Two gay Jews walk into a bookstore…

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When I was younger, I was half convinced that all gay people were Jewish. Certainly, the only images of gay people I saw in the media were characters in the plays of William Finn, Tony Kushner, and Paul Rudnick. (That I considered Broadway plays to be “the media” is likely a unique feature of having been a gay, Jewish, middle-class kid.) I’ve remained a fan of all three writers ever since, so I was delighted to see that Rudnick had a new memoir out last month.

I Shudder is a collection of autobiographical essays very much in the David Sedaris mold, although Rudnick’s New Jersey Jewish relatives, New York theatrical exploits and Hollywood headaches provide quite a different framework for his humor. It’s to his credit that stories about his great-aunt Lil are every bit as entertaining as his account of visiting a real-life nunnery for inspiration while writing Sister Act. His only missteps come in the segments that give the book its title. Peppered throughout the book are “Excerpt[s] from the Most Deeply Intimate and Personal Diary of One Elyot Vionnet.” Rudnick certainly can write in character — his “If You Ask Me” column in Premiere magazine, written as middle-aged housewife Libby Gelman-Waxner was hysterical — but Elyot’s complaints about the insufferable people one encounters in life don’t measure up. These essays’ weakness is only made more visible by their inclusion in an otherwise fabulous collection.

Mental: Funny in the Head, by Eddie SarfatyRudnick isn’t the only gay Jewish funny man with a new collection of autobiographical essays. Eddie Sarfaty, a stand-up comedian who’s probably best known to those who summer in Provincetown (where he’s had a regular gig for many seasons) has produced Mental: Funny in the Head. I’ll say up front that it’s unfair to Sarfaty to compare his book to Rudnick’s — but they came out within months of each other, and I read them back to back, so what can you do? On the other hand, I have a soft spot for Sarfaty because he performed a stand-up show as one of Keshet’s very early fundraisers, back before anyone had ever heard of us.

My feelings on Mental are much more mixed. When it’s at its best, such as when Sarfaty writes about his relationships with older relatives, it’s both funny and touching. (His publisher has posted Second-Guessing Grandma, the first essay in the book, for free on-line.) But too much of the book doesn’t measure up to its best parts, and I found myself impatient for chapters on the comedian’s sex life to end so I could get to the good bits about his European vacation with his parents. The nice part of a book like this is that you can skip past chapters you don’t like without worrying that you won’t be able to follow what comes next. The essays aren’t presented chronologically, and when events from previous essays are mentioned, they’re explained as though the reader is encountering them for the first time. I loved roughly half of the essays, but could have done without the other half. (My favorites: “My Tale of Two Cities,” about the aforementioned European trip; “Can I Tell You Something?” detailing the comedian’s experience teaching a stand-up class for amateurs; and “The Eton Club,” a tribute to a certain kind of gay culture that died off with AIDS.)

Both Rudnick and Sarfaty profess their own distance from Jewish religion, but both books are infused with Yiddishkeit, from the focus on Jewish family dynamics to the meditations on how Hillel’s teachings might inform the way we partake in online cruising sites. Neither book is likely to inspire readers to find any great insights into Jewish culture, but I suspect most Jewschool readers will find many moments in each that provoke a knowing smirk of familiarity.

Jewschool: Beautiful City

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This is the fifth post in a series on Social Justice Showtunes. The series starts here with a post about the 1937 Broadway musical Pins and Needles and continues here with a post about the 1932 song “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” here with a post about South Pacific’s “Carefully Taught,” and here with a post about “No More” from Golden Boy.

Theater is, by its very nature, impermanent. While a sculptor certainly could revisit a sculpture after declaring it finished and make some revisions, change is intrinsic to performance — no two performances are ever exactly the same. Perhaps that’s why those who create musical theater seem to have a higher propensity than other artists to rethink their work, be it after the original production opened, for a film version, for a foreign production, or a revival. Sure, every once in a while there’s a Walt Whitman or a George Lucas who subjects his work to similar rethinking in other media, but in musical theater it’s almost de rigueur. In fact, some shows (such as 1927′s Show Boat) have undergone so many phases of transformation they’ve inspired a cottage industry of musical theater restoration that can rival the Biblical Source Criticism biz.

