Pick a musical. Any musical. The chances are, the composer was Jewish. No, really.
Monty Python may have coined the phrase for their musical Spamalot, but You Won’t Succeed On Broadway If You Don’t Have Any Jews only proves the truth behind the joke. The show, arriving in London after performances in Tel Aviv, is both history lesson and entertainment.
Beginning with the 1930s and composing brothers George & Ira Gershwin, the cast take us on a tour – revue style – through the annals of musical theatre history, right up to present day. Along the way there are songs from some of Broadway’s biggest hits: Oklahoma, Guys and Dolls, Cabaret, Les Misérables, Rent, Hairspray and, of course, Fiddler on the Roof. Each decade is introduced by voiceover and projected animation, providing an interesting (if a little patronising) dash of education alongside the music.
The cast comprises names big and small, including West End star Sarah Earnshaw; the first British Fantine in Les Mis Jackie Marks; Sophie Evans of BBC series ‘Over The Rainbow’ fame; and Lloyd Daniels who recently swapped (minor) ‘X Factor’ fame for Joseph’s famous coloured coat. The twelve strong singing cast are joined by six dancers who add some welcome visual interest.
As with this form of revue show, there are a few inconsistencies, wobbles and odd directorial decisions. For instance, Sophie Evans gives a graceful rendition of (what else?) “Over The Rainbow” that’s almost ruined by distracting interpretive dance; David Albury croons “Summertime” with a smooth tone but too many pop riffs; and Yiftach Mizrahi runs out of steam alongside the dancers in “Luck Be A Lady”.
More often than not, though, the risks are successful – Danny Lane, in particular, offers a stunning turn singing “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”, a song usually performed by a woman. And after the exuberant Act One finale of “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof, the second act is a much stronger affair – clearly the cast are more comfortable with modern material: from full company numbers such as “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast and “One Night Only” from Dreamgirls (sung brilliantly by Earnshaw), to smaller ensemble numbers “Four Jews in a Room” from March of the Falsettos and “Getting Married Today” from Company (again, stolen by Earnshaw), to an emotional revisiting of “I Dreamed a Dream” by Jackie Marks that’s later toppled by Rebecca Wicking’s heart-wrenching “Papa Can You Hear Me?” from Yentel. As a whole, the cast are superb and a joy to watch, ensuring this is an entertaining evening of song, dance and fun.
If there’s one major flaw, though, it’s the glaring and somewhat offensive omission of Leonard Bernstein (who’s only passingly mentioned in relation to Sondheim) and Marvin Hamlisch (whose score for A Chorus Line also receives a mere passing mention). I can only assume this is for some sort of legal reason as no musical history lesson - Jewish or otherwise - is complete without them.
Watch: You Won’t Succeed On Broadway… runs at the St James Theatre until 5th September.
Photos: Pamela Raith