Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy
About the Film

As Sir Robin carols merrily to King Arthur in Monty Python’s Spamalot, “In any great adventure, if you don’t want to lose…you won’t succeed on Broadway if you don’t have any Jews.”

Eric Idle’s cheeky lyric, which unfailingly generated knowing guffaws from Broadway audiences, proves to be more than a little grounded in truth, as Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy convincingly attests.

This new 90-minute documentary by Michael Kantor, creator of the Emmy-winning series, Broadway: The American Musical, airs on Great Performances Tuesday, January 1 at 9:30 p.m. on PBS. (Check local listings.)

Watch a preview:

Great Performances is a production of THIRTEEN for WNET, one of America’s most prolific and respected public media providers. For 50 years, THIRTEEN has been making the most of the rich resources and passionate people of New York and the world, reaching millions of people with on-air and online programming that celebrates arts and culture, offers insightful commentary on the news of the day, explores the worlds of science and nature, and invites students of all ages to have fun while learning.

Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy – narrated by Joel Grey — explores the unique role of Jewish composers and lyricists in the creation of the modern American musical.  Featuring interviews and conversations with some of the greatest composers and writers of the Broadway stage, Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy showcases the work of some of the nation’s pre-eminent creators of musical theatre including Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, Kurt Weill, Sheldon Harnick, Jerry Bock, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz, Jule Styne and many others.

Though these remarkable songwriters were purveyors of what we think of today as the Broadway sound, the documentary demonstrates how there were echoes of Jewish strains in many of the works. From “Yiddishkeit” (all things Jewish) on the stages of the Lower East Side at the turn of the century to a wide range of shows including Porgy and BessWest Side Story and Cabaret, the film explores how Jewish music and ethos informs many of America’s favorite musicals.

Dynamic footage includes performances by stars such as David Hyde Pierce (Spamalot), Matthew Broderick and Kelli O’Hara (Nice Work if You Can Get It), Zero Mostel (Fiddler on the Roof), Betty Comden and Adolph Green (On the Town), Nathan Lane (The Producers), Al Jolson (Sinbad), Fanny Brice (The Great Ziegfeld), Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl), Joel Grey (Cabaret), Dick Van Dyke (Bye Bye Birdie), Danny Kaye (Lady in the Dark), Ethel Merman (Gypsy), and Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel (Wicked).

The film is the first of its kind to examine the phenomenon that, over the 50-year period of its development, the songs of the Broadway musical were created almost exclusively by Jewish Americans. These are the popular songs that our nation took to war, sang to their children at bedtime, and whistled while waiting for the bus; taken in total they comprise the vast majority of what is now commonly referred to as “The American Songbook.”

As historian Phil Furia cites as just one vivid example, Irving Berlin had so assimilated that he went on to “write the most popular Christmas song, ‘White Christmas’…and the most popular Easter song, ‘Easter Parade.’ It’s the Horatio Alger story told in Yiddish.”  Berlin’s “God Bless America” became so popular, it nearly replaced the National Anthem.

While Jewish Americans certainly abounded in other areas of the musical theater, their predominance in the area of songwriting was nearly complete, with only the Episcopalian Cole Porter represented as a major figure in the pantheon of America’s greatest composers of Broadway songs. And even Porter, after three Broadway flops, finally ascertained the surefire way to success: “I’m going to write Jewish tunes.”   As Andrew Lippa, the composer/lyricist ofThe Addams Family, points out in the film, “Porgy and Bess and Show Boat and Oklahoma! These are ideas that are fictions.  What do we make America into?  How do we take what we know and make it into America?”

The film features interviews with Arthur Laurents, Sheldon Harnick, John Kander, Andrew Lippa, Stephen Schwartz, Phyllis Newman, Charles Strouse, Harold Prince, Maury Yeston, Mary Rodgers Guettel, Ernie Harburg, Marc Shaiman, David Shire, Stephen Sondheim, Mel Brooks, Stephen Schwartz and many others.

