Movies That Sing- The Best Jewish Musicals

With the Jewish Month of Adar upon us, it’s time to rejoice. Sandy Chertok picks the best Jewish musicals.


There are a number of different types of musical films. Some films have the characters burst out in song. Some films use musical songs as an underscore of what the characters are feeling, facing, or going through. Other films combine these approaches or devise new ways in which the music becomes a significant trait or character of the movie rather than just being a background filling. Within the musical genre, there are five musicals that depict Jewish themes as well as different approaches in how they use music. The five films are Fiddler on the Roof, Yentl, The Jazz Singer, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and Dirty Dancing. All five films depict various time periods in history. From biblical times in Joseph to Tzarist Russia in Fiddler to the turn of the century in Europe in Yentl to mid 1960s America in Dirty Dancing to 1980s America in the Jazz Singer. Each film explores how the changing society at that time influenced that particular Jewish community and the main characters. The main characters in each film face their own conflicts of trying to keep alive their Jewish heritage and tradition, while being able to adapt and incorporate aspects of their society within their lifestyle.

These five films also use different approaches in how they incorporate music into their films. Joseph is just the filmed version of the actual Broadway play, which tries to incorporate modern musical styles (like the Elvis-styled Pharaoh) within the biblical story. Fiddler on the Roof is considered a classical type of musical, where the characters burst out into song as if it is part of their vernacular. Yentl uses music as a means to expose a character’s emotions, feelings, and thoughts through songs that are sung in private. The Jazz Singer uses music and song only in places where it would be natural to hear music – a club, a synagogue, a recording studio, on stage, etc. Dirty Dancing uses another approach in which the songs are not sung by the characters, but are played in the background as a means to expose the moods, feelings, thoughts, sexuality, and emotions of the characters.

These Jewish themed musicals are films whose stories are brought to life not only by the words of the screenplays, but by the words and music of the various songs incorporated into each film. They do not only contain memorable songs, but also depict important main characters and their journeys as they deal with their own individuality and place within a changing society. These films are well worth your time to view on video, DVD, and even cable.

Fiddler on the Roof
Rated #1 Jewish Musical

Profile
Came out in 1971
Running time of 3 hours and 6 minutes
Rated G
Available on VHS and DVD
Directed by Norman Jewison
Written by Joseph Stein based on the works of Shalom Aleichem
Main Stars: Topol, Molly Picon, Leonard Fray

Memorable Songs: Sunrise, Sunset; If I Were a Rich Man; Matchmaker, Matchmaker

What’s it all about:
The film depicts Ukranian milkman Tevye’s story of trying to cling to the traditional Jewish values and rituals, while the world around him changes. During the course of the film, Tevye’s daughters get married to men (some of whom are unacceptable to Tevye), and Tevye and his family face the constant threat of anti-Semitism within pre-Revolutionary Russia.

Why I Recommend It:
1 – The songs. Some of the interwoven songs are memorable tunes that reflect the characters thoughts and feelings. Some reflect the mood of the times. Others have symbolic meaning that transcend the immediate place and time of the film.

2 – The authentic depiction of a small Jewish community (shtetl life) in pre-Revolutionary Russia.

3 – The story is universal. The basic theme of love between husband and wife, parents and children, and between lovers is still relevant today.

4 – The tension between the old traditions with the new world values and idea. This theme is also still relevant today as many individuals still struggle with trying to maintain the old traditions within a modern lifestyle.

5 – The depiction of the Matchmaking tradition. The tradition keeps going on today and has even evolved with the new computer technologies (J-Date, etc.)

Distinguishing Jewish Appeal:
1 – The authentic depiction of a small Jewish community (shtetl life) in pre-Revolutionary Russia. Modern individuals can take a glimpse of how things used to be in Russia.
2 – Depiction of the traditional orthodox family through Tevye and his family. The viewer sees and can easily relate to the universal ups and downs of problems and solutions that face this particular family. 3 – Anti-semitism faced by Russan Jews that eventually spreads throughout Europe.
4 – Problem of interfaith dating. Tevye and his family face what is now an ongoing problem of what to do when one of your children is in love with someone from a different faith.

