Get out your Jewish theater calendars (as I’m sure you all keep diligently), and start making notes. First important date: Jan. 28, when Jerry Herman’s Milk and Honey opens through the York Theatre Company.
Milk and Honey, originally produced in 1961, was the songwriting great’s first musical on Broadway (not counting revue From A to Z, for which he contributed only the opening number). It also featured Yiddish theater legend Molly Picon, who had a couple showstoppers, including “Hymn to Hymie.” (Casting has not yet been announced this time around, but please-oh-please let these songs fall into Jackie Hoffman‘s capable hands). Among her many accolades, Picon has a star on the Yiddish Walk of Fame, an honor she shares with the recently departed Fyuvish Finkel.
It’s a crime that the play itself isn’t better known, particularly in the American Jewish community. The show is about—and I am not making this up—a busload of Jewish-American widows touring Israel in the hopes of snagging Israeli husbands. It’s delightful, and there’s never been anything quite like it since. As Alisa Solomon wrote in Tablet in 2007:
Milk and Honey, set a dozen years after Exodus, expressed a similarly jubilant and righteously proud attitude toward Israel—while remaining true to its own genre of the romantic book musical. In place of the film’s vast panoramas, suspenseful standoffs, and action-filled battles, Milk and Honey featured elaborate dance numbers, songs you could hum, multiple love stories, broad comic turns, and the colorful spectacle of a Jewish-Yemenite wedding.
While it’s a shame the upcoming production is not a full revival (it’s the text of the show presented in concert instead), props should still be given to York Theatre Company. Could this revival have had anything to do with the company’s success with another extremely Jewish musical, Rothschild & Sons? In any case, if they continue in this vein, I’m certainly on board. Milk and Honey will play from Jan. 28 to Feb. 5.
Coming back even sooner to off-Broadway, from Oct. 4 to Nov. 19, is Tick, Tick…Boom!, a piece of musical theater that postdates Milk and Honey by about 30 years. An autobiographical musical by Rent creator Jonathan Larson, Tick Tick…Boom! depicts Larson’s struggle to become a successful songwriter, a story that will soon be revived by Keen Company and run at The Clurman Theatre. Like Milk and Honey for Herman, it was an early work in his career, but Tick, Tick…Boom! didn’t come to prominence until the early 2000s as a sort of memorial; this was a few years after Larson’s tragic death at age 35 on the cusp of Rent‘s smash success.
The sense of Jewish assimilation in the 1990s, when Tick Tick…Boom! takes place, is stark compared with the early 1960s celebration of Jewishness and Israel that pervades Milk and Honey. Despite Larson being Jewish, his work about his own life makes no explicit references to his identity, and while there are arguably signs of it in the play (e.g., growing up in White Plains, mocking a tourist who pronounces challah as “holly bread”), Jewishness is nowhere nearly as central to Larson as it is to any of the characters in Milk and Honey. (It is perhaps worth noting that the actor who will play Jonathan in the new revival, Nick Blaemire, is Jewish and a songwriter himself.)
One exception is somewhat meta; the most Jewish thing about Jonathan is his love for musical theater tradition. He worships Stephen Sondheim as a God, to the extent that the act of saying his name is whispered and sacred. At the end of the show, Sondheim even leaves a reverent Larson an encouraging voicemail. This act of sublime Sondheim worship, and attachment to musical theater history, isn’t quite as Jewish as singing a song called “Shalom” (Milk and Honey‘s opener), but it certainly ties Larson to a Talmud-like chain of tradition (the latest successor to Sondheim, Herman, and Larson is Lin-Manuel Miranda, who, while not Jewish, is pals with Sondheim, and actually played Larson the last time Tick, Tick… Boom! played New York).
So while you’re waiting for one or both of these shows, listen to the wonderful Molly Picon whipping the other widows into shape (on a moshav):