Fiddler on the Roof was by no means Broadway’s first Jewish musical. Three years before it debuted on the Great White Way, Milk and Honey opened at the Martin Beck Theatre (now the Al Hirschfeld Theatre) in October 1961. (Did I mention the show begins with Hebrew dialogue?) Unfortunately, it’s a rarely produced musical, which why it’s lucky it’s playing Off-Broadway now, in concert, through February 5. Milk and Honey, a musical about— get this—a group of American widows who tour Israel and seek husbands, has launched the York Theatre Company’s annual “Musicals in Mufti” series, in which musical revivals play largely without props or costumes.
Its timing is no coincidence. Hello, Dolly! is set to open on Broadway this year (starring Bette Midler, no less). Jerry Herman (who gave this production of Milk and Honey his blessing) is 85, and it’s a perfect time to celebrate even his lesser known works (the York is also soon producing his musical Dear World). The book writer Don Appell’s centennial is still two years off, but we’re 98 percent of the way there, right? It also bears noting that Milk and Honey was Molly Picon’s first Broadway credit in over a decade. In this production, her role went to Alix Korey, who most recently played Yenta in the Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof, who of course was played by Picon in the film. We can only assume that Korey will take on Yidl Mitn Fidl next. Her character, Clara Weiss, (sometimes literally) rallies her fellow tourists in “Chin Up, Ladies”: “We’d like to carry home a six-foot souvenir!/So keep your chin up, ladies!/Somewhere over the rainbow there’s a man!”
This show was Jerry Herman’s first on Broadway, and while his batting average for great songs per show was not yet at its peak (Oh, God, that’s a sports metaphor, isn’t it), a few of the numbers here really do stand out, such as the jubilant “Like a Young Man” as led by Mark Delavan, or the hilarious aforementioned “Chin Up, Ladies.” The book’s largest issue is a common one for musicals— the A-plot couple is way less interesting than the supporting stories and characters that bring the play to life. You could do worse than wait to get excited when the ensemble steps onstage. And this production’s cast, which began learning the material a week ago, is clearly having a blast.
Over-the-top, stereotypical women remind us that the thirst is always real is an ongoing highlight of the show. But of course, these women are there for a more utilitarian purpose—they’re the vehicle for the audience to tour Israel as well, which for American Jewish audiences of the early ’60s was an exotic, wild land, ripe for optimists and idealists. One character derisively tells another after a stirring, slightly purple speech, “You sound like an advertisement for the United Jewish Appeal.”
In fact, the entire musical feels like an advertisement for the UJA; the show is an amazing moment of nostalgia frozen in amber: To say that Israel at 13 is different than Israel at 68 is putting it mildly. The pre-Six Day War unbridled enthusiasm at the existence of the Jewish state is more dated than the show’s A-plot, which features a couple unable to be together because the man is only separated from his ex-wife, not legally divorced. (Good thing the gender’s aren’t reversed, because if you think a divorce is hard to acquire as a man you should talk to an agunah some time.) Really, though, the show contains a few really uncomfortable comments about Arabs that must have been entirely uncontroversial at the time, and there is no real differentiation between Palestinians and forces of surrounding Arab nations.
The play’s original run was a qualified success (it struggled a bit financially), and it was warmly received by Jewish communities, energized by the show that declares:
“This is the world of good and plenty/Humble and proud and young and strong and/This is the place where the hopes of the homeless and the dreams of the lost combine/This is the land that heaven blessed and this lovely land is mine.”
Alisa Solomon once wrote for Tablet about the play:
A 1962 New York Times story quotes a fan letter Appell received from a Rhode Island woman who commented that it was “such a joy to watch a show about Israel and not see depressed refugees.”
The thought of Israel being put down for its reputation as a country of refugees is a peculiar sort of nostalgia, despite it continuing to accept Jews from the likes of Ethiopia and the Soviet Union for decades to come from this point. But in delighting in the strength of Israel, rather than considering its faults, a la Exodus, this musical recalls a time that seems perhaps strenuous but morally uncomplicated. In 2017, refugees take a very different form in the public consciousness, both in regards to the United States and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
So, drench yourself in Milk and Honey, and luxuriate in a more hopeful time.