By KENNETH JONES
At a recent matinee of the new musical Stars of David: Story to Song, now playing a limited engagement through Dec. 15 at Off-Broadway's DR2, actor Aaron Serotsky spoke the Hebrew words "l'dor v'dor" as he played billionaire businessman Edgar Bronfman, Sr., who ruminates on the importance of sharing Jewish identity, rituals, and history with his grandchild.
From the third row, an aging woman with experience etched on her face replied with the English translation of the phrase: "From generation to generation." Serotsky heard it, nodded to her, and spoke her words, which are also in the script. Generations---parents and grandparents, children and grandchildren---are at the core of the four-actor revue based on Abigail Pogrebin's best-selling 2005 book of interviews Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish.
Tony Award-winning producer Daryl Roth, who is producing the current five-week developmental run of Stars of David with the goal of a future regional licensing life (and perhaps another Manhattan production), was pleased to hear about that bit of audience participation. "That is, for me, the reason that I wanted to do this," she says. "Now, as a parent and a grandparent, I think the most important thing is passing on what's important to us---tradition, how you feel about your place in the world, your identity."
The 80-minute show is a lean, sleek mosaic of 16 new songs by two dozen multi-generational songwriters, with monologues and fragments from the book serving as a kind of narrative glue. Roth, Pogrebin, director Gordon Greenberg, and co-conceiver Aaron Harnick are using the run to meticulously fit the puzzle pieces together.
The 62 subjects in the book, each talking about their relationship with Judaism, represent a wide range of personalities and disciplines: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; feminist Gloria Steinem; designers Kenneth Cole and Diane Von Furstenberg; actors Leonard Nimoy, Fran Drescher, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Alexander, and Gene Wilder; writers Tony Kushner, Neil Simon, Stephen Sondheim, and Aaron Sorkin; directors Mike Nichols, Paul Mazursky, Harold Prince, and Steven Spielberg; journalists Don Hewitt and Mike Wallace; and many more.
The list of songwriters is a mix of the established and the emerging, including Tony winners Marvin Hamlisch, Tom Kitt, Lisa Lambert, Duncan Sheik, and Steven Sater; Broadway vets Amanda Green, Susan Birkenhead, Jeanine Tesori and Marilyn & Alan Bergman; and Off-Broadway comers like Gaby Alter, Daniel Messé, Chris Miller, Itamar Moses, Nathan Tysen, and Michael Friedman.
Deciding what to choose from the chapters is an "agonizing" process, Pogrebin says. "You have giants in the book, and then you have giants in the theatre world writing songs. There's a million moving pieces here."
She adds with a laugh, "I have a document that's called 'Quotes to Include or Not,' and I've gone back to it many times. [The show] has forced me to re-read not just the book, but my original transcripts of the interviews. This has meant reading it with a different eye: Looking for a moment that will make them laugh. Or Gordon would ask, 'Did they say anything about family? Their bar mitzvah? Marrying outside the faith?'"
The idea "generations," however, remains firm. The age range of the participating songwriters reflects that continuum of experience: Tony Award-winning Fiddler on the Roof lyricist Sheldon Harnick, who wrote the song about TV writer-producer Norman Lear, is 89 years old, while composer-lyricist Alan Schmuckler, who explores the heart of food writer Ruth Reichl, is 30. (Schmuckler is also in the cast, sharing the stage with Janet Metz, Donna Vivino, and the aforementioned Serotsky, who are supported by four onstage musicians led by music director Mark Hartman.)
Roth likens the style of Stars of David to the first show that she produced Off-Broadway, Closer Than Ever, the 1989 Richard Maltby-David Shire revue in which rueful and funny story-songs stood alone under the umbrella idea of "doors"---people making transitions and passages in their lives. (It's not by chance that there are two new songs by Maltby and Shire in this new creation.)
The musical also echoes the Broadway revue Working, based on Studs Terkel's 1974 oral-history book about people's jobs. In recent seasons, Greenberg directed a revised version of that multiple-songwriter show, first regionally and then Off-Broadway in 2012.
"[The throughline of] parents and children sort of emerged as the powerful idea in Stars of David," Greenberg says. "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."
Kenneth Jones is a theatre journalist and dramatist who writes at ByKennethJones.com and elsewhere.
Photo by Carol Rosegg