Rare clips include Irving Berlin singing “God Bless America,” rehearsals for Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim’s Gypsy, and original South Pacific star William Tabbert singing “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” with Richard Rodgers at the piano.

The film was produced, written, and directed by Michael Kantor, whose Broadway: The American Musical series was originally viewed by an estimated 15 million people, and won the 2005 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Nonfiction Series.  Most recently, Kantor was executive producer of Give Me the Banjo hosted by Steve Martin, and one of the producers of “The Thomashefskys” with Michael Tilson Thomas (Great Performances March 28, 2012).  Kantor created Make ‘Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America, the Emmy-nominated six-part documentary series hosted by Billy Crystal that debuted on PBS in January 2009.  Other PBS credits include writer, director and producer of “Quincy Jones: In the Pocket” for American Masters, and producer of The West for PBS (Executive Producer Ken Burns).

Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy is an Albert M. Tapper production, and Barbara Brilliant is creator and executive producer. For Great Performances, Bill O’Donnell is series producer, and David Horn is executive producer.

Major funding for this program was provided by the Patty and Jay Baker Foundation, Judith B. Resnick, the Blavatnik Family Foundation, The Barbara and Buddy Freitag Family Fund, The Laurents / Hatcher Foundation, The National Museum of American Jewish History, The Ira and Leonore Gershwin Philanthropic Fund, The Shubert Organization, The Leslie and Roslyn Goldstein Foundation, and The Raymond Tye and Family Charitable Trust.

Major funding for Great Performances is provided by the Irene Diamond Fund, The National Endowment for the Arts, the LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, Vivian Milstein, The Agnes Varis Trust, the Starr Foundation, The Philip and Janice Levin Foundation, and PBS viewers.

Corporate support is provided by Stuart Weitzman and Family.

  • Eve

    I was so excited to see this but then I checked my local listings and apparently a performance from the Vienna Philharmonic will be airing in my area instead? So disappointing, I really wanted to see this documentary.

  • Rabbi Allen Secher

    Hard to understand how the show is getting such great press, including on your own web site and yet I can’t find it scheduled which means it’s probably scheduled for 2:00 AM when no one is watching.

  • Jozef

    5 shows in the Millionaire’s Club, the newest mbemer is Priscilla Queen of the Desert. The fan favorite is proving to be a big seller amongst tourists and should soon be selling at above 90% capacity.

  • Ivy

    you may need to look under Great Performances (the name of the series) rather than Broadway Musicals. In most major markets it is on at 9:30,

  • Kalista

    I just checked the listings. It’s on WNED Jan. 1 at 9:30 PM.

  • bob Guon

    can’t seem to find PBS station for Kalisipell, Mt. I have optimum cable can you help?

  • Roni Rumsey

    I’m in the Seattle/Tacoma area and have set my preferences as such. I can’t seem to find when it it playing using the schedule tab. I have Dish as a provider.

  • John Lloyd Walters

    Oscar Hammerstein II was not Jewish, his mother was Episcopalian, his father converted and Oscar II was rais as such.

  • lou levy

    I am very disappointed. Broadway Musicals – A Jewish Legacy was and is definitely not on this evening at 9:30 p.m. Please let me know when and if it will be on in the near future. Thank you.

  • In Houston, Texas

    FYI is airing again on Thursday at 2:30 happy for KUHT

  • Eyal

    How do I order the DVD? They showed a phone number at the end of the show but it didn’t show long enough for one to write it down.

  • Elaine Peters

    This is a superb program! Thank you!

  • allan lenzner

    can you tell me how to purchase this?

  • Carol

    The number to call to order the DVD is: 1-800-336-1917

  • blanche korngold

    I would like to order the DVD of Broadway Musicals – a Jewish Legacy. Please advise

  • Diana

    FANTASTIK!!!!!! My mom and I sang along with EVERY song and reminisced about every experience and emotion brought forth!!!!

