, we get it. The Jews have musical theatre nailed. You don’t have to rub it in. Why not call it ‘Best of Broadway’ and leave it at that?