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Becoming a Rock and Roll Rabbi

Date: Jul 25, 2013


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Welcome to Building Character, TDF's ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles

To play the "Rock Star Rabbi" Shlomo Carlebach in the musical Soul Doctor, Eric Anderson had to learn how to pronounce Hebrew words, how to play the guitar, and the history of the man himself. "Shlomo was a completely unique individual in that he was an Orthodox rabbi who out of circumstances of the time became a symbol of universal love," Anderson says.

Shlomo Carlebach was a rabbi who befriended jazz singer Nina Simone and wrote music combining Jewish and American popular styles. He started the House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco in the late 60s and gained a following of young hippies looking for spirituality. Soul Doctor, now on Broadway at Circle in the Square, tracks his greatest successes and his struggles to reconcile his faith with the free love era. Anderson has been with the show since a 2011 production in Florida, and he earned a Drama Desk nomination for an Off-Broadway run last year.

"Playing an actual person that people knew is a huge responsibility," the actors says. "Especially when it's of the caliber of Shlomo, who moved so many people and who so many people considered their best friend. Everybody had a certain Shlomo that they knew."

Deep research shapes Anderson's performance. "We live in such a beautiful day and age where there are so many resources when you're playing an actual person," he says. "There was a wealth of riches. He looked at YouTube clips, downloaded Carlebach's albums, read about him, and before the off-Broadway production, took a 10-day trip to Israel. "I eventually got to spend some time on Shlomo's moshav [an Israeli town] and spend Shabbos with members of the House of Love and Prayer out there, which was one of the most amazing experiences having to do with the show."

To hear Anderson use words like "moshav" and "Shabbos," you'd think he's used them all his life, but he's actually not Jewish. "It was a whole added pressure at first, but the producers talked to me about it and about how he transcended all religions and all beliefs into such a general love that they kind of thought that it was cool that I wasn't, because it was more symbolic of what he taught and what he sang about---that all brothers and sisters are the same and we're all in this together," Anderson says.

Goodwill aside, however, he remains vigilant about his Hebrew pronunciation. "I still check in with audience members to make sure that I was convincing," he says.

Then there's the physical aspect of the performance: Anderson is onstage for most of the show, which is just under three hours, and he's usually dancing, singing, or jumping. "I've actually been jumping more lately than when we first started doing the run, just out of trying to replicate the whole Hassidim feel," he says.

Creating this role for the stage has had some unexpected benefits for Anderson's real life. "To be able to play a role that is so about joy and so about acceptance and so about bringing people together despite their differences, for me personally, it's only made me a better person," he says. "I think in our business, if we're doing it right, we continue to refine our work and continue to become better actors, but when you have the ability to become a better person on top of it because of the material and the person that you're playing, it's a rare privilege."


Linda Buchwald tweets about theatre as @ PataphysicalSci. She contributes to StageGrade and the theatre blog Pataphysical Science</em>

Photo by Carol Rosegg