  • Carol

    The number to call to order the DVD is: 1-800-336-1917

  • Jenny V.

    Loved it!

  • Shirley

    Loved it! Will it only air again on Thursday at 2:30 AM?

  • Dave Saltzman

    This was brilliantly done. Wonderful memories and wise insights. I only wish the film could have kept on going.

  • Tova Kaplan

    What a wonderful program it was to watch tonight. I had mixed feelings watching it because someone very dear to our family, my uncle, the late Dr. Jack Gottlieb (may he rest in peace) could not see the show. The subject matter was “right up his alley” as a composer, and author on Jewish subjects and themes. He also was a former assistant and longtime friend of the late great Leonard Bernstein. But to my great surprise my uncle’s name was listed in the closing credits. Thank you for recognizing my talented uncle who is dearly missed.

  • j. b.

    I enjoyed the show, the musicals, the artists behind their creation.

    However, the representation that Broadway is a Jewish gift from this country to the world seems to lose touch with the connection any artist or collaborative artists have with others. Nothing can take away from the talent that the many artists had which were Jewish. But to say it was a collective effort representing a Jewish effort takes something away from a universality that Broadway, any art forum has.

    I guess I would rather hear that from the artists themselves rather than have someone group them together, let alone PBS do it. PBS seems to be trying hard, maybe too hard with an objective in mind.

    In the end I guess I think it is less important who has greater ownership of something than having brought it to the world to share. Who owns a greater part of something seems to cause a good deal of trouble in our world.

  • R Richard Fish

    I wish to purchase a DVD copy of this program, Broadway Musicals, A Jewish Legacy. .?
    Please provide details.

  • Rita A. Lehr

    I thought the show was fantastic, and it certainly made me very proud to be a Jew

  • Mordechai

    When will this be rebroadcast???

  • Sue Krekeler

    I am catching the last hour of it now. So glad I saw this post. It is buried in the schedule. I don’t see it playing again for the next week. Too bad.

  • Heidi Gilbert

    my DVR did not record last night or early this morning (Jan 1 & 2) — when will it be rebroadcast?

  • C Hogan

    Why is this only scheduled once at a decent hour? I looked for another showing to alert my friends to watch .. and nothing, nada! Why?

  • Jim Yabrove

    Great program. Jewish people have made a huge contribution to America relative to their (our) size. Another great PBS series was:

  • Michael Raysson

    At first look, this seems to be a nice sweet show and that is all it is. It could have been something much more–but like much of PBS nowadays, it avoids any real depth, in this case, any note that some of these guys were more than squeaky clean. Controversial Broadway Jewish composers like the great Marc Blitzstein are totally ignored. Why is this? Why should an anti-capitalist, anti corporate, but extremely important (and extremely interesting) composer like Blitzstein be left out. Alas, the new corporate PBS has no guts and totally fails to live up to its original mission statement. Blitzstein was a communist who refused to squeal on anyone at the McCarthy hearings. His show “The Cradle Will Rock” was directed by none other than Orson Wells and was the subject of a film by Tim Robbins. Leonard Bernstein loved him and his work. How could he not be included in this supposed documentary.

  • ninja

    tonight – well actually – tomorrow morning at 2:am est. blah.

  • Karen Zisser

    Michael, I know that there were many more Jewish composers that were not mentioned in the 90 minutes show. However, I thought it was really wonderdul and and gave a great insight where it all began. Sometimes people are never satisfied. Too bad. But I did enjoy what was offered. Calm down and don’t bring in the politics.

  • Steve Borne

    It was on last night, Jan. 6th from 10:00 PM to 11:30 PM. The show was really good, I could not change the channel. Through the years, I have played many of the songs that were mentioned in the program. People loved the songs in the shows and they love hearing them again and again. It brings back fond memories of some good times and some great shows on and off Broadway and in the movies. Thanks PBS.

