In any great adventure,
that you don’t want to lose,
victory depends upon the people that you choose.
So, listen, Arthur darling, closely to this news:
We won’t succeed on Broadway,
If you don’t have any Jews*
*Courtesy of Eric Idle’s Spamalot
Lord Grade is nodding his head in agreement. “Of course you couldn’t have a show without any Jews,” he says and the lyrics from Monty Python’s Spamalot reverberate around the vast Royal Gallery, north of the Robing Room in The House of Lords.
As meeting places go, the Gallery could not be more impressive — what with the 45ft painting of Lord Nelson’s demise as a backdrop.
But there is definitely something incongruous about discussing the unique role of Jewish composers and lyricists in the modern musical at a table in the Palace of Westminster, though undoubtedly Irving Berlin would have come up with something suitably wry and whimsical.
Baron Grade of Yarmouth (his official moniker) is a big fan of show tunes and his passion for musical theatre is the reason he has been invited to share his critique of the documentary Broadway: The Jewish Legacy, which is being shown at the Jewish Film Festival.
Directed by Michael Kantor, Broadway: The Jewish Legacy looks at the 50-year period in which “The American Songbook” was created and features interviews with some of the greatest composers and writers of the Broadway stage.
Pre-eminent creators such as the aforementioned Irving, Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers and Kurt Weill. And there’s more. Fred Ebb, John Kander, Sheldon Harnick, Jerry Bock, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Jules Styne. It’s an embarrassment of riches created by an entirely Jewish cast.
“It is a good film,” agrees Michael as we mull over the content. “Even the stuff you already know sounds fresh because of the way it’s told and it was fascinating to discover that the opening song to Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, It Ain’t Necessarily So has the same exact chords and notes as the blessing over the Torah.”
But Grade, former controller of BBC1, chief executive of Channel 4, chairman of the BBC and executive chairman of ITV, was left with an unanswered question.
“The most pressing question for me is one the film fails to answer — why were there so many talented Jews in musical theatre?
“There must be a gene pool somewhere,” Michael continues. “We all have music in us to some extent, but I suspect the whole emphasis of shul in the lives of these men had a huge impact. Shul music is very accessible and melodic.
"We also have to think that, having been forced out of their homes, the Jews excelled at creating art that set them apart while representing their struggle. It’s likely a lot of professions were closed to Jews, but showbiz was available.”
Show-business is home turf for Michael Grade, now 70. He was schooled in the profession from an early age by his late father, Leslie, a theatrical agent, and uncles Lew Grade and Bernard Delfont who both made their mark as impresarios in theatre and television, not to mention dance.
“My father couldn’t dance or carry a tune, but Bernie was smooth and suave on his feet and Lew was a very good music hall act and champion Charleston dancer,” says Grade who learnt to dance at prep school.
“We had dancing lessons in the gym once a week in our short trousers. I can still dance, but I’d never survive on Strictly.”
Insisting he is not a performer, Grade still manages a few lines of George Gershwin’s The Man I Love, but only to illustrate the chord progression which experts say was a breakthrough moment of Beethoven proportions.
The first musical Grade ever saw was Annie Get Your Gun with Dolores Gray at the Palace Theatre.
“Being in the business, we saw a lot of shows and we were always at the Palladium or the Hippodrome or the Finsbury Park Empire,where I sat on a bucket in the wings and watched my aunt Lady Grade in Babes in the Wood.”
Grade also learnt a lot about Yiddish theatre as a child, which, as Kantor’s film points out, provided the template for Broadway musicals with its use of traditional songs and stories about exile and morality.
“My grandmother Olga Winogradsky was in the Yiddish theatre and though she wasn’t educated, while watching a play on television one day, my bubba, bless her, was able to tell me the whole plot.
"She had all these funny names for the characters, but she knew the story and said she and her husband Isaak performed it in the Yiddish Theatre. It was King Lear.”
An accomplished Yiddish speaker himself, Grade embarks on a story about three women on a bench which ends with “kein ayin hara” and compulsory spitting before moving on to news about his film for BBC4, which examines the role of the star in a musical.
Due to air next year, it gave him the opportunity to meet producers, writers and performers he admires, among them Cabaret star Joel Grey who narrates the Cantor film.
Escorting me to the Peers entrance hall to exit, Grade reflects on a life spent doing things he would never have dreamed possible. “I’ve absolutely no regrets or hankerings for missed opportunities like producing on Broadway.
"I’ve put on shows that were hits and others that were disasters. It’s like the song says… you know the Irving Berlin one… ‘Yesterday they told you would not go far, then you open and there you are. Next day on your dressing room they’ve hung a star'.”
Trust a Lord to pick a peerless song.