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Back on Broadway: The Jewish Roots of ‘She Loves Me’

From 1937’s ‘Parfumerie’ to Hollywood’s ‘You’ve Got Mail,’ ‘She Loves Me’ tells a familiar story about unseeming love

Gabriela Geselowitz
March 15, 2016
Facebook / Roundabout Theatre Company
Jane Krakowski and Gavin Creel in 'She Loves Me'Facebook / Roundabout Theatre Company

One story. Five incarnations. A whole lot of Jews.

The show in question here is She Loves Me, which isn’t really a Jewish-themed musical, although all musicals are essentially Jewish, so to speak. Given the history of the art form, it’s almost redundant to list names of dramatists for a piece; at some point, you’re going to hit one who’s Semitic. It doesn’t matter if you’re singing about Christmas. Odds are, the work has passed through Tribal hands. For the perfect case study (down to a Yuletide tune) let’s look at She Loves Me, which opens on Broadway this week.

She Loves Metakes place in a Budapest, centered around a group of employees at a parfumerie. Two of them constantly aggravate each other, without realizing that they’re actually in love: They’ve been anonymously corresponding via post, and don’t realize that their romantic pen pal is actually before their eyes.

The original Broadway poster from the 1963 Broadway production of ‘She Loves Me’ (Wikimedia)

The original Broadway poster from the 1963 Broadway production of ‘She Loves Me’ (Wikimedia)

Does this situation sound familiar? It very well might. The roots of the narrative/dramatic structure of She Loves Me begin in 1937, with the play originally entitled Parfumerie. This work, by the Jewish Hungarian-born playwright Miklós László, has had several different incarnations, with virtually all of them having Jewish creatives attached (see: László). Next came the Hollywood adaptation, The Shop Around the Corner, in 1940, and both the director, Ernst Lubitsch, and adapter of the screenplay, Samson Raphaelson, were Jewish, too. Only nine years later was the first musical version, In the Good Old Summertime, which featured Jewish actor S. Z. Sakall (Google him; you’ll know him).

But if your old movie knowledge is slight, fast forward to 1998’s You’ve Got Mail, when Nora Ephron took László’s story and updated it for the information age (who can forget Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan logging into AOL?). As always, the characters are kept gentile, but the clashing of children’s literature intelligentsia and bookstore business moguls can’t help but seem Jewishly coded, especially in the hands of Ephron.

So, back to She Loves Me. Who wrote this particular incarnation of this mail-crossed romance? Well, the playwright is Joe Masteroff (yes, Jewish), best known for his work on Cabaret. The composer and lyricist? Respectively, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, the songwriting team behind Fiddler on the Roof (also currently enjoying a Broadway revival), also wrote the songs for She Loves Me, which hit Broadway in 1963, one year before Fiddler premiered.

No, none of the characters in She Loves Me are explicitly Jewish (nor the leading actors of this stellar cast). But the setting of cosmopolitan pre-War Europe couldn’t be empty of integrated or assimilated Jews. Take the likes of the aging small-business owner, the woman who falls for the nerdy optometrist. Think, ultimately, of the two characters falling in love over their mutual interest in Anna Karenina. The whole show may as well be an advertisement for JDate.

So if you already got your Tevye fix, and now want a Jewish musical that includes the song “Twelve Days to Christmas,” look no further.

She Loves Me opens on March 17 at Studio 54, and plays through July 10.

Gabriela Geselowitz is a writer and the former editor of Jewcy.com.