'Stars of David' explores what it means to be Jewish

Donna Vivino rehearses "Just Be Who You Are" for the musical, which premieres Wednesday.
Donna Vivino rehearses "Just Be Who You Are" for the musical, which premieres Wednesday. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: October 15, 2012

"All you need to do . . ." is a fateful phrase for playwright Charles Busch.

Director Gordon Greenberg cornered Busch at a New York restaurant about a year ago and told him that all he needed to do was write a couple of monologues to splice in between songs for a new musical revue "Stars of David," featuring famous names talking about the Jewish experience.

"Stars of David," which has its world premiere with the Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre Wednesday through Nov. 18, turned out to be a much more complicated affair for Busch. "There's about 20 minutes of actual dialogue but I'm responsible for the structure of the evening," Busch said, describing the project as one of the most challenging things he's ever done. "That's always the tragedy of the musical bookwriter. You get no credit when it's good, and you get all the blame when it's bad."

"Stars of David" is based on Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk about Being Jewish by Abigail Pogrebin. She interviewed prominent Jews such as comedian Joan Rivers, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and actor Leonard Nimoy, asking questions such as, "What do you think about being Jewish?" and "How does it impact your life?" Their stories were then rewritten as songs by musical theater heavyweights such as Marvin Hamlisch; Duncan Sheik and his writing partner for "Spring Awakening," Steven Sater; and Sheldon Harnick ("Fiddler on the Roof"), whose nephew, Broadway producer Aaron Harnick, conceived the project.

Busch decided to create a structure for the musical around a fictionalized female author discussing her book and how each interview affected her life and relationships. All of the songs are sung by actors portraying the subjects of Pogrebin's book, and the lyrics are based on their interviews.

Sara Garonzik, the producing artistic director at the Philadelphia Theatre Company, sees a universality in themes. You don't have to be Jewish to connect with the question of how religion affects people's lives. "God, in all of its manifest forms, has become a hot cultural topic," Garonzik said, referring to such shows as "The Book of Mormon," now on Broadway, and "Scandalous," the musical opening on Broadway next month about early 20th-century evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, with a book and lyrics by Kathie Lee Gifford.

"Faith is in," Garonzik said.

"Stars of David" had its first official reading in February at PTC@Play, a festival of new, in-progress works held by the Philadelphia Theatre Company. The show has changed drastically since then. "It's got a lot more edge to it than before. That reading was a little more on the cuddly side," Busch said. "We'd like it to be fun entertainment that you can bring your grandmother to, and something a little provocative."

The play was still changing when Garonzik was interviewed two weeks before the premiere. "Each day I get a brand-new draft. Songs go in and out," she said. "It's at an exciting, volatile spot right now."

Busch doesn't seem like a natural choice to do the show's book. Sure, his play "The Allergist's Wife" was nominated for a best play Tony in 2000. But he started his career on the fringe with cutting, hilarious plays like the long-running off-Broadway hit "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom" and "Psycho Beach Party" (in the 2000 movie version, he appeared as Captain Monica Stark).

Busch was born Jewish but considers himself more culturally than religiously attached to Judaism. Maybe his unease with the material is exactly why he's suited for it?

"Maybe I was a good choice for this because I can have more objective, searching voice," Busch said. "I don't have any of the answers, and the protagonist I'm writing has elements of myself in it, someone who doesn't have the answers and is willing to admit that."

Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St., Wednesday-Nov. 18, $51-$79, 215-985-0420, philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.

Contact Molly Eichel at eichelm@phillynews.com or 215-854-5909. Follow her on Twitter @mollyeichel.

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