Of Note:
1- The film got eight Academy Award nominations including best picture, best director, and best actor (Topol) and won three of the awards including best song and score.
2 – The film is an adaptation of the Hal Prince-Jerome Robbins stage musical. Topol played Tevye in the Original London production.
3 – The choreography in the film was done by Jerome Robbins’ assistant Tom Abbott. Abbott tried to stick as close as possible to the original state choreography.
4 – The film was shot on location in Lakenick, Yugoslavia.
5 – For the science fiction fans out there, Topol would eventually play the doctor in the 1980s film version of Flash Gordon.

The Jazz Singer
#2 Jewish Musical

Profile
Came out in 1980
Running time of 1 hour and 51 minutes
Rated PG
Available on VHS
Directed by Richard Fleischer
Written by Herbert Baker and Stephen H. Foreman
Story by Samuel Raphaelson
Main Stars: Neil Diamond, Laurence Olivier, Lucie Arnaz

Memorable Songs: America; Love on the Rocks; Hello Again; Kol Nedrei

What’s it all about:
An eighties update of the 1927 film, The Jazz Singer, revolving around an orthodox cantor’s son and his desire to become a rock singer and songwriter instead of following his family’s roots and becoming a cantor. The film depicts his journey in finding his own identity and his conflict and resolution with his father.

Why I Recommend It:
1 – It’s a story that has modern appeal. Many individuals are torn between following their family’s line of work or breaking away and establishing themselves in another type of work.

2 – The conflict of modern Jews and how to balance the traditional religious values with a modern lifestyle.

3 – The songs. Hey, it’s Neil Diamond at his best.

4 – Laurence Olivier’s performance, a class act from one of our greatest actors.

Distinguishing Jewish Appeal:
1 – Depiction of an Orthodox family, the rituals, and an Orthodox synagogue setting on the Lower East Side. The film shows various services at the synagogue, including Yom Kippur, a bar mitzvah, and Sabbath.

2 – The steadfast Orthodox father coming to grips with his non traditional son. The film depicts the conflict between father and son, the extremes that the father, at first, undertakes (tearing his clothes as if he was in mourning for losing his son), and the resolution between father and son at the end with the son cantoring the Yom Kippur service while the father attends his son’s concert.

3 – The problems of interfaith dating. The son ends up being conflicted between staying with his orthodox wife (whom he eventually divorces) and a non-Jewish woman music producer.

4 – General conflict of trying to retain the traditional Jewish values within a changing modern lifestyle.

Of Note:
1 – This was Neil Diamond’s film debut.

2 – This was the third version of the Jazz Singer made.

3 – The first version of the Jazz Singer starred Al Jolson. It was the first sync sound film and depicted the relationship between mother and son.

4 – In all three versions of the Jazz Singer, none of the main characters were jazz singers.

5 – Lucie Arnaz is the daughter of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.

6 – Ernie Hudson from Ghostbusters and Oz has a small role in the film.

Yentl
#3 Best Jewish Musical

Profile
Came out in 1983
Running time of 2 hours and 14 minutes
Rated PG
Available on VHS and DVD
Directed by Barbra Streisand
Written by Barbra Streisand and Jack Rosenthal
Based on the short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer
Main Stars: Barbra Streisand, Mandy Patinkin, Amy Irving

Memorable Songs: Papa Can You Hear Me?; No Wonder; The Way He Makes Me Feel; No Matter What Happens

What’s it all about:
The film depicts Yentl’s journey at the turn of the 20th Century in Eastern Europe. Yentl is a courageous, Orthodox woman, who takes extreme measures to study the Talmud. Yentl disguises herself as a young man, enters a yeshiva, and falls in love with another young scholar named Avignor. To make things more complex, Avignor’s fiance falls in love with Yentl.

Why I Recommend It:
1 – The songs. Unlike most musicals, the songs in Yentl depict Yentl’s internal struggle, as if she was speaking to herself and trying to work things out.

2 – The depiction of a strong, courageous orthodox woman, who wants to do more than raise children. Yentl is a precursor to the modern orthodox woman, who goes to yeshiva, studies, and has meaningful employment. What is so refreshing is that Yentl’s story takes place at the turn of the 20th century, when women were beginning to fight for their rights in America.

3 – The satisfying conclusion. Everything manages to work its way out at the end with Yentl taking a bold step that many Eastern Europeans took in order to start a new life and a new beginning.

