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Shlomo, The Musical
Rabbi Carlebach — the legendary and sometimes controversial spiritual leader and songwriter — may get his place on a Broadway marquee.
Sandee Brawarsky - Jewish Week Book CriticDavid Yammer works hard to make sure he’s not
Daniel Wise, is in the process of developing “The House of Love and Prayer: The Life and Music of Shlomo Carlebach,” with help from Carlebach’s daughter, Neshama, right. The larger-than-life rabbi, center, “is a classic case of a very strongly drive
The name of the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach has long been associated with Broadway. As in Upper West Side Broadway. There, most of the homeless people were known by name by Shlomo, who freely gave them money, big hugs and the sense of not only being noticed but considered worthy.
Now his name is to have another association with the Great White Way, as a creative team is planning to bring a musical theater piece based on his life to an Off Broadway and then Broadway theater. Although totally different in conception, the show will follow recent productions about the lives of other remarkable Jewish figures, Golda Meir and Primo Levi.
“The House of Love and Prayer: The Life and Music of Shlomo Carlebach” is now in development, produced by Daniel Wise, with Dr. Jeremy Chess and Dr. Joel Kahn as co-producers. Wise is writing the show with director David Schechter, and Neshama Carlebach, Rabbi Carlebach’s older daughter, who is collaborating on all aspects of the show. They plan to have a reading in August, followed by a limited run pre-production in January 2007 at the Folksbiene Yiddish Theater, before its official opening.
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach — who was widely known by his first name — died in 1994 at the age of 69. He touched the lives of Jews around the world through his spirited and soulful music, his teachings and his open-hearted acceptance of all people. His music is played in synagogues, at weddings and concerts, and it is such an integral part of the contemporary Jewish musical repertoire that many are unaware that they are singing Rabbi Carlebach’s songs. “Am Yisrael Chai” (“The Nation of Israel Lives”) is his best-known composition.
“We couldn’t create a better theatrical character,” Wise says. “He’s the classic case of a very strongly driven will that has inner obstructions at every step along the way, and outer obstructions too.”
Wise goes on to list some of Rabbi Carlebach’s distinctive qualities. “He knew what his calling was. But he never had peace. He was always struggling. He was selfless to a fault, a person who never had a place in this world. He gave a tremendous amount. He had the level of uninhibited love that you may find in Down Syndrome children. He was a man of great Talmudic and esoteric kabbalistic learning who could give over these teachings in beatnik language.”
He adds, “Shlomo could walk into a room and transform your life.”
Wise came up with the idea for the project and approached Neshama, a songwriter and singer considered her father’s musical protégé. Together with Schechter, they presented a version of the show on Oct. 30, 2004 at the JCC of Manhattan to commemorate the 10th anniversary of his death.
“My main motivation in wanting to see this happen,” Neshama says, “is so that the truth about who my father was can come out in the world. My family and I are saddened by the untruths that are told. People try to make him into a superhuman person, and it’s easy to do that when someone is no longer in the world.”
“The most beautiful thing about him was his realness. He wasn’t an angel. Although he was very angelic. He was a real human being. He worked hard to become who he was, and sometimes he was treated badly. Sometimes there was a lot of sorrow, sometime a lot of laughter. He died giving his heart to everybody,” Neshama says.
“I wish he were here to do it himself,” she adds. “One of my goals is that I want him to still be alive in the world.” She notes that many of the scenes in the play are drawn from stories he told her.
Wise’s first casting choice for the role of Rabbi Carlebach, seconded by Schechter and Neshama, is Jason Alexander, who has been approached. Schechter likes “the twinkle in his eye and the sense of mischief about him.”
The show’s setting is an abstract version of the House of Love and Prayer, the Jewish commune Rabbi Carlebach founded in San Francisco in the 1960s. The opening scene features Rabbi Carlebach seated on a stool, strumming his guitar, with the ensemble of actors — who are all musicians, singers and dancers — seated around him. Neshama, as the character Ruach, or “Spirit,” plays a lead role, moving the show along musically and narratively.
“It’s a hybrid of concert and theater,” Schechter explains. “We found a form more elliptical than literal, like chasidic stories, like his music, in different realms.”
The creative team wants the show to be a fun and uplifting story with humor, much like they describe being in Rabbi Carlebach’s presence. They see the show as having appeal in the wider Jewish community and also beyond the Jewish community.
Woven around Rabbi Carlebach’s original music, the show includes 30 of his songs including some lesser-known tunes and also some songs of his childhood. The story of his life unfolds, from his early years in Hitler’s Germany, to his arrival in America in 1939, to his Talmudic studies in Lakewood, N.J., and Brooklyn, to his years as a folk-singing rabbi in Greenwich Village, to his time in San Francisco, to the final chapters of his life as a spiritual teacher, finding lost souls around the world. Also featured are video and original recordings of him.
About the more controversial aspects of Rabbi Carlebach’s life, including allegations made after his death about sexual harrassment, Schechter explains, “In one way or another they will be addressed. But it’s not the thrust of what this piece is about.”
“It’s very challenging to make a plot arc out of a life,” Schechter says. “Shlomo was a bridger of worlds, he was also trying to reconcile seemingly unreconcilable poles, as he did in his music, creating a new kind of Jewish popular music that is accessible to everyone and also sacred.”
Zalman Mlotek, executive director of the Folksbiene Yiddish Theater, who will collaborate on the musical elements of the show, says, “Shlomo is one of the giants of Jewish spirituality in our time, and he has yet to get full recognition in terms of how his melodies and his music and words have crossed over all the lines. Musically, it’s a tremendously rich project.”
So far, Chess and Kahn have provided the seed money for the production. Wise says they need to raise an additional $300,000 for the next stage and $1.5 million for the full-scale production. They are about to bring a composer onto their team to turn Rabbi Carlebach’s music into a proper score.
Wise and Schechter are working together for the first time, although their paths have crossed over the years in the theater world. Wise, who is now producing the 10th anniversary world tour of “Rent,” produced “The Gathering” on Broadway. Schechter’s award-winning play, “Hannah Senesh,” has played around the world. He has directed and adapted stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer at La Mama E.T.C. and has written several plays and musicals on Jewish themes, among his other work. He has acted on and off Broadway, including productions by Liz Swados, and just finished shooting a film.
Schechter never met Rabbi Carlebach, but Wise knew him for all his life. He grew up in Antioch, Ohio; his mother had been a member of Rabbi Carlebach’s House of Love and Prayer. Rabbi Carlebach would visit the family on their farm and, after Wise’s parents’ divorce and his mother’s move to Borough Park, Rabbi Carlebach continued to visit their Brooklyn home. Wise, an ordained rabbi who says that he was never “a groupie of Shlomo,” has been involved in the Jewish world and art world since childhood, studying music, doing theater and studying Jewish texts.
Wise explains that they obtained “grand rights” from the family, to use Rabbi Carlebach’s songs as part of the narrative. The family has overall approval of the script and casting.
One scene recalls the first meeting between Rabbi Carlebach and a young singer and pianist named Eunice Kathleen Waymon, playing in the Midtown Bar in Atlantic City in the late 1950s. Rabbi Carlebach was then a rabbi serving a chicken farming community and he was very curious to learn about jazz music. He and the performer — who later changed her name to Nina Simone — swapped life stories, and Rabbi Carlebach also sang for her. They encouraged each other to keep singing.
In a final scene, the different characters — who might include his yeshiva teachers, hippies, and adversaries — ask questions, among them, “How do you give more than you have? How do you be a friend to the whole world while your own heart is broken?” The answer: “You sing.”