Jewish Observances in Plays and Musicals

Plays and musicals, past and present, that highlight Jewish rituals and observances.

By Jordan Levinson

Tonight marks the start of the weeklong Jewish observance of Passover, which kicks off with the Seder. Here are some plays and musicals, past and present, that highlight Jewish rituals and observances:

Leopoldstadt_Broadway_Production Photos_2022_HR
Leopoldstadt (pc: Joan Marcus)

Moving Broadway audiences this season is Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt, a deeply personal play about an extended family living in the Austrian Jewish quarter over the span of about fifty years. At one point early in the show, a Passover Seder is shown, but throughout the play the family must also deal with great loss: multiple people are killed in World War I; the family business must stay afloat throughout the Great Depression and the rise of the Bolsheviks; the Nazis reduce the number of survivors to just three in the final, post-World War II scene. Stoppard was inspired by the death of his own extended family while writing Leopoldstadt and he is receiving Tony buzz for his passionate drama. The show’s limited engagement has extended twice at the Longacre Theatre due to popular demand, and it is now set to run through July 2.

From a musical perspective, perhaps nothing sums this up in a more succinct manner than Fiddler on the Roof, the Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick masterwork that grapples with the preservation and breaking of “Tradition.” Set in an early 20th-century shtetl in Imperial Russia, a conservative milkman contends with his marriage, as he reluctantly lets go of three of his daughters due to more modern marriages of their own. Combined with rising anti-Semitism in the area and the Czar about to evict the Jews from their village, the life that the milkman has known for a long time hangs in the balance. A different traditional observance is shown at one point, as the entire family gathers and prays for the Lord’s protection as they light the candles during “Sabbath Prayer.” Fiddler premiered in New York in 1964, won the Tony for best musical, and became the first musical in Broadway history to surpass 3,000 performances — the longest-running musical ever at the time. It was adapted into a wildly successful 1971 film, which won the Oscar for best picture, and it has been revived five times on Broadway as of this writing — and that’s not counting an Off-Broadway remount sung and spoken entirely in Yiddish, first staged in 2018 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Fiddler on the Roof punctuated the Golden Age of Broadway musicals with an exclamation point, and its impact can still be felt today. 

There have been multiple Broadway shows with scenes taking place at bar mitzvahs, a coming-of-age ritual in which children turn 13, and thus become accountable for their own actions (the traditional service is usually followed by a party). For one, the Harold Rome-Jerome Weidman musical I Can Get It for You Wholesale played Broadway in 1961 and gave New York City’s Depression-era Garment District a song to sing. The story of a young, ambitious businessman who stops at nothing to get to the top (even if it means lying to and betraying his loved ones and embezzling company funds), Wholesale utilized several Jewish folklike motifs in its score, and the second act opened with a touching bar mitzvah sequence in “A Gift Today.” A 1991 American Jewish Theatre revival starred Carolee Carmello and Vicki Lewis, and a new version (with a revised book by Weidman) will open in fall 2023 at Classic Stage Company, led by Tony winner Santino Fontana as the businessman. 

Musical 13 Being Adapted for Netflix | Broadway Direct
13 the musical 

The Jason Robert Brown-Robert Horn-Dan Elish musical 13 uses a bar mitzvah as a primary plot point, as it follows a New Yorker who moves to Indiana and tries to fit in within the social circles of his new school, as he prepares for his big day. Throughout the show, the diverse, young cast begins to understand what growing up means, and the surprises that come with it.  The 2008 Broadway production ran just three months but it notably launched the careers of Ariana Grande, Liz Gillies, and Graham Phillips. On the creative side of things, Christopher Gatelli and Tom Kitt were involved before their respective claims to fame. 13 became a Netflix motion picture in 2021 and is still streaming on the platform. 

Stephen Lynch and the Cast
Wedding Singer on Broadway in 2006 (pc: Joan Marcus)

A more unconventional musical setting for a bar mitzvah occurs during a scene in The Wedding Singer, the 2006 adaptation of the Adam Sandler-Drew Barrymore film of the same name. After wedding entertainer Robbie Hart gets dumped at the altar, he gets back on his feet playing gigs at bar mitzvahs in the song “Today You Are a Man” (“Your goyim friends have been agog / Since they left the synagogue / Drunk on schnapps and in a fog / And speaking Hebrew best they can”). A love letter to the ‘80s, the score was written by The Prom team of Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, who loaded the show with power chords, shout-it-out-loud choruses, and energetic ensemble harmonies. The Wedding Singer ran eight months at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre.

In Joshua Harmon’s play Bad Jews, two cousins wage war on a family heirloom after their beloved “Poppy” passes away. The character of Daphna, in particular, is strongwilled and closely in tune with Jewish tradition, and calls her cousins “bad Jews” for only going through the motions at family festivals (for instance, one of them pops a cookie in his mouth during Passover, violating culinary restrictions of the observance). It has never played on Broadway yet, but it played Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre in a fall 2013 Off-Broadway production starring Tracee Chimo, and Michael Zegen of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” fame. 

A Scene from <i>The Diary of Anne Frank</i>
The Diary of Anne Frank on Broadway in 1997 (pc: Joan Marcus)

Finally, no article on Jewish pieces of theatre is complete without mentioning The Diary of Anne Frank, based on Frank’s posthumously published book. There are no indications that Frank had a Passover seder while in hiding from the Nazis during World War II, but the play does show her family celebrating the wintertime festival of Hanukkah and exchanging gifts. The Diary of Anne Frank originally opened at the Cort Theatre in 1955, and Natalie Portman led a 1997 revival at the Music Box. 

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