b y Carrie Chapter, PTC Dramaturg

In the Beginning…Lights Up!

Rome was not built in a day – neither was the American musical.

If you have strolled down 42nd Street in the last ten or so years, you have probably seen a distinct pattern of marquees – the movie-musical, the jukebox musical, or the latest British import musical, perhaps. However, these new subgenres exist more as the products of our time than descendants of a hallowed lineage. After all, the musical only developed its American identity following nearly a century of imported ballad operas and burlesques until the era of vaudeville when George M. Cohan laid the foundation for the musical comedy standard. Then, finally, we entered the age of the songwriter/librettist dynamic with the music of Rodgers & Hart, Jerome Kern, the Gershwins, and auspiciously soared onward for years to come. The American musical, in its past, present and future, remains a valuable (and enviable) commodity.

But, how does one build such an art form? Do the lyrics come first, or does the music make the muse? And, what about a libretto – how do you write a cogent storyline to support a musical? Realistically, how long does it take to put whole show together? – The latter question is possibly most varied; one classic work, GYPSY, is rumored to have taken less than a year to write, complete, and produce while most musicals today take approximately 3-5 years or more. Of course, the timeline often relies on the type of musical being created. Our world premiere musical, STARS OF DAVID, represents a special case, and its process speaks to its unique, peerless position in our contemporary canon.

The Source Material

It all started with an idea. Abigail Pogrebin’s book, Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish, was published in 2005 and contained essays reflecting Pogrebin’s series of interviews with Jewish public figures. Praise poured out plentifully for the book. Publishers Weekly hailed it as “consistently engaging” while People magazine marveled at how “the responses [were] as varied as fingerprints.” Pogrebin’s aim for writing the book mirrored its reception, as she noted: “For a long time, I’d looked at famous Jews and wondered where something so private as religious identity fits into a public life[…]So I wondered if being Jewish mattered at all to these Jews, whether they felt proud of their heritage or burdened by it, whether they felt a special obligation – as a public figure – to wear their Jewishness more vocally, or whether it was something they felt the need to play down so they’d have a more “universal” appeal in their particular profession.   I wanted to sit down with people I’d long watched –and for the most part admired –to see how honest they would be about something all of us wrestle with on some level.”

At first, explaining what I was thinking was not easy. – Aaron Harnick, Conceiver

Watering the Musical Seed

Her passion behind the book attracted the attention of an old family friend, producer Aaron Harnick, who would become the conceiver of STARS OF DAVID, the musical.

“She was my older sister’s best friend,” recalled Harnick, “ For big occasions, she would take existing songs and make up these terribly funny, sophisticated lyrics to fit the occasion – with three part harmonies, etc. –  everyone would look forward to them and be blown away. Once I started producing I was always on the lookout for great lyricists and I told Abby that when the time was right and she wanted to try to write a song from scratch to let me know.” The proposition to write a musical had been made, but the notion of musicalizing a series of interviews presented an unorthodox challenge.

Documentary theatre, the “docu-drama”, had tackled the interview structure, but it was remote territory for a prospective musical. As Pogrebin remembered: “I was a little wary at first because I would never want these interviews to feel trivialized in song and dance, but Aaron convinced me that they’d be handled truthfully in all their complexity – while still trying to capture both the ambivalence people feel, their pathos and humor at the same time.” Harnick and Pogrebin decided to take the form for a test drive first before moving forward. “I told her [Pogrebin] to pick a chapter and I would get her someone to write the music,” says Harnick, “- she picked the Ruth Bader Ginsburg chapter – I picked Tom Kitt and they wrote that song. We sent it to Justice Ginsburg who wrote back that she loved it and gave permission to use it in a show – she did have a line change, which she wrote on Supreme Court stationary. I knew we had a show then.”

From that point on, this is how each song would be created; it was actually composer Tom Kitt who, in conversation with Harnick, suggested that different composers and lyricists “adopt” each interview subject because such diverse personalities should be outfitted with equally distinctive musical voices, especially since many songwriters had natural connections with the interview subjects, like Marvin Hamlisch’s relationship with Alan & Marilyn Bergman.

This show is unlike any other musical I’ve ever seen, let alone worked on. It’s both a musical revue but also a non-musical play. – Charles Busch, Librettist

Forming a Musical Team

A multitude of famous folks were plucked from the page to be paired with a roster of talented composers and lyricists. Throughout the extensive workshop process, some subjects were added, rewritten, or simply (politely) omitted from the rehearsal draft. Like Pogrebin and Kitt’s work with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, permission had to be given by each interview subject for each musical “rendering,” which was a painstaking process in its own right. Soon, director Gordon Greenberg jumped on board; Greenberg’s expert management and vision for intricately woven musicals, like Studs Terkel’s WORKING, solidified his role in this project.

