- Jews on Broadway: An Historical Survey of Performers, Playwrights, Composers, Lyricists and Producers by Stewart F. Lane, and: Transposing Broadway: Jews, Assimilation, and the American Musical by Stuart J. Hecht
Two recent titles contribute to the exponential growth of scholarship in Jewish cultural studies and musical theatre history. Both academic areas, previously peripheral to other disciplines, converge in the books Jews on Broadway: An Historical Survey of Performers, Playwrights, Composers, Lyricists and Producers by producer Stewart Lane and Transposing Broadway: Jews, Assimilation, and the American Musical (part of the Palgrave Studies in Theatre and Performance History series) by historian Stuart Hecht. While the scope of Lane’s book goes beyond the genre of musical theatre, its focus is primarily on the Jewishness of Broadway’s composers, choreographers, performers, and hit-makers. The two books often overlap in terms of content, but the methods employed by the authors are fundamentally different. Lane provides a spiraling history comprised of anecdotes and brief summaries, while Hecht’s cultural/historical analysis is grounded in dramaturgy and draws from theories in performance studies, sociology, and literary analysis.
Lane’s enthusiasm in Jews on Broadway is palpable: the author’s voice is out of breath, and his sentences are packed tightly with names, numbers, and dates. Theatre history is an account of collaboration, full of various people and interactions, but the book does not provide a focused through-line in its synthesis of research other than a broadly constructed “Jewish” trail. Instead of describing the development of an ethnic voice in Broadway theatres and what that voice might mean, Lane provides multiple narratives, references to his own award-winning career as a producer, and unreliable anecdotes (his own and others’).
One of the strengths of Jews on Broadway, however, is the book’s centralization of the disparate accounts of the Jewish performers, playwrights, composers, lyricists, and producers who left a legacy to Broadway. In the last three decades, US filmmakers have created hundreds of documentaries about and fictionalizations of industry subjects discussed in the books by Lane and Hecht. PBS created an entire series titled “American Masters,” which features in great detail personal stories, archival materials, and rare footage of artists and performers, mostly drawn [End Page 150] from Broadway. Evidently, Lane has viewed almost all of these programs, recounting in the book many details previously aired elsewhere without proper citation. Gathering these stories under a Jewish umbrella, his book presents them in an accessible way. Nonetheless, it presumes a preexisting interest in popular US theatre (especially musical theatre) to get beyond the dense enumeration of entire genres and figures that are not given sufficient critical consideration.
Jews on Broadway is divided into eight chapters, an epilogue, notes, and bibliography. The book begins with a discussion of the superstars of Yiddish theatre, then moves from vaudeville to Broadway to a discussion of the golden age of the musical. After the fifth chapter, “From Communism to the Catskills,” Lane explores “Jewish Themes, Legends and Life in the 1960s and 1970s.” In the book’s final two chapters, he offers an assessment of Disney musicals, emerging voices in the American theatre, and his own career achievements.
Some sections of the book are commendable, including Lane’s gentle look at how Broadway theatres were affected by the attacks on 9/11. But more striking in his historical survey are typos, awkward incomplete sentences, and inconsistencies in spelling, italics, and quotation marks. Further, he makes bombastic claims, such as his assertion that Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is “one of the greatest American dramas ever written—if not the greatest” (97). In other sweeping statements, he nostalgically describes entire decades of plays whose “quality prevailed over quantity” (177). In an egregious mistake, Lane claims that the play The Diary of Anne Frank is “based upon the actual published diary of a young woman who hid seven Jewish children from the Nazis during...