This year is a critical time for celebrating how Jewish stories are being told in theater.
It’s hardly breaking news that the number of antisemitic incidents have escalated over recent years. In the U.S. alone, reported incidents of violence and vandalism against Jewish people rose 36% in 2022, according to the Anti-Defamation League. The report tracked 3,697 incidents of harassment, vandalism and assault targeting Jewish communities in that calendar year. And while that rise stems from various inflection points – political figures like former president Donald Trump playing host to known neo-Nazis like Nick Fuentes surely played a role – the case of Kanye West, in particular, had a noted impact. The rapper’s amplification of antisemitic rhetoric alone directly caused over 30 prejudiced assaults and incidents of vandalism targeting Jewish people, per the Anti-Defamation League’s report.
All of this to say: Now is a moment to celebrate how the arts community has responded to such hate and proved stronger than ever.
Going into Sunday’s 76th annual Tony Awards – a ceremony that’s moving forward after thoughtful negotiation with the Writers Guild of America reversed a union decision to picket Broadway’s biggest night – Tom Stoppard’s Holocaust drama “Leopoldstadt” will likely win Best Play and is the playwright’s own tale of discovering his true religion and why it was kept from him for so long.
A top contender on the Best Musical Revival side also centers on a historic Jewish story with “Parade,” which tells the heartbreaking true story of Leo Frank, a Jewish man who was lynched in 1915 for a crime he did not commit. Come Sunday, its winning will be a tight horse race between the new production of “Sweeney Todd” from musical theater maestro Stephen Sondheim, who himself was Jewish. The former has definitely caught the emotional moment.
Sean Hayes, meanwhile, may win Best Actor for portraying pianist Oscar Levant, who was not only Jewish but one with a biting humor; he made perhaps the filthiest (and funniest) joke ever about Marilyn Monroe’s own conversion to Judaism in 1956.
Elsewhere on New York stages, “The Wanderers” by Anna Ziegler, starred Sarah Cooper and Katie Holmes and dealt with two couples of very different Jewish experiences. David Strathairn also brought his one-man show about a historic Holocaust witness, “Remember This,” to Brooklyn. And playing a distinctly Jewish character in “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,” opposite “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” star Rachel Brosnahan, is Oscar Isaac. And let’s not forget “Funny Girl,” about a Jewish girl named Fanny.
Next, Alex Edelman, one of the country’s fastest rising stand-up comedians, brings his one-man show, “Just For Us,” back to the city soon. It charts the stranger-than-fiction story of how Edelman responded to antisemitic threats made online by going straight to the source and covertly attending a meeting of white nationalists. And just opening Off Broadway is “The Rock & Roll Man,” about Jewish DJ and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Alan Freed.
Beyond the nation’s theater capitol, the subject of Jewish history and memory could be found on stages all over the country this last year. In Los Angeles, the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood had an extended run of “If I Forget,” a powerful family story centered on a liberal Jewish studies professor. The Braid, an L.A.-based company known for “creating, curating, producing and preserving stories grounded in Jewish culture and experience,” has consistently offered strong material. And L.A. Theatre Works is presenting the world premiere of “Exodus: The Shanghai Jews,” an audio docudrama by Kate McAll, on June 23.
In Minneapolis, the Children’s Theater Company is staging an adaptation of the animated movie “An American Tail” through June 18. This story centers on the Mousekewitzes, a Russian-Jewish family of mice in a moving allegory for turn-of-the-century immigration and the American Dream. And first launched in 2018 by Rochester Jewish Community Center, and based on actual interviews with Holocaust survivors, Wendy Kout’s play “Survivors” is being done in schools, museums and theaters around the U.S. – plus a film version was recently shot.
Of course, the subject continues in all forms of media. At New York’s 92 Street Y all this month, Annette Insdorf – author of “Indelible Shadow: Film and the Holocaust” – will discuss the possibilities and limitations of cinematic representation of the Holocaust through four film viewings. And at the just-concluded Cannes Film Festival, the Grand Prix was given to Jonathan Glazer’s chilling Holocaust drama, “The Zone of Interest.”
Through these works and more, young people, whose knowledge of the Holocaust is becoming shockingly scant, are being simultaneously entertained and educated – and at a time when antisemitic rhetoric and abuses continue to rise nationwide, no less.
In May 2020, I wrote a piece for TheWrap about how Jewish theater companies around the country were struggling in heat of the COVID pandemic. Checking in today, they have all survived – and then some. The Alliance for Jewish Theatre, the umbrella organization, has hundreds of members and continues with annual events including major speakers like Anne Kaufman (who directed “Sidney Brustein”) and “Bad Jews” writer Josh Harmon, whose most recent work, “Prayer for the French Republic,” moves to Broadway next season.
The stimulus for the Alliance’s survival – and, in fact, much of the awakening – was surely the violence at synagogues and rallies that proved antisemitism was alive and brewing in the United States. Even “Parade” was picketed by a group of neo-Nazis on its opening night in February. Audiences, creatives and critics alike continue standing strong in the face of it.
Speaking with TheWrap at a press event for the Drama Desk Awards earlier this month, “Parade” composer Jason Robert Brown spoke to the matter: “Jewish talent and spirit have always been the lifeblood of Broadway. But it was always sort of under the surface, waiting to bubble up,” he said. “With what’s been going on in the world, now that lifeblood has risen.”
Michele Willens covers theater and reports “Stage Right… or Not” for an NPR affiliate.