What’s On My Mind

What Makes Sammy Sing and Dance?

What is it with us Jews and the media? We all know about Jews in Hollywood (well, we think we know), and there have been countless in Jews rock ’n’ roll hiding out behind Gentile names (The Ramones were not always called the Ramones), but Jews were up to their necks in the “legitimate” or “Broadway” stagetoo. And don’t count Oscar Hammerstein II of South Pacific fame, who was an Episcopalian (although several generations back, the family ha been Jewish). Lerner and Loew, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Fred Ebb, Frank Loesser, Jerome Kern, Jeff Marx, Stephen Schwartz, Leonard Bernstein and the godlike Stephen Sondheim are just some of the Jewish roadway giants. And let’s not forget the producers (Merrick Ziegfeld, and Prince), choreographers (Jerome Robbins) and directors (Elia Kazan and the late Mike Nichols), and playwrights (Neil Simon, Clifford Odets, Moss Hart and Arthur Miller). Other than their families of provenance, is there anything that links these artists together? Here’s something: Each of them, in a personal way and an artistic way, exemplified and portrayed people who were perceived by others and by themselves as marginal or as “outsiders.” In the modern world we Jews live in two cultures at the same time: majority culture and Jewish culture, and our identities are chapped by the point of balance determine between them. And as people in such an anomalous position, we are always trying to explain who we are to other and to ourselves. Hence, the disproportionate (?) interest in artistic expression.

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Kurt Weil and Lotte Lenya

A politically conscious and prolific composer who collaborated with Bertolt Brecht to create The Threepenny Opera in 1928, Kurt Weil was born within a religious Jewish family in Dessau, Germany on this date in 1900. His father was a cantor, and Weil showed musical talent at an early age. He wrote his first string quartet at 18, and in 1922 he joined the Novembergruppe, a society of progressive artists in Berlin, through which he met his future actress wife, the great Lotte Lenya. Throughout the 1920s and early ’30s, Weil became a prominent theater composer and songwriter, and wrote several pieces with Jewish themes, but he had to flee from Nazi Germany in 1933 after being targeted by the fascists for his populist and socialist views. After creative sojourns in Paris and London, he came to the U.S. in 1935 and began to incorporate American themes into his music in such works as “Speak Low” (words by Ogden Nash) – which you can hear Weil singing by clicking here and scrolling down – Down in the Valley, a short opera (1945-48) that incorporated several American folk songs, and Street Scene, a musical with lyrics by Langston Hughes, which won the first Tony Award for Best Original Score in 1947. Weil died at age 50 of a heart attack. Lotte Lenya worked mightily to keep his works in the public eye.”I have never acknowledged the difference between serious music and light music. There is only good music and bad music.” –Kurt Weil (From Jewish Currents/Jewdayo)

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