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The Jewish Soul of American Musicals

Born 100 years ago today, Alan Jay Lerner of Lerner and Loewe wrote classic American musicals like ‘Camelot’ and ‘My Fair Lady,‘ whose Jewish themes are not always obvious

Tal Kra-Oz
August 31, 2018

Of all the many Jewish songwriters responsible for creating the American musical,all but a few were loath to incorporate Jewish themes in their work. It took the one-two punch of Harnick and Stein’s Fiddler on the Roof and Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret, which both landed on Broadway in the mid-‘60s, to show that inspiration found close to home could bring artistic and commercial success.

By then the golden age of Broadway musicals was long over. Of the art form’s Jewish pioneers—Rodgers and Hammerstein, Hart, Berlin, Bernstein, young Sondheim, et al.—the men with the most gentile of muses must surely have been Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. Mining Celtic legends for Brigadoon, Arthurian fables for Camelot, and Colette’s Parisian novella for Gigi, Lerner and Loewe did much to refine the art form, but they displayed decidedly escapist tastes. It is surprising, then, to find that their greatest work, My Fair Lady, is perhaps something more personal than merely a song-and-dance retelling of the Pygmalion myth by way of George Bernard Shaw.

Alan Jay Lerner, the duo’s lyricist and librettist, was born Aug. 31, 1918, one hundred years ago today into a deeply privileged and troubled life in New York, scion of the founders of the Lerner Stores, a women’s retail chain. Lerner’s relationships were complicated—at the time of his death in 1986 he had been married eight times—and his partnership with Loewe, an Austrian émigré composer 17 years his senior, was no different. My Fair Lady was to be their sixth collaboration, but the two were not on speaking terms and had to make amends before launching into the annus mirabilis which birthed their masterwork and cemented their place in the Broadway pantheon. Within a decade of its 1956 New York premiere, My Fair Lady, between its film version, regional productions and cast recordings, is said to have grossed upwards of 6 billion dollars, adjusted for inflation. A thrilling new production of the musical, its first New York revival in 25 years, opened last March at Lincoln Center Theater.

As noted by Benjamin Ivry, Lerner’s Jewishness, while often invisible in his work, was on humorous display in his personal letters. In a letter to Loewe he wrote of an Actor’s Benefit performance of My Fair Lady which received such enthusiastic response “it made the opening night look like a Hadassah benefit.” Or in a teasing letter to Leonard Bernstein: “And who is this girl Mary Juana? Why is she so expensive? Can’t you find a nice, sensible Jewish girl?”

Clues to the sentimental connection felt by Lerner and Loewe for the very English story of My Fair Lady with its Cockney flower girl and aristocrat demigod can be found in its Israeli productions. What surfaces in the Israeli version of the play is the universality of its themes, most notably the double-edged sword of cultural assimilation: Eliza’s yearning for a different life as she confronts the price of her metamorphosis.

The Tel Aviv premiere of My Fair Lady in 1964, produced by the local impresario Giora Godik, was the first major production of a musical in Israel. Opening night was attended by Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and Foreign Minister Abba Eban (himself an Anglophile whose unfulfilled dream was to star as Higgins in the show), and was deemed remarkable enough to warrant a New York Times report with the blaring headline “ISRAELI FAIR LADY IS A EX‐TURNKEY”:

The erstwhile jailer was found singing in a minor Tel Aviv revue. Julius Gellner, the British artistic director of Habimah, scouted her and recommended her highly. She is Rivka Raz of Jerusalem, who unknowingly groomed herself for many years to play Eliza. She studied dancing for six years in Jerusalem. Her army call‐up interrupted that, so she switched to singing lessons. She left the army a second lieutenant. Her posts had included the command of a women’s military prison. Her appearance in the Tel Aviv revue where she was scouted was her first professional engagement. Mr. Godik decided only two weeks before rehearsals to cast his lot with Miss Raz. She was acclaimed by the public and the press as a theatrical discovery of the first magnitude.

It is worth noting that Raz, who went on to star in Israeli versions of Oliver, The King and I, and Fiddler on the Roof (alongside Chaim Topol), is Sephardic, as were almost all Israeli Elizas in subsequent local productions. In 1986 the role was the big break for pop star Rita Yahan-Farouz (known in Israel simply as Rita), who was born in Tehran, and in 2013 at Habima it was a star vehicle for the popular Mizrahi comedian Shani Cohen (the one exception is the 2002 New Israeli Opera production, which did not star a Sephardic actress but an Arab-Israeli one, the singer Mira Awad, adding a whole new twist on the Doolittle-Higgins dynamic). Tellingly, Israel’s Higgins have all been Ashkenazi: Illi Gorlitzky, Oded Teomi, Oded Kotler and Natan Datner.

My Fair Lady became a classic in Israel not just for its general brilliance but because it provided a gentle opportunity for Israeli audiences to grapple, albeit from a distance, with the divide between generally lower class Mizrahim and higher-class Ashkenazim, as suggested by the casting and the translation. As the Times report notes:

The Hebrew version of Mr. Lerner’s book and lyrics is by Dan Almagor and Shraga Friedman. Phonetic variations in Hebrew stem from differences in ethnic origin rather than class levels, so the translation of the story of the English professor teaching phonetics to a guttersnipe presented difficulties. But by utilizing Israeli marketplace slang, the adapters produced a highly creditable, if unauthentic, script that fitted nicely with Mr. Loewe’s catchy tunes.

The translator Almagor later admitted to having toyed with the idea of using the Jerusalem Mahane Yehuda shuk for Covent Garden, with Eliza as a Yemenite flower girl and Higgins as a yekke Hebrew University professor, but realized he would never get permission to commit such a travesty.

The current Lincoln Center revival, as lushly reimagined by director Bartlett Sher, heightens the work’s tensions. Gone are Higgins’s quiet triumph and Eliza’s silent resignation in the show’s final moments. This Eliza emerges not as marionette puppet but as powerful heroine, intent on breaking the thick glass ceilings of gender and class. This new production also knows well the universal heartaches of assimilation that connect the struggles of Cockneys at Edwardian Ascot, first or second-generation Jews in New York City a century ago, or Mizrahim in contemporary Israel.

My Fair Lady’s sweet and soulful melodies, then, may be many things, but they are also variations on Jewish themes.

Tal Kra-Oz is a writer based in Tel Aviv.