A production number from the 2000-2001 National Touring production of Godspell.I say all this by way of introducing this week’s song, “Beautiful City,” which comes from Godspell. The musical is a retelling of the Gospel according to Matthew, emphasizing the theme of community-building and interdependence. Godspell itself has an interesting history, originating as a college production that transferred to an off-off-Broadway theater. It was given a major overhaul (including an almost-entirely-new score by Stephen Schwartz) when it moved to a commercial Off-Broadway run in 1971. Following a long and successful run, it moved to Broadway in 1976 where it ran for another couple of years.

This song wasn’t a part of those original productions. The first version of “Beautiful City” was written for the 1973 film version of the show. In the film, it’s a pleasant but somewhat forgettable soft-rock tribute to the power of doing things together, very much in the mold of “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” (aka “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke”) from the same year. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the film, but I think it musicalizes the moment in which Jesus and his community enter Jerusalem (or, in the world of Godspell, New York) prior to the events of the passion narrative. Check it out:

In 1992, Schwartz was approached to contribute a new song for a production to be put on in Los Angeles following the Rodney King riots. Schwartz revisited “Beautiful City” and refashioned it into a song about urban renewal. The production never happened, but the song has been interpolated into most subsequent productions of the show. Of the song, he says:

I feel that the new lyrics are vastly superior to the ones used in the movie, which I find “drippy” and somewhat cloying. So I would prefer wherever it is used within the show, directors use the new lyrics. I don’t feel they are too specifically about Los Angeles if one doesn’t know they were originally written for that purpose; I feel their reference to urban blight and violence is universal enough.

Godspell 2001 National Touring Cast Recording

Beautiful City

from Godspell

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz

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Buy the CD!

This rendition comes from the 2000-2001 national touring production, directed by Schwartz’s son Scott. Although Stephen Schwartz has gone on record as preferring the song performed as a ballad late in the second act, Scott Schwartz’s use of the song as a rousing second-act curtain raiser is more to my taste, at least as a purely audio experience. Plus, this series of social justice showtunes has been a little ballad heavy, and for the week of Sukkot it feels appropriate to use a more upbeat song.

Someday, someone (maybe me?) will write a more thorough exploration of Schwartz’s biblical- and religious-themed work. In addition to Godspell, he’s the songwriter behind Prince of Egypt (the animated musical retelling of the Exodus story) and Children of Eden (a musical rethinking of the first nine chapters of Genesis). He wrote the lyrics to Bernstein’s Mass and Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame as well as the Jewish immigrant tale Rags (an ersatz follow-up to Fiddler on the Roof from librettist Joseph Stein). When I was still in college, I convinced our Office for the Arts to bring Schwartz for a series of master classes and seminars with students, partially in conjunction with a production of Children of Eden I was producing for our Hillel Drama group that semester. At the time, Schwartz noted that he was raised Jewish but without a particularly intense engagement with Judaism. These days, his official stance is that he doesn’t discuss his religious beliefs so they won’t get in the way of others appreciating his work.

For a song from a musical about Jesus, the song is surprisingly humanistic. The rallying cry is to build “not a city of angels, but finally a city of man.” A recent British production placed this song at the end of the show, at the moment when the community must recover from the crucifixion of their leader and move onward. That might be a shocking resolution to the story of Jesus, but in many ways it feels like a very Jewish approach to the loss of a leader or even to the feeling that God is absent. We don’t wait for signs from heaven – we know what we’re expected to do, and we go out and do it.

If you’re interested in learning about a Jewish organization working on urban renewal, The Jewish Council on Urban Affairs is one of the best. Although their work is focused on Chicago, their vision and values are applicable to pretty much any city in the world.