Darkness at Noon: The Musical

John Judis alerted me to this PBS show on the Jewish origins of the Broadway musical. Among other things I learned from it:

  • Ethel Merman, born Ethel Zimmerman, was German, but so terrified she’d be outed as a Jew was she that people would think she was Jewish that whenever she said she had been praying for the success of a show, she would quickly add, “In church!” She was also so scared she’d have nothing to eat at Jule Styne’s seder—he promised her she wouldn’t have to eat any Christian babies—that she brought a ham sandwich with her. In her purse. [This paragraph was revised from the original version of this post.]
  • The original last line of “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes” in Cabaret—a song about a man’s love for a gorilla—was “She wouldn’t look Jewish at all.” It was meant to be a satire of anti-Semitism, but Jewish audiences were scandalized. Harold Prince, the director and producer of the original Broadway production, insisted on changing it. A few years later, in the film version, the line was restored.
  • The composer of saccharine songs like “Put On a Happy Face” from Bye, Bye, Birdie and “Tomorrow” from Annie was, as a boy, tied to a tree by a group of anti-Semites and had a fire lit under him while his brother was beaten up. They were working on a farm or something. He was saved at the last minute by the foreman who told everyone that lunchtime was over, time to get back to work.

This is just some of the darkness behind the sunshine of American musical theater.


  1. David February 27, 2015 at 3:49 pm | #

    Jewish origins of the Broadway musical? – not according to John Kentrick. Musicals have been around, in some form or other, since Greeks laughed at Aristophanes’ The Birds. The Middle Ages and the Catholic Church promoted devotional plays with music. Commedie del’Arts (sp?) provided both the workinig and ruling class with musical comedy. Yes, Offenbach ( Jewish, converted to Catholicism) invented the fully integrated musical with outstanding librettos and classical music, but the real deal, as far a Broadway’s recognizable origins, came in with Gilbert & Sullivan , English Music Hall and light opera.
    Of course, in America, minstrel shows and vaudeville/burlesque help development and the American attention span, and many of the latter genre employed Jewish performers, but Broadway’s Jewish origins? Hardly.

    • Corey Robin February 28, 2015 at 9:03 am | #

      Yes, Jewish origins was probably too strong. Jewish elements. Jewish dimension. Something more like that.

  2. John Maher February 27, 2015 at 3:57 pm | #

    Although not broadway, My favorite musing on the Yiddish theatre in New York along second avenue is contained in a documentary where one of the players recounts that when a certain much derided actress was cast as Anne Frank in the eponymous play the crowd would yell “she’s in the attic !” During the scene where the Gestapo inspector calls. To me this Grand Guignol bit of absurdity is transcendent and evokes the genius of Jewish gallows humour and it’s existential ability to consider the world outside of ones own perspective.

    • xenon2 February 27, 2015 at 6:17 pm | #

      I enjoyed your comment…

  3. Graham Clark March 2, 2015 at 8:01 pm | #

    Nitpicks: The Ethel Merman anecdotes come from the memoir of Arthur Laurents. He describes one particular occasion where she specified “In church!” – not “whenever” – and only says that he (he, Laurents, not Styne) WANTED to tell her “Not a Christian baby.” He also says that she brought a ham sandwich to the Seder in question.

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