The quote’s from Spamalot: “You won’t succeed on Broadway if you don’t have any Jews”; it’s a concept that’s proved beyond all doubt in this hugely entertaining production.
There’s not a single cast member who doesn’t sing or dance their socks off as they take us through a history of American musical theatre from the 30’s up to the present day, but then, they do have great material to work with. There is a short introductory film preceding each era, providing the historical background and context for the three or four numbers of that decade.
We learn that Jewish prayers formed the melodies of the first songs played to audiences in a New York where, by 1920 parts of the city counted Jewish people as one quarter of the population due to mass migration. It’s pointed out that there wouldn’t even have been a Broadway without the input of giants of musical theatre such as Gershwin, Rogers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin and Stephen Sondheim.
Stand-out moments for me were “The Lady is a Tramp”, “Over the Rainbow” (Judy Garland’s iconic song with a purer, less melodramatic filter), “Tradition” was very moving and “Getting Married Today” wickedly comic.
All the singers act expressively and move well and the dancers are a gorgeous addition to many of the numbers.
It was very tempting to sing along and I can easily imagine that happening; the early songs are so well -known. The film reminds us how important show business was to audiences during those difficult years. For me, the problem with the second half of the second half (the last two decades) is that the musical numbers are much less well known – and particularly so to a non – American audience. We’re told that the stage has had to fight harder for attention in a world of (M)TV, digital media and changing attitudes and needs of its potential audience. “Jukebox” productions like Mama Mia are seen as an unwelcome departure from the carefully crafted stories such as Guys and Dolls. Fun and beautifully performed though it is, “Be our Guest” is from a Disney cartoon.
The last number, then, is a wise move, bringing everything back on track and in line with the theme. I won’t spoil it; it was a pleasant surprise.
Overall this show is a joyous celebration of a really important period in theatre that deserves to be cherished and appreciated as you clap, tap your toes, smile in recognition or sing along. And Broadway, shmoadway; this company rocked St James last night.
Reviewed by Alison Bray
Photo: Pamela Raith
You Won’t Succeed on Broadway if you don’t have any Jews is playing at the St James Theatre until 5 September 2015. Click here to book tickets