When Grammy Award–winning singer Sylvia McNair was putting together her program for this weekend’s The Best of Broadway concert at the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum — celebrating the contributions of Jewish composers to Broadway’s Golden Age — it dawned on her just how easy her task was. When it comes to influential composers of that era almost all are Jewish, she realized.
From Stephen Sondheim to Ira Gershwin to Marvin Hamlisch, the performance — the final one in the Molly Blank Jewish Concert Series, taking place Sunday, March 9 at 3 p.m. — includes a virtual who’s who of Broadway composers from the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. McNair, who has played everywhere from the Metropolitan Opera to the Salzburg Festival, will be joined by pianist Kevin Cole for a cabaret-style medley of Broadway numbers.
To say that Jewish composers defined the musical landscape of those years is an understatement. “They are the Golden Age; they created the Golden Age; they defined what the sound was,” says McNair. “The number of non-Jewish composers for the Great White Way is so few, you can count them on fewer fingers than you have on one hand.”
A colleague sent McNair an article that was published recently in the Guardian, the daily newspaper in London, titled “Without Music, Would We Even Be Jewish?” It struck a chord with her. “Music is such a huge part of that culture, both in synagogues and popular life,” she says. “The Jewish population came to New York, came to the U.S. and drew on those harmonies, those modal style melodies, then turned it into something uniquely American. I happen to think it was a combination, sort of a cocktail of Jewish musical tradition combined with the African tradition. It was a melting pot in New York in the early 20th century.”
Being together at the same time and place was certainly influential for the composers, according to Aaron Berger, the museum’s artistic director since 2012. “You have to put it in historical context,” he says. “A lot of these composers came to America fleeing the anti-Semitism of Europe. They are coming to this country to find religious freedom. If they are musically inclined, their port of entry was New York. This is where these groups came together. New York is such a unique city. There are very tight Jewish communities. Whereas in Atlanta, where it’s spread out and there isn’t one designated area, New York is very different. So the continuation of Jewish heritage, of Jewish values, is kept very strong. That relates into some of the music that is produced through these musical geniuses that shaped Broadway. This is how Broadway comes together.”
Songs familiar to audiences and those that may be unfamiliar fill the program. In all, McNair focuses on 10 composers, covering the 20th century from Jerome Kern to Hamlisch.
The concert series has been a way of incorporating more into the museum’s offerings, which has been a priority for Berger. “The Breman has been, up until I came aboard, really just a history museum,” he says. “Now we are making a pretty significant shift into incorporating arts and Jewish culture, in addition to history, as a part of our mission and programmatic focus. That is why this series came about. The concert is billed as focusing on Jewish contribution to music. The concerts are performances, but each one provides a narration that allows the audience a better understanding of the composers as Jews and how their Jewish heritage or even their religion plays into the works they created.”
The first concert, November’s Music of the Holocaust, commemorated the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, which was considered the beginning point of the Holocaust. A series of pieces were performed by the Atlanta Opera’s chamber orchestra, including work created by Jews who had been held captive at a concentration camp called Theresienstadt. “We performed those works in tribute to those Holocaust survivors who live in Atlanta now,” Berger says. “What was special about that evening was that we had Arthur Fagen, the music director of the Atlanta Opera, who prepared the program and lead the narration. He is the son of Holocaust survivors. Actually, his parents were saved by [Oskar] Schindler.” The vocal talent was Helene Schneiderman from Salzburg, who also was the daughter of Holocaust survivors and performed Yiddish lullabies.
Following that in January with Composers of the 19th and 20th Centuries was a challenge. “The first one was so emotionally driven,” Berger recalls, “we were worried.” The program also featured Felix Mendelssohn, a composer whose father denounced Judaism and has proven to be controversial. Berger got complaint letters from people who didn’t like the composer in the program but he nonetheless thought it was important to include.
A partnership with the Atlanta Opera has made the concert series possible. “Our job has been to help with the Jewish education component and provide the audience,” says Berger. “The Opera has been helpful with the performers and developing the musical program. I’ve never in 20 years in the arts had such a perfect relationship. It’s collaboration in the best possible way.”
While the concert does provide education, both Berger and McNair stress that it’s mostly about great music. “It’s really part performance, part education and hopefully all fun,” says Berger.