Distinguishing Jewish Appeal:
1 – The depiction of Eastern European Jewish life at the turn of the Century. Modern individuals can take a glimpse of how things used to be in Eastern Europe.

2 – The depiction of Yeshiva life in Eastern Europe.

Of Note:
1- The film got five Academy Award nominations.
2 – Yentl marks the directing debut of Barbra Streisand, who is the first and only woman to win a Golden Globe Award for directing a feature film.
3 – Amy Irving is the ex-wife of Steven Speilberg and the mother of his son Max. She also starred in the Jewish comedy Crossing Delancey and has a recurring role on the TV show Alias as Emily Sloane.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
(filmed version of the stage play)
#4 Best Jewish Musical

Profile
Came out in 1999
Running time of 1 hour and 18 minutes
Not Rated
Available on VHS and DVD
Directed by David Mallot and Steven Pimlot
Written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice
Main Stars: Donny Osmond, Joan Collins, Richard Attenborough

Memorable Songs: Any Dream Will Do; Jacob and Sons; One More Angel in Heaven; Go, Go, Go Joseph

What’s it all about:
This is a filmed version of the stage play that was broadcast on PBS. Andrew Llyod Webber and Tim Rice take the story of Joseph and transform it into a musical journey for people of all ages to learn from and enjoy.

Why I Recommend It:
1 – The songs. Webber and Rice put an interesting spin on the biblical story by mixing the biblical facts with a fictional spin to make Joesph’s life entertaining and enjoyable for all.

2 – While Webber and Rice do take some creative liberties in the play, the story is still close to the biblical version of Joseph’s life. People are not only entertained by the creative story, songs, and engaging sets, but they can also learn about Joseph’s life (on the surface, at least).

Distinguishing Jewish Appeal:
1 – The depiction of Joseph’s life, the famine in Egypt, and how Jacob and his sons end up in Egypt.

Dirty Dancing
#5 Best Jewish Musical

Profile
Came out in 1987
Running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes
Rated PG-13
Available on VHS and DVD
Directed by Emile Ardolino
Written by Eleanor Bergstein
Main Stars: Patrick Swayze, Jennifer Grey, Cynthia Rhodes, Jerry Orbach

Memorable Songs: Time of Your Life; She’s Like the Wind; Be My Baby; Hungry Eyes; Love is Strange

What’s it all about:
The film depicts a summer in the Catskills in the late sixties for the Houseman family. In particular, the film focuses on the journey that the youngest Houseman daughter, Baby, takes from a girl into a young woman. On her journey, Baby will become close to a young dance instructor from the wrong side of the tracks, who will teach her how to love and become a strong independent woman.

Why I Recommend It:
1 – The depiction of the Catskills. There is no other film that I can think of that encompasses the way the Catskills used to be than in Dirty Dancing. From the dining hall to the activities, the film captures the essence of the Catskills (even the way the area was until the early eighties). The family would stay in the Catskills for the entire summer, while the husbands would go to work in the city during the week and return to the Catskills on the weekend. This is the case in the film, when Dr. Houseman would be there on the weekends.

2 – The coming of age story. Baby’s journey is a universal one that most young women can identify with.

Distinguishing Jewish Appeal:
1 – The depiction of what is implied to be a Jewish hotel in the Catskills as well as the implied Jewish patrons and families that reside in the hotel over the summer.

Of Note:
1- Even though the film depicts a fictional hotel in the Catskills, the film was actually shot in the Virginia/Carolina area of the U.S.

2 – Patrick Swayze makes his singing debut with She’s Like the Wind, which was one of the hit songs of the film.

3 – Jennifer Grey is the daughter of actor Joel Grey. Years after the film, Jennifer Grey got a nose job that completely changed the make-up of her face and her appearance. In recent years, she appeared as herself on the TV show, It’s Like You Know, where she would make fun of affects of her nose job.

4 – Cynthia Rhodes is married to singer Richard Marx, who recently wrote the number one hit song, This I Promise You, for *NSYNC.

5 – Wayne Knight has a small role in the film. He is known best for his role as Newman on Seinfeld.
6 – DJ Cousin Brucie also has a small role in the film. He can still be heard on WCBS FM in NYC.

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