In Jonathan Tolins’s new play Secrets of the Trade, which opened last night off-Broadway, an ambitious Jewish teenager from Long Island tries to break into theater by convincing an acclaimed playwright/director to become his personal mentor. It’s a flawed but earnest look at suburban Jewish families (a well-worn stage subject) and gay men’s tradition of mentoring younger gay men (a far more novel subject). Tolins’s script is frequently funny and sometimes insightful, and the cast is sharp as knives—particularly teenage lead Noah Robbins, who holds his own opposite the always compelling Tony-winner John Glover.
But most intriguing to The Scroll is a reference that comes early in the play. The young protagonist (Robbins) is writing a letter to his hero, the theater legend (Glover), hoping to secure a meeting:
“I read in the paper that you’re going to mount your musical Disraeli this summer in London … I did the show at my high school. I played Ben (in the original keys) and designed the sets … I was also the one who persuaded Mrs. Leach to do it when everyone else wanted to do Bye Bye Birdie.”
We don’t know of any actual musical about Benjamin Disraeli; nor do we know if the Disraeli of the maybe-nonexistent musical or the Disraeli of real life answered to “Ben.” But anyone interested in musicalizing the life of England’s first Jewish prime minister might want to check out the Nextbook Press biography by Tablet Magazine books critic Adam Kirsch.
Wayne Hoffman is executive editor of Tablet Magazine.