Why were so many greats of American musicals Jewish?

Irving Berlin, the American composer, with his wife Ellin Mackay. Picture: PA

Irving Berlin, the American composer, with his wife Ellin Mackay. Picture: PA - Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Images

An unbeat show at Upstairs at the Gatehouse explores the question through tunes by the likes of Irving Berlin and George and Ira Gershwin, writes Bridget Galton.

Why were so many of the composers who helped create the great American art form of musical theatre Jewish?

That question will be explored in an upbeat show at Highgate’s Upstairs at The Gatehouse that airs 100 tunes by the likes of Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin and Rodgers and Hart.

Producer Katy Lipson says The Great Jewish American Songbook is a new show spanning 100 years of memorable tunes, interspersed with biographical stories about the men who wrote them.

“There are four actors who tell their stories and sing their songs – they talk about where Irving Berlin came from and how he came to New York, how Gershwin learned the piano, and Rodgers and Hart came to write together - and the struggles they all had to overcome to be successful.”

Hits range from Summertime from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess to tunes from Jerry Block and Sheldon Harnick’s Fiddler on the Roof, Berlin’s Puttin’ On The Ritz, and Kern’s Show Boat.

Lipson says some classics such as Rodgers and Hart’s The Lady is A Tramp are more famous than the musicals they originated in.

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“It was from a less successful 1937 musical called Babes In Arms but it was full of hit songs like My Funny Valentine.”

Packing in so many tunes into two hours means some are incorporated as medleys.

“There are new arrangements to suit the more intimate space, but there is no reimagining of the songs. You get the authentic classics from great writers.It’s very powerful to hear four people sing in such close harmonies together with the fourth wall removed.

“It’s a very nostalgic show for people who love musicals and theatre.”

As for the question of why so many of these wonderful writers were Jewish, Lipson points to their shared background.

Although Richard Rodgers hailed from well-to-do Jewish parents, many of the others were born to poorer immigrants; George and Ira Gershwin’s parents were of Russian Lithuanian descent, Jerome Kern was born in New York’s brewery district to a German Jewish father, while Lorenz Hart was born in Harlem to German Jewish parents, and Irving Berlin whose father was a cantor in a Russian synagogue moved to New York aged five.

“It’s very interesting, Music is such a huge part of Jewish life. Many of them were outsiders, born of immigrants fleeing persecution from Russia and Europe. Music is an industry you can enter as a self taught person and express yourself through theatre. It was a good means to survive and they were all either born in New York or came there at a time when that genre was about to take flight.”

Until February 28 Upstairs at the Gatehouse.