Stars of David: Story to Song, a new musical that mixes comic, rueful and ruminative songs about how prominent Jews approach Judaism, is in the middle of a five-week run at Off-Broadway’s DR2 Theatre, now to Dec. 15. I spoke to director Gordon Greenberg, co-conceiver Abigail Pogrebin and producer Daryl Roth about the genesis and development of the revue.
Check out the piece that I wrote about Stars of David for TDF Stages, the theatre news and feature arm of Theatre Development Fund.
Tony Award winner Roth (The Normal Heart, Kinky Boots) in association with Harbor Entertainment is producing the current public test run of Stars of David with the hope of a future licensing or touring life. But a wider Off-Broadway life is inevitable for Stars of David in 2014, right?
“Not necessarily,” Roth says of the work in progress, which is one of many properties under the wing of the newly formed Daryl Roth Theatrical Licensing. “What we decided to do is birth it here at the DR2 and then put our efforts into having it go to other places, other cities — maybe a mini-tour — and keep our options open for doing it in New York at any time. It might just come up as a holiday thing.”
Daryl Roth Theatrical Licensing director Erica Lynn Schwartz is in discussions with regional artistic directors, producers and presenters who are already interested in the project, with Florida, Chicago and Toronto as possibilities, Roth says, adding, “We’ll see what’s best — we’re going to let the stars tell us.”
The musical borrows content from Abigail Pogrebin’s 2005 book of interviews “Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish,” a popular tome that has had eight hardcover printings. The book features more than 60 interviews covering an array of disciplines and personalities — writers, moguls, politicians, directors, lawyers, actors, designers and others. The revue’s subjects include Leonard Nimoy, Aaron Sorkin, Gloria Steinem, Kenneth Cole, Edgar Bronfman, Sr., Mike Nichols, Wendy Wasserstein, Al Franken, Beverly Sills, Steven Spielberg, Gene Wilder, Jason Alexander and many more, represented in either complete songs or in spoken sections.
Conceived by Pogrebin and Harbor’s Aaron Harnick, and directed by Greenberg, the show uses nearly two dozen contemporary songwriters — Amanda Green, Nathan Tysen, Itamar Moses, Daniel Messé, Gaby Alter, Marvin Hamlisch, Duncan Sheik, Jeanine Tesori, Susan Birkenhead, Steven Sater, Tom Kitt, Marilyn & Alan Bergman, among others — to weave together a sleek and lean four-actor experience.
For the record, there are three chapters currently in the show that were not part of the book (Gwyneth Paltrow, Michael Feinstein and Andy Cohen), added as an effort to include some younger subjects (Paltrow and Cohen) and to address the heritage of Jewish writers responsible for creating the American Songbook (Feinstein, who co-wrote a song with The Drowsy Chaperone‘s Lisa Lambert).
Good taste is a major selling point for Stars of David. There are no garish pink or lime-green “musical revue” colors in the costuming (by Alejo Vietti). The stage is uncluttered, except for the occasional chair. An upstage screen captures light, projections and video. The four musicians led by Mark Hartman are in full view, also upstage. Scenic design is by Clint Ramos. Orchestrations and arrangements are by Sam Davis and Neil Douglas Reilly.
Stars of David is in good hands with a cast that includes Janet Metz, Alan Schmuckler, Aaron Serotsky and Donna Vivino — gifted actor-singers with variety, nuance and pipes. This is not a broad impersonation show suitable for the Borscht Belt (though we do get glimmers of Fran Drescher’s nasality and Joan Rivers’ acidity). It’s classy, smart, tight.
The experience would feel at home and thrive in Jewish community centers or intimate commercial and regional houses in markets where Jews have gathered to form community (that is, just about everywhere). That’s the plan for this 80-minute, (so-far) 16-song entertainment. (There’s no denying that there are universal elements to the show, but there’s also no denying that, at core, the show is ultimately audience-specific.)
The creators want to get Stars of David aligned and confident during this run, and the audience response has been valuable. “Every week we’re putting in changes, letting it find itself,” Greenberg says. For example, composer-lyricist Amanda Green rewrote her Joan Rivers lyric in recent days; Schmuckler (who is also a contributing songwriter) recently clarified his lyric about food writer Ruth Reichl; actors and director are constantly asking questions about the shape, order and content of the show’s “book,” which is made up of monologues and fragments that bleed into songs.
Its model seems to be the multi-songwriter, single-theme 1978 revue Working, a revised version of which Greenberg directed regionally and then Off-Broadway in 2012. The cult-hit musical with Broadway, PBS, regional and stock & amateur cred is based on Studs Terkel’s oral history book about people and their jobs.
Roth has a different template: She says that the 1989 Richard Maltby & David Shire revue Closer Than Ever — the first thing that she produced in New York — was her model for Stars of David. Both shows feature four actors, no set, one theme and smart writing that is emotionally rangy. Maltby & Shire wrote two songs (Aaron Sorkin and a title number) for Roth’s latest endeavor. Call it Stars of David Working Closer Than Ever.