  • Fern Shaffer

    Can you buy this video.?

  • Jerry Kalman

    Michael –

    When son, Jonathan (your Cornell pal) e-mailed us about your forthcoming show on PBS, we filed the info for future reference. Then we watched the show unexpectedly and extolled in its touching on the beauty of the many composers and artists who brought the “Golden Years” to Broadway. That my wife and I lived in New York at a time when many of the shows were on Broadway and we were fortunate enough to see the original productions with the original casts only added to our enjoyment of your work.

    We are always surprised when reading “Leave a Reply(s)” and find that all the supposed “critics” fail to understand the creativity and work that goes in to producing a work that brings such enjoyment to a myriad of mult -aged people. Keep up the good work; you’ve refreshed many fine memories for us. – Jerry and Elaine Kalman

  • Stacie Greene

    Can I buy this episode?

  • david ernst

    Hi Stacie,

    This program will be available on DVD in the near future. We’ll let you know when it becomes available.

    Thanks for your question. We’re glad you enjoyed the show!

  • fai harris

    when can i order the dvd please…

  • Susan Katz

    Same question, when can I order the DVD. My Broadway loving almost 92 year old father will really enjoy it!

  • david ernst

    Dear Susan,

    Anyone interested in ordering the DVD for Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy can watch the full program, available on our website at “Watch the Full Film” on the Jewish Legacy webpage and the PBS video portal. The purchasing info is towards the end of the program at the beginning of the credits. You can fast forward to the end using the cursor, but we hope you watch it again! Hope this helps.

  • Judy Miller

    I’m pretty sure I placed an order for te DVD of Broadway, A Jewish Legacy, on line on the PBS web site right after watching the program. It hasn’t arrived and I don’t see a charge on my credit card statement yet. Please let me know when and if this DVD will be mailed to me. If you don’t see an order for it, I will gladly place it again if someone would contact me.

    I hope to have it by February 10. Do you think that is possible?
    Many thanks,
    Judy Miller



  • david ernst

    Dear Anita,

    The DVD IS available for purchase. Info can be found at the end of the program which is available to stream in full online.

    Thanks for your question and we’re glad you enjoyed it so much!

  • Peggy lambert

    An an amazing “bringing together” of history that we knew was there as we saw and loved each new production over the years, but this is a masterpiece amalgamating long over due recognition of extraordinary talent. The footage of old performances, the stills, the interviews – all we’re superb!

  • Adrienne Guss

    Same question. Where and when can I purchase a video of Broadway Musicals, a Jewish Legacy?

    What a wonderful program. We are inviting friends over to view this amazing program!

  • Karen K.

    24 March 2013

    Please let me know how/when I can purchase the DVD of this program.
    Thank you!

  • Michael Thompson

    Hi, im in England, where can I get a copy of this programme on DVD. ?


  • Max Gilford

    What a treat this was! When I saw my grandfather, Jack GIlford’s, face staring lovingly at Lotte in those Cabaret stills I kvelled. Thank you for continuing to put on such consistently great work. And a special thank you for your generous amount of Broadway-focused programming. -Max

  • Susan

    Is this DVD available yet..and where/how can I purchase it, please.

  • Toby R Madison

    What a fantastic production! I was really so proud of my ethnicity.

  • Gertrude Seybod


  • Richard Ivker

    I wish to purchase dvd of this documentary film. Could you please direct me as to how and where the same can be purchased. Thank you

  • JIm Mica

    Just caught this on a central NY station. This was a marvelous show with lots of depth.

    I was particularly taken by the way the Jewish liturgical music has made its way into the great American Songbook. I’d heard some of this before but was quite struck by how “It Ain’t Necessarily So” comes from a chant intoned before the reading of the Torah. Can you point me to some source material on this? If offers us a profound view of the way scripture is interpreted that, quite rightly, trumps Biblical Literalism.

    Thanks for a wonderful job.

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