The 2013 Westchester Jewish Film Festival is on from April 3 – 25 at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville. This year the festival will feature 35 films from around the world, and the focus is on the arts, including films about music, dance, theatre and literature. You can check out the entire line-up and buy tickets here:
On the final night of the festival, April 25, Edgemont resident and filmmaker Michael Kantor's film, Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy, will be shown and Kantor will do a Q&A with Brian Ackerman followed by a live performance of Broadway tunes by the Kol Rinah Choir.
Kantor's film explores how Jewish-American songwriters created the vast majority of the Great American Songbook—from Irving Berlin to Stephen Sondheim, and Fanny Brice to Barbra Streisand. It includes interviews and performance footage from Broadway Musicals and is narrated by Joel Grey.
We interviewed Michael Kantor to learn more about him and to find out why Jews are so prominent in musical theatre. Here is what he shared:
1) How do you explain the success of Jews in writing the American songbook? How were a group of writers from a minority group able to dominate the Broadway musical? Our film explores the phenomenon that almost all of the songwriters on Broadway during its formative years were Jewish. There were plenty of non-Jewish singers, producers, directors and so on, but the songwriters were almost all Jewish. Why? It is not easy to explain why one minority created something we think of as an American art form. Part of the explanation is that in the early part of the 20th century Jews were outsiders, and a part of the Jewish tradition is to be able to "smile through the tears", to laugh at one's troubles to survive, coupled with some Jewish musical traditions and the influence of the Yiddish theatre, and you can see how the musical comedy emerged.
2) Are Jewish composers and lyricists continuing to thrive in the theatre? Who are some of your favorites? It was never an exclusive club – the Jewish songwriters created a form of musical theatre, and now there are lots of major songwriters on Broadway who are not Jewish, including Elton John and Lin Manuel Miranda. But the Jewish tradition continues with talents such as Andrew Lippa, Amanda Green, and of course Marc Shaiman who not only created Hairspray but is also the force behind the television show, "Smash."
3) How did you get your start in the business? I earned an M.F.A. as a theatre director and worked in the theatre before joining the world of documentary films. My friend Steve Ives was working on a documentary on the aviator Charles Lindbergh for the American Experience series, and Ken Burns was the executive producer. So I ended up working with Steve and Ken on that project, and then ona history of the West – so I learned about historical documentary filmmaking from the them for about seven years before I founded my own company, Ghost Light Films.
4) Can you share any anecdotes with our readers about the interviews you did while making your film on Broadway Musicals? In my opinion, there is nothing greater than hearing a songwriter sing his/her own songs, and on this project I had the great pleasure of enjoying John Kander performing songs from Cabaret, Stephen Schwartz singing songs from Pippin, and Maury Yeston playing "Be Italian" from Nine. I'm really thrilled that our DVD, which comes out at the beginning of May, will included an entire additional disc of extras, including a number of these performances, such as Amanda Green singing the song "If You Hadn't, But You Did" written by her father Adolph Green with Betty Comden and Jules Styne.
Also, working with our narrator Joel Grey was a great treat. He is a major talent, and extremely funny, and every time I think of him I smile. Most people don't know that his father, Mickey Katz, was a comedian and singer who specialized in Jewish humor, so Joel has a deep understanding of the importance of this history.
5) What's the last great show you saw on Broadway? I just saw "Old Hats" with Bill Irwin and David Shiner at the Signature Theater. It's full of dance, vaudevillean comedy, and music (performed live by Nellie McKay and her band) and this new theater center, designed by Frank Gehry, is wonderful. I'm also looking forward to seeing the revival of Pippin, and the new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella.
6) What are you currently working on? I am currently creating a three hour series for PBS that will air this fall entitled Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle." It traces the history of how these characters started out in disposable ten-cent comic books and have now taken over the world!
7) Why did you choose to live in Edgemont and what do you like about the community? We moved to Edgemont from New York City in 2006 because we wanted our three children to attend the same schools and find a sense of community. Edgemont has offered just that, a diverse and welcoming community with an amazing school system. We're also big fans of Kirari on Garth Road -- you can find us there enjoying the sushi pretty much every week!