An earlier draft of Stars of David, with a larger book by Charles Busch and a Pogrebin-like character at the center of the famous personalities, was seen in a staging by Philadelphia Theatre Company in 2012. Pogrebin says, “[It was] very loosely based on me because my life is not colorful enough.”
Greenberg, a director and librettist, has worked on a refreshed version of Yentl with music by Jill Sobule; a new version of The Pirates of Penzance for Goodspeed Musicals and Paper Mill Playhouse (it’s called Pirates! Or Gilbert and Sullivan Plunder’d); the new ’60s-set musical The Single Girl’s Guide, inspired by Jane Austen’s “Emma” and the age of Helen Gurley Brown; the teen musical Band Geeks!; and the Goodspeed-bound new stage version of the Fred Astaire-Bing Crosby movie musical “Holiday Inn,” which will premiere in 2014.
Journalist Pogrebin’s other books are “One and the Same: My Life As an Identical Twin and What I’ve Learned About Everyone’s Struggle to Be Singular” (her twin is New York Times arts writer Robin Pogrebin) and the Kindle book “Showstopper,” a chronicle of her time as a teenage actress in the original Broadway production of Merrily We Roll Along.
I’ll let Greenberg and Pogrebin tell the story. Here’s my chat with them.
I grew up Catholic, but I found that watching Stars of David stirred up my own questions of spirituality, faith, family tradition and more.
Gordon Greenberg: The hope was that in its specificity, it has a universality. It certainly ended up as an exploration for me, personally. It’s not something I’ve given a lot of thought to. As one gets older and roots grow deeper, you start to think about spirituality and what it means. Not only in terms of religious context, but in terms of heritage: How a knowledge of where you come from helps inform where you’re going, learning from lessons from the past but also looking at whose shoulders you’re standing on.
Were you raised Jewish?
Gordon Greenberg: Yes, but a very secular version of Judaism typical of the New York suburbs, where you go once or twice a year and don’t really understand the details of what you’re a part of aside from the social implications, and a big over-the-top bar mitzvah that looked like a wedding in India — very ornate, all the trappings of a big party. I was a singer when I was 13, so it was all about showing off my great vibrato — and the white suit that I got.
How did you become involved with Stars of David?
Gordon Greenberg: I got a call from Daryl Roth. She was, in a small way, involved in a commercial production of Working for Broadway in Chicago. Based on that, she thought it would be a good match, because it’s similarly documentary material that we’re trying to mold into a dramatic evening of songs and monologues.
What was the genesis of the show? Who had the idea to make a musical from the book?
Abigail Pogrebin: It was not my idea. It was Aaron Harnick’s idea. He’s a producer, with Harbor Entertainment. Daryl Roth is the main producer, but it was Aaron’s original idea. He came to me and said, “I think your book could be a musical.” I kinda thought he was nuts and laughed. But we tried it: I wrote a song with Tom Kitt. Aaron put us together. We tried writing a couple of songs. They were flawed but they kind of hit on something: In all of these interviews, when people are honest there’s a certain amount of revelation, and where there’s revelation, there’s intrigue. Honesty can be very dramatic, it can be emotional, it can give you an arc. The elements you would need for a song were in these stories. That began to make sense to me.
Aaron approached Daryl Roth and she felt something was there. We began to approach other composers. Similar to the way the way the book is full of different voices, why not make it musically different voices, as well, not just have one interpretation of these stories? We were approaching composers we had relationships with…offering up the book as a whole [for songwriters to have their pick] or offering chapters.
Gordon Greenberg: Their initial idea was that many of the chapters could become songs. When I first got involved — because I’d been in the trenches with Working for so many years trying to figure out how to make a show with no protagonist satisfying and give it an arc — I said, “Let’s try to find a protagonist and see if we can make the narrative, somehow.” So we enlisted Charles Busch, who wrote a hilariously funny and quirky — in his own inimitable way — book that riffed on a fictional version of Abby and her family. She was a woman suffering from an identity crisis and a crisis of faith who was provoked to do this series of interviews both for personal and professional reasons. Every time she went on another interview, we’d hear a new song. It wove together interestingly.
The big problem was that the fictional material that Charles wrote, which was very, very funny, in some ways made the documentary material less believable. You didn’t enjoy the fact that these were verbatim words that we’re crafting into songs and monologues.
I think part of the enjoyment of material like this, as it was in Working, is that these are actual human beings’ words. There’s no artifice. The theatricality is all about illuminating aspects of humanity that are already contained in their words and humor. In some ways, Charles’ quirky world undermined what was already special about the documentary material. And then vice versa: The documentary material started to make Charles’ world look more absurd. It was tonally a big departure.
Abigail Pogrebin: It was discordant; it felt like two kinds of show. It was Daryl who said, “Let’s strip it down and go back to the songs; the connective tissue will be quotes from the book.”
