By Paulanne Simmons
A few weeks ago, KulturfestNYC, a weeklong performing arts festival devoted to Jewish culture, attracted over 50,000 people to concerts, cabaret and dance performances. Encouraged by the popularity of the event KulturfestNYC initiated an Encore Series featuring new and revisited acts that will continue throughout the season.
Perhaps the one area where Jewish culture has had the biggest impact is musical theater. On August 5, 54 Below hosted the Encore Series’ Another Hundred Years, celebrating Jewish songwriters of The Great White Way. The title of the event is a reference to the longevity of producing partner National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene, which is now entering its 101st season, making it today’s oldest consecutive performing arts organization.
Most of the songwriters featured spanned the 20th century (Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, Jerry Block and Sheldon Harnick, Stephen Sondheim); a few have made their mark on the 21st (Jason Robert Brown, Andrew Lippa, William Finn).
But the emotional core of the event was the tribute to the recently departed Theodore Bikel, who was presented with a lifetime achievement award at KulturfestNYC’s closing ceremony on June 21, 2015.
A number of Bikel’s longtime friends remembered Bikel’s warmth, generosity and talent: David Edwards, who performed with Bikel in The Rothschilds and in Fiddler On The Roof, Jonathan Hadley, who played opposite Bikel as Perchik in the Fiddler National Tour and Peter Davenport who played Captain Von Trapp in the 1st National Tour of The Sound of Music.
They also performed numbers from the musicals he was associated with: "Sunrise, Sunset" and "If I Were a Rich Man" from Fiddler on the Roof, "In My Own Lifetime" and "Everything" from The Rothschilds, and "Edelweiss" from The Sound of Music.
Highlights of the evening included Lawrence Craig’s inspiring and inspirited "I Got Plenty of Nothin’" from the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, and Loni Ackerman’s cheeky rendition of Sondheim’s iconic "I’m Still Here" from Follies.
Considering the sheer number of Jewish composers and lyricists who plied their trade on Broadway, it would be quite impossible for any one show to do justice to them. Many in the audience most probably sorely missed hearing songs by Jules Syne, Sammy Cahn or Frank Loesser. And how about Kander and Ebb, whose final collaboration was a Tony nominee last season?
Perhaps the answer lies with a song written by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh, another Jewish songwriting team: "The Best Is Yet to Come."