Zoe Strimpel

What’s all this song and dance about musicals?

Yes, there are some Jews who don’t lap up classic Broadway shows or adore Barbra Streisand

August 08, 2022 14:27

A few nights ago, a non-Jewish friend suggested we watch one of his favourite musical films of all time, the Barbra Streisand vehicle Funny Girl. I had reservations. Generally, this is neither my genre nor period of choice. I find myself left cold by the stars of the mid-20th century, and the overwrought, often slapstick-seeming storylines of the films.

But Funny Girl, I was told, is one of the great musicals of all time. I was to genuflect before the greatness of Streisand at her belting finest and admire her charm and beauty.

It wasn’t just that my companion insisted that this was a work of greatness. It was, it became clear, something I of all people ought to naturally resonate with because of its Jewishness in genre and the ethnicity of its creators. To top it off, it tells the story of Fanny Brice, a real-life Jewish vaudeville singer.

I can see why my friend thought I ought to relate. From The Sound of Music to Gypsy, Jews have musicals stitched up, as the not unproblematic 2013 PBS programme Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy made clear. There’s Gershwin, Rogers and Hammerstein, Bernstein, Kurt Weill, Sondheim…And then there are the singers and actors, the Mel Brookses and the Streisands, though I have been repeatedly reminded, there’s only one Streisand.

I dutifully watched. Streisand sang (incessantly it seemed to me) and cutely danced; wisecracked with her boss, narrated an internal monologue about Nicky Arnstein (Omar Sharif). She made her way past New York shopfronts decked in Hebrew signs, at which point my friend looked at me expectantly. He was met with a blank expression.

Half an hour in, I was no closer to finding Funny Girl funny — or charming — than I had anticipated. The music was tiresome. The words were hard to understand. The vaudeville setting was off-putting, and the story of Fanny Brice did not feel any more urgent.

The truth, as I tried to explain to my companion, was that just because I am Jewish does not mean I like, and much less relate to, the work and imagination of my brethren in the musical genre. Broadway is not my cultural mecca. I don’t deny that for many, this is iconic stuff. Nor do I deny its enormous cultural influence.

But classic Broadway, and particularly that brilliantly carved out by Jewish immigrant hustlers, is no more appealing to me than punk-era London. And why should it be? I grew up in a home whose cultural habitat was shaped by my parents — their books, their music, their tastes. And those tastes were shaped by what their parents valued. They were born and bred in Germany, as their parents and grandparents had been. They were assimilated and then, crucially, they were refugees of the 1930s, to the UK and India and eventually went back to Western Europe on my paternal side.

They brought with them a different set of attitudes and customs than those of earlier waves of refugees and those from further east; they relished work by Thomas Mann, the poet Rilke, Goethe and the music of Mendelssohn and Brahms. The result is that the schmaltz and Yiddish and klezmer-inflected world of many of the classics does not spark a flare of recognition in me, or — and this is a matter of taste rather than background — particular delight either.

I’d leave it at that, except for the intriguing fact that non-Jews struggle with it. I surmise that this is because of a frustrating Jewish otherness on one hand, and the ubiquity of Jewish cultural output on the other. We are alien but familiar — musicals are an access point. There is an eagerness among some non-Jews to proclaim their appreciation of Jewish musicals and admiration for the talents of the great Jewish showbiz giants.

In my experience, this is exhibited most keenly by those who have strong suspicions about Israel and who are aware they may get into hot water on that score. Loving Sondheim feels like a good way to deflect the charge of any unfair treatment or bias. While I would much rather people love rather than despise the work of Jewish creators, some of this love is a bit uncomfortable, reminding us that Jews are understood more readily through stereotype than any other group today. This is why Streisand in Funny Girl or Yentl becomes an archetype of Jewish spunk and vim and grit and passion while Julia Roberts, say, has never been an icon of Christian self-assurance.

The truth is that I prefer a Bach passion, or a romcom starring the likes of Drew Barrymore or Gwyneth Paltrow, or the comedies of Jim Carrey to most musical classics created by my fellow tribespeople. And while this may perplex and frustrate those who want all Jewish women to be versions of Barbra Streisand — or, failing that, to worship her — it is, nonetheless, as Britney Spears once said, my prerogative.

August 08, 2022 14:27

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