Once the “stars” aligned musically, the question of the libretto loomed large. Who could provide the story to go with the songs? Harnick knew exactly what he wanted in a librettist: “We knew we wanted it to be short, fast, and funny and that’s why Charles Busch was the perfect choice… the last thing I wanted to create was a boring Jewish lecture.” Busch recollected when Greenberg approached him about the project: “I was totally unfamiliar with Abby’s book or Abby[…]  All he [Greenberg] needed was for me to write a few short monologues in the voice of the agitated Jewish lady I had written about in plays like THE TALE OF THE ALLERGIST’S WIFE. Sounded simple enough. Never believe any sentence starting with ‘All you need to do is…’. This show is unlike any other musical I’ve ever seen, let alone worked on. It’s both a musical revue but also a non-musical play.”

Marrying Text with Music

As Busch soon realized, the storyline was not the material of an ordinary song cycle musical. Rather, the songs required a connection point, a home base, in order to build an arc, as well as a sense of purpose, to each musical and book moment. Busch, though, did bring up a salient point as to why STARS OF DAVID stands out in its creative process: “Usually, the librettist works with the composer and lyricist and the songs come out of his play. In this case, many composers and lyricists were asked to musicalize various interviews from Abby’s book, [separately]. […] Since it took a long time for all the songs to be gathered, it seemed best for me to wait until then and somehow build a structure to contain them.” The time had come to wed the words to the music. Luckily, music arranger Sam Davis gave each tune a flexible body – allowing the music to move with the text.

Waiting in the Wings

After a workshop process, STARS OF DAVID migrated to the center ring of the rehearsal space. However, the rehearsals did not exactly follow the standard schedule because, as a work-in-development, the script is still changing. Its shape-shifting quality was due to revisions in both the book and music; the dramatic structure of the musical fluctuated as new songs were integrated into the story, and the sequence of the songs were re-evaluated and sorted. Harnick posed this visual for how this musical differed in its level of involvement: “Don’t forget, this is like producing 30 musicals at one time.” Though, by the time rehearsal started, there were some composer-lyricist teams who have “adopted” more than one interview subject, making a grand total 21 composers and lyricists contributing to the work – an unparalleled level of participation in any musical venture.

For her role in the rehearsal process, author/lyricist Abigail Pogrebin viewed her time as a learning experience: “It’s an education to watch how something moves from the page to the stage – to learn what the demands of a theatrical piece require and to watch ‘the experts’ at work — meaning director Gordon Greenberg and writer Charles Busch.  I also have been awed by the songwriters’ talents and reminded of how powerfully music captures an emotion — even more effectively sometimes than when the same story is read.”

Appreciating the Life of a New Work

The depth and extent of this particular creative process made it a rare and vigorous musical endeavor. In terms of the range of its collaboration, it rose as a monolithic theatrical event. Pogrebin especially carried a personal connection (and a childhood love rekindled): “My not-so-secret secret is that I was obsessed with musicals as a kid. I knew the lyrics to almost any show you can name, my twin sister and I – when we were 8,9,10 years old – used to choreograph and perform little ‘musical acts’ in front of anyone who had the misfortune of wandering into our apartment – we were just compulsive little performers, and then I had the great fortune of being cast — at age 16– in the original Sondheim musical MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG on Broadway.  So, the fact that I ultimately abandoned my pursuit of theater for journalism, only to have it come full-circle with my first book becoming a musical – and thereby returning me to the world I adored so much – is honestly profound and deeply moving for me.”

While the musical reminded Pogrebin of her lifelong zeal for the theatre, Harnick saw STARS OF DAVID as an innovation, a glimpse at the future of musical theatre: “I wanted to be involved with a show I would want to see – and that would be a short, moving, funny show with the best original music around – simple, right?” Simplicity had eluded the musical’s path so far, but its arduous nature made the fruits of its labor all the more savory. Busch illuminated what every creative process entails: “Over this year of many workshops and readings, we’ve created various structures and torn them down. Then started from scratch. We’ve discovered what works and what doesn’t. We’re still learning. This has not been easy. It helps that we laugh a lot.”

A busy, music-making workstation during rehearsals for STARS OF DAVID