The world premiere was by Philadelphia Theatre Company in 2012.
Gordon Greenberg: It was a beautiful, lavish production that Aaron and Daryl supervised, and [PTC executive producing artistic director] Sara Garonzik gave them lots of great support. It was a really pleasant experience, but ultimately, these too different approaches were clashing rather than enhancing each other. We went back to the drawing board, and said, “Let’s look at this again as a song cycle with text that is closer in nature to Working than [Busch’s] The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, say. I miss working with Charles! It was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had, and one of the most consistently hilarious.
Now, there’s a smaller jewel-box quality to the physical production.
Gordon Greenberg: I wanted the whole thing to be elegant, small and economical, so that everything is reduced to its simplest and purest and truest elements. We’re polishing these words that we’ve unearthed and reassembled and shining a special light on them.
I’m always drawn to what’s funny. Let the funny lead, and let the humanity bubble up and let people find it. I’m not big on pedagogy and preaching. In a show like this where it’s about people being circumspect and thinking about their heritage and spirituality, the trick of it is to see it from lots of different vantage points.
What was the key to figuring out the order and shape of the narrative?
Gordon Greenberg: We started with questions and simple ideas, things that people are dealing with in the earlier parts of their lives. And as the evening progresses the questions and the material become increasingly complex, which is why the third to last song is [about Angels in America Pulitzer Prize winner] Tony Kushner [in a rich song by Michael Friedman]. You start to get deeper and deeper.
One of the most memorable sequences in Stars of David comes when Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg talks about how hurt and voiceless she felt when she was not allowed to publicly pray at her mother’s funeral. Men make up the prayer minyan, women are not allowed. There’s a rich irony there that she’s on our highest court, and that she felt shut out by her own faith. [The lyric is by Pogrebin, the music is by Next to Normal Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Kitt, with Janet Metz giving it moving voice.]
Abigail Pogrebin: When I was writing the lyrics, that part of her interview spoke to me so strongly because my mother had the same experience when she was 15 — literally, the same experience. That was wholly a coincidence. Daryl wanted me to flag a little more strongly in the lyric that this is someone who went into the law. She felt this injustice and decided to pursue law. I don’t think there’s any accident. That came through in her interview, her sense of when things were just or unjust. That was a very private, personal moment of injustice.
“Parents” and “generations” and “legacy” are major ideas in the show.
Gordon Greenberg: Yes, “passing it along,” and what you get from your parent, for better or worse. I think that sort of emerged as the powerful idea. Weirdly, it is kind of the culminating idea in Working as well: Why do we do it? Why do we work? So I can make a better life than the one my dad made for me.
I’m struck by the age range of songwriters who wrote for the show: The youngest seems to be Alan Schmuckler  and the oldest is Sheldon Harnick [who will turn 90 in April 2014]. Sheldon [known mostly for his lyrics, but here writing lyrics and music for a song about TV producer Norman Lear] is Aaron Harnick’s uncle. And he’s a God of the musical theatre.
Gordon Greenberg: For God’s sake, he wrote Fiddler on the Roof! How much more appropriate can you be for a project like this? We [also] looked for people who weren’t so on the nose, so first-thought. Between Daryl, Aaron, Abby and myself we reached out to people that we respected.
Of course, the downside of this was that not every song written for the show is going to work in the show. Currently we have about 18 songs in the show; there are at least as many — really wonderful songs written by very, very high level accomplished wonderful composers — that we were unable to use, just based on tone and not quite fitting into the overall idea that we were building toward. That is the saddest part: There’s this trunkful of excellent songs that we were unable to use as part of this evening. [The Philly premiere included songs by Marc Shaiman and William Finn that did not survive the move to New York.] But the people whose songs are currently in it, from Marvin Hamlisch to Ducan Sheik to Jeanine Tesori to Tom Kitt — it’s a pretty illustrious and varied group.
Are all of the songwriters Jewish?
Gordon Greenberg: Most. Jeanine Tesori was my music teacher at camp, she was at my bar mitzvah. She’s not Jewish, but, seeing as how she taught at Stagedoor [Manor Performing Arts Camp in the Catskills], I think that’s pretty Jewish! I called her. I wanted her to be a part of it because of her amazing ability to connect. [She co-wrote] the Gloria Steinem piece, [addressing] the notion of how women and women’s roles in the culture and religion have evolved. It’s still one of my favorite pieces.
Performances began Nov. 13. Is the show “frozen” yet?
Gordon Greenberg: It won’t be during this run. I’m a tinkerer, and fascinated by the Rubik’s Cube of putting together a play or a musical. I want to keep drafting and polishing [Stars of David] and make sure that what we’re putting into the world is a potent, rich, poetic piece of theatre.
The DR2 Theatre is at 103 East 15th Street in Manhattan. Learn more about Stars of David at its official website.