The Great White Way — Times Square, New York City, 1925, New York His­tor­i­cal Society

Mon­ty Python’s Spa­malot was back on Broad­way this past sea­son, and with it, the infi­nite wis­dom impart­ed by Michael Urie as Sir Robin: So, lis­ten, Arthur dar­ling, close­ly to this news: we won’t suc­ceed on Broad­way if we don’t have any Jews.” 

Fun­ny. But what exact­ly is Sir Robin saying? 

Well, it’s no secret that before the advent of the juke­box musi­cal, vir­tu­al­ly every suc­cess­ful Broad­way com­pos­er (Cole Porter being the most promi­nent excep­tion) was Jew­ish: Rodgers and Ham­mer­stein (and Hart), Kan­der and Ebb, Lern­er and Loewe, Berlin, Bern­stein, Weil, the Gersh­wins, Kern, Styne, Com­den and Green, Loess­er, Cole­man, Bock and Har­nick, Strouse, Her­man, Sond­heim, Ham­lisch, Schwartz, Menken, Shaiman, and even Les Mis­érables com­posers Bou­blil and Schoen­berg, and Rent cre­ator Jonathan Larson. 

And it’s also no secret that Broad­way audi­ences skew Jew­ish. Is there ever a Wednes­day mati­nee day when Times Square isn’t filled with tem­ple groups from Long Island? 

For my books—Noth­ing Like a Dame, A Won­der­ful Guy, and the lat­est, Here’s to the LadiesI had the hon­or of talk­ing with some of the great­est per­form­ers, sev­er­al of them Jews, includ­ing Joel Grey, Bebe Neuwirth, Idi­na Men­zel, Judy Kaye and Marc Kud­isch. They have all played Jew­ish char­ac­ters on Broad­way, but of all of the peo­ple I spoke to, Judy Kuhn may have had the most oppor­tu­ni­ties to dig into her her­itage on stage. 

Kuhn is prob­a­bly best known as the singing voice of Disney’s Poc­a­hon­tas. (The film’s music was writ­ten by Menken and Schwartz.) But her first prin­ci­pal role on Broad­way, right before she hit it big as the orig­i­nal Cosette in Les Mis, was in the short-lived musi­cal Rags (Strouse and Schwartz), with a book by Fid­dler on the Roof author Joseph Stein. It was, as Kuhn describes it, a sort of sequel to Fid­dler. At the end of that show, Tevye and Golde set off for the new world. Rags begins when a boat of Jew­ish immi­grants, much like the one Golde and Tevye would have been on, hits Ellis Island. Kuhn’s char­ac­ter, Bel­la, gave the show one of its most mem­o­rable moments when she wailed the show’s tit­u­lar num­ber about the oppres­sion of the ghet­to before per­ish­ing in the infa­mous Tri­an­gle Shirt­waist Fac­to­ry fire. 

Tzedakah may not be a con­scious guid­ing prin­ci­ple for most per­form­ers, but real­ly, what is a life in the the­ater if not one of service? 

A decade lat­er, Kuhn starred in King David by Menken and Rice, and then, in 2016, she played Golde her­self, both on Broad­way and in London’s West End. This past year, she won an Out­er Crit­ics Cir­cle Award for her run in a revival of I Can Get It For You Whole­sale—the show that put Bar­bra Streisand on the map in 1962 — and she just con­clud­ed a run in Titan­ic, play­ing Ida Straus.

Kuhn told me that when she first con­sid­ered pur­su­ing musi­cal the­ater, she felt a sense of guilt. My father … was an activist and civ­il rights lawyer. I said, I should do what you do and help change the world.’ He said, You should not feel guilty about doing what you want to do. You have to do what you love and what you’re good at or you won’t do any­body any good. But a lit­tle bit of guilt about the priv­i­lege that you’ve had and the gifts you’ve been giv­en is good, because that will make you give back and you will find ways to con­tribute.’ I have always tried to live by that mot­to. I can always be bet­ter but that was a gift.” Tzedakah may not be a con­scious guid­ing prin­ci­ple for most per­form­ers, but real­ly, what is a life in the the­ater if not one of ser­vice? An actor gives with her entire body and soul to serve the play­wright and cre­ators, the direc­tor, and, ulti­mate­ly, the night­ly audi­ences who come to be moved, awak­ened, and awed. Actors, like all artists, embody the very tenets of our faith. 

But don’t take my word for it. As the song goes:

There’s a very small per­centile who enjoys a danc­ing gen­tile.
I’m sad to be the one with this bad news.
But nev­er mind your sword­play, you just won’t suc­ceed on Broad­way,
If you don’t have any Jews.

Eddie Shapiro is the author of Noth­ing Like a Dame: Con­ver­sa­tions with the Great Women of Musi­cal The­ater, A Won­der­ful Guy: Con­ver­sa­tions with the Great Men of Musi­cal The­ater, and hun­dreds of arti­cles in mag­a­zines with much short­er and more sen­si­ble titles than his books. He lives in New York City and Los Angeles.