Welcome back to our Spamalot blog series! As the cast and crew of Spamalot prepared to open the show this weekend, we spent a lot of time practicing quick costume changes. And, the musical number with the most quick changes in it is, “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway If You Don’t Have Any Jews.” We’ve practiced this number so many times that it’s hard to believe there was a time when the song was unfamiliar and even a little bit uncomfortable for us.
Flash back to our earliest music rehearsals when we first read through this song. Because we live in a state where less than two tenths of a percent of the population is Jewish, we didn’t know what any of the Yiddish words meant, we didn’t “get” most of the jokes, and we didn’t know if we were being offensive to Jews or not. That is, until we discovered we had a Jewish cast member. Milo Marsden, who plays Sir Bedevere, kindly helped us overcome all of our uncertainties. He explained the Yiddish words and the jokes, and assured us that Jewish audiences love the song!
You Won't Succeed on Broadway...
For most of us in the Beehive State, our only exposure to Jews and Jewish culture is through movies, television, and the occasional High School production of Fiddler on the Roof. So, having Milo in our cast really helped us overcome our ignorance. As Milo explained to us some of the history of musical theater on Broadway, we discovered how much we in Utah are indebted to the Jewish community. Because if there’s one thing Utahn’s love, it’s musical theater, and musical theater as we know it today would not exist if not for the Jewish composers that have dominated the industry for over a century.
If You Don't Have Any Jews!
Born the children of Jewish immigrants at the turn of the 20th century (or arriving as immigrants themselves), composers such as Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, and Rodgers and Hart found a home in the theaters of Broadway. Their songs not only entertained the theater-goers of New York, they became the most iconic American popular songs of the pre-rock’n’roll era. Their works are now collectively known as “The Great American Songbook.” These men laid the foundations of modern musical theater and paved the way for other Jewish composers to innovate and expand the genre. From Broadway’s “golden era” with composers such as Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Frank Loesser, and Leonard Bernstein; to Broadway’s transition into the modern era with composers such as Kander and Ebb, Stephen Sondheim, and Marvin Hamlisch; to more contemporary composers such as Stephen Schwartz, Alan Menken, and Jason Roberts Brown; it’s hard to imagine Broadway without Jews.
It is this truth that Eric Idle honors (in his own comical way) with the song “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway If You Don’t Have Any Jews.” Complete with clever quips, musical one-liners (such as the orchestra quoting “I have a Little Dreidel” and “Hava Nagila”), and a full ensemble send-up of the bottle dance from Fiddler on the Roof, this musical number is a tough act to follow -- sorry Lady of the Lake! And, to help you all fully appreciate the humor of the song we provide below a glossary of the Yiddish terms and Jewish jokes embedded in the song.
People who need people….the luckiest people in the world: A reference to the song “People” from Funny Girl, a musical about comedienne Fanny Brice (Jewish). The song was written by Jule Styne (Jewish) and is one of Barbara Streisand’s (also Jewish) signature ballads.
Unleavened bread: Bread made without the use of rising agents such as yeast; consumed during the Jewish holiday of Passover, during which leavened breads are forbidden.
Kosher: A term for Jewish dietary laws. In context of the song, the word is used to suggest something that would be approved by Jews.
Goyim: Anyone not Jewish or not belonging to a Jewish community.
Goy: Singular of Goyim
Shiksas: Non-Jewish women. It is considered a derogatory term (e.g., “You’re bringing home another shiksa? What happened to all the nice Jewish girls?”); though in more recent time it is used to refer to non-Jewish looking girls that are desired by Jewish men (e.g., “You got yourself a shiksa, you devil!”).
Gentile: A non-Jewish person
Arthur, can you hear me?: A reference to the song “Papa Can You Hear Me?” from Yentl, a musical about a Jewish girl who dresses as a boy to enter a Jewish religious school.
The Empress Embraces Broadway's Jewish Tradition
With our glowing endorsement and explanation of “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway If You Don’t Have Any Jews,” you might be a little surprised to read that the writers of Spamalot actually provide an alternative song to use in non-NYC productions, at the local production’s discretion. Below I share our brilliant director, Celeste Porter’s, own words explaining why she chose to use the original song rather than the alternative.
In the front of the Director's script it lists "answers to specific questions in the script" (aka acceptable edits and changes). In regards to [replacing] that song (“You Won’t Succeed on Broadway...”) it says "If this song presents a problem in your community..." I believe our community to be an accepting and loving one, but also one that can know when offense is not intended. I believe it is not intended in this song… In my view, [the writers] are simply pointing out that a lot of the people who built Broadway were Jewish. Which is true. When Monty Python used satire to comment on politics, faith or other societal things, I believe they always did it with truth. So are we singing the song to make fun of anyone? NO! We are saying that a lot of successful people on Broadway were Jewish. Aren't we so glad they were successful, though! Just think of all the Broadway jewels we would be missing had those people not followed their dreams and shared their amazing talents with all of us?! So I agree with Robin when he says "there simply must be Jews"! I'm grateful for them!
And, so are we! Don’t miss your opportunity to see this unique homage to the Jews of Broadway. Meet us at The Empress for Spamalot January 18 - February 2. We open tonight! Tickets are going fast, so order online today!