When Emily Rose Simons started work on her one-woman musical Confessions of a Rabbi’s Daughter, its narrative took a familiar form — a young Orthodox woman becomes frustrated with her life and flees to a more secular life.
It’s a story we’ve become used to in popular culture, from award-winning dramas such as Netflix’s Unorthodox (2020) and the film Disobedience (2017), adapted from Naomi Alderman’s novel of life in Hendon. TV documentaries such as One of Us (2017) and My Unorthodox Life (2021) — detailing the real-life experiences of those who leave strictly Orthodox communities — were lapped up by a global audience.
The latest version of Simons’ musical though, set to be staged at The Other Palace Studio next week, has “matured” along with her in the ten years since her first draft. Now her main character Rachel does not leave her community.
“Since then I’ve become more aware of how Orthodox women can often be presented in quite a one-dimensional way,” says Simons. “The reality is that most people don’t just totally leave their family or community.
“The Modern Orthodox community is evolving in many ways that are rarely discussed.
“Sarah, who is a big part of the story despite not appearing on stage, is attending a protest to allow women to read Torah. She is an example of one of these women remaining in the community but fighting her ground. Women are not taking a backseat in religious life in this show.”
Actress and producer Tanya Truman, who met Simons when they struck up a friendship as colleagues at the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead, will debut as Rachel.
Truman, whose vocals will be accompanied by David Merriman on piano throughout, says:
“We are so excited that a musical about a unique topic is getting the chance to be showcased to a wider audience.
“Rachel is the rabbi’s daughter at a well-known Orthodox shul, who always envisioned herself following in the footsteps of her late mother who was very traditional.
“However, it dawns on her that her friendship with her best friend Sarah is becoming something more, a question that bubbles throughout the show.”
Simons started writing the show when she was in her early twenties. “For me, this show is very special because it was almost out of necessity that I was the only performer as it is very hard to put on musicals.When I was writing this I just did not know how to write a musical for more than one person.”
She was inspired by a Limmud talk she attended in 2011 on rabbis and their families.
“When the Q&A began, I saw a room filled with rabbis and their families of all denominations and became interested in their shared experiences. There is something fascinating about discussing what it means to be born into or to marry your identity. I think it is sort of an extreme version of what happens to us as Jews anyway,” she says.
“When we first performed it to a general audience in Edinburgh, people from many different backgrounds approached me saying ‘This is my story!’
“I wrote something quite specific and it was exciting to find that there were universal themes that spoke to people.”
Truman thinks that the British setting “probably helps with cross-cultural understanding, as a lot of other Jewish media is American”.
Both women come from Modern Orthodox “traditional” backgrounds, although not as religious as the characters in the show.
But Simons is wary of the Jewface row, about who gets to play Jewish characters.
“I would never say that a non-Jewish actor should not play a Jewish character,” Simons says.
“I am conscious that the character I am writing is more Orthodox than I am. My advice would just be that creators should do careful research and understand the context of what they are portraying.”
Simons and Truman are currently working on Becoming Nigella, a musical about a woman who decides she wants to become TV chef Nigella Lawson. Simons is also co-writing a Yiddish pantomime, Yankl & Der Beanstalk.
Truman last year produced Deli Segal’s one woman show Pickle, about a single Jewish woman’s dating dilemmas, which returns to the Park Theatre in November.
Confessions of a Rabbi’s Daughter is at The Other Palace Studio, SW1E 5BJ on 21 and 22 September 21 and 22. theotherpalace.co.uk