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Jewish learning Touring with the Great American [Jewish] Songbook

By Elliot Lazar
Elliot Lazar

As a performer, especially in musical theatre, I am constantly reminded of the massive impact that Jewish songwriters have had on the canon we call “The Great American Songbook,” the canon of significant early-20th-century American jazz standards and popular songs. This includes songs like “Summertime,” “Over the Rainbow,” and “White Christmas”—yes, even “White Christmas” was written by a Jewish songwriter!

Right now, I’m in rehearsals for the National Tour of the recent Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof, directed by Bartlett Sher. I’m playing the role of Mendel and understudying the roles Motel and Perchik. So I am fortunate to be going into work every day and singing a number of those great songs. But “The Great American [Jewish] Songbook.” is not just about Jewish-themed musicals. My Hebrew College Open Circle Jewish Learning class will explore the work and lives of those Jewish artists who shaped the musical landscape of the last century, from Gershwin to Garfunkel, Cohen to King, even the likes of Adam Lambert, Adam Levine and David Guetta! How has their Judaism influenced their music? And how has their music influenced our lives as American Jews?

I chose to bracket the word [Jewish] in the title of this course to hint at the major—though often behind-the-scenes roles—that Jewish writers played in the development of The Great American Songbook. This course is not about Jewish music so much as it is about American music and the many influential Jewish artists who played a role in shaping it. And the Great [Jewish] American Songbook extends beyond Broadway, into the world of pop music with legendary writers like Carole King, Paul Simon, Burt Bacharach, Billy Joel, Bob Dylan . . . . the list goes on! All this to say that teaching a class that would cover some of these Jewish writers’ great contributions to American music was a no-brainer.

We are living in a time where identity matters. There is an increased interest in where each of us comes from, and how that is manifested in our lives—in this case, in our art. How have each of these writers been influenced by their Jewishness? Does it appear, either implicitly or explicitly, in their work? Musically? Textually? Thematically? How has being Jewish affected songwriters and how have their songs, in turn, affected listeners—Jewish and otherwise.

Last year, I taught the Hebrew College Open Circle Jewish Learning class “Beyond Fiddler.” We briefly touched on Fiddler and then focused on lesser-known works of Jewish theatre. Last year’s class examined the show’s importance and relevance, which has made engaging with the material in rehearsal so rewarding. Despite growing up Jewish and in theatre, I have somehow managed to never do a production of Fiddler until now—not for lack of wanting to. So this is something I’ve dreamt of doing for a long time. It feels like a nice full-circle moment for me.

Right now, we are putting together our show in New York, then flying to Georgia for technical rehearsals, and finally opening in Charleston, S.C., on October 29. So, as I teach this course, we will be touring through at least 50 cities in the US, through June 2022. We will even be playing in Boston—from December 21 to 26. This will be my first touring production and I am especially excited to be sharing this show with audiences all over this country and to be going to a number of places I’ve never been to before.

I’ve also never taught a course like this, so I’m excited to be exploring Jewish musicians at the same time. For music fans, this course will be an excellent opportunity to not only be exposed to a variety of genres of music, all by Jewish writers, but also to gain deeper insights into what goes into the creation of songs. We will get to see the fascinating evolution of popular music in the 20th Century and explore hit songs through a Jewish lens. I hope that you will join me!

Elliot Lazar is a performer and educator originally from Winnipeg, Canada. Currently based in Newton, Mass., he is spending the 2021-22 season on the North American Tour of Fiddler on the Roof. Elliot has appeared across Canada and the United States in theatre, film, opera and in concert. Highlights include playing Leo Frank in Opera NUOVA’s production of Parade, Papageno in The Magic Flute with Manitoba Underground Opera, and originating the role of Tobias Tweeney in Another Roll of the Dice with North Coast Repertory Theatre (Broadway World San Diego Award nomination). Elliot is a graduate of the University of Manitoba (B.Mus. Vocal Performance) and The Boston Conservatory at Berklee (M.F.A. Musical Theatre).

Learn more about “The Great American Jewish Songbook” and other Fall 2021 Hebrew College Adult Learning classes. 

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