One of the laughs in "Monty Python's "Spamalot" is the song in which Sir Robin informs King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table that their quest to take a musical to Broadway will be doomed if they don't have any Jews.
The prolificacy of Jewish entertainers is one of comedy's hoariest clichés, but as the old adage goes, it's funny 'cause it's true, and North Suburban Synagogue Beth El paid tribute to some of America's most renowned and beloved composers who just happened to be Jewish.
"Berlin…Bernstein…Broadway…Beth El!" was the theme of the synagogue's 44th annual Spring Music Festival held last Sunday.
The Beth El Chorale, the Beth El Youth Chorale and guest soloist Heather Aranyi of Congregation B'nai Torah joined Beth El Cantor Larry Goller in a program included songs by Irving Berlin ("Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor"), Leonard Bernstein ("A Simple Song") and Stephen Sondheim ("No One is Alone").
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, Aaron Copland, George Gershwin ("Porgy and Bess"), Kurt Weill and "Fiddler on the Roof" lyricist Sheldon Harnick ("Sunrise, Sunset") also were represented.
The concert was held in the afternoon, just hours before the hockey game that would decide whether the Blackhawks would advance to the Stanley Cup Finals, though the team wouldn't get the chance to repeat last year's championship season.
Goller took the stage with a Blackhawks journey over his tuxedo and performed a Hawks-themed parody of "Some Enchanted Evening."
I thought you were from New York," an audience member jokingly heckled when Goller took the stage. "We'll get to the Rangers next," Goller shot back.
Such concerts serve to strengthen the ties that bind congregants to their congregation. "It's a wonderful opportunity for the performers," observed audience member Lillian Charney of Highland Park. "But it is also another aspect of art in the synagogue. A synagogue is more than just a place to come to pray. Music touches the soul of everyone."
This year's concert was an outgrowth of a sermon Goller delivered last winter about the role Jewish artists played in the development of the modern American musical. "If you look at the themes of many early American musicals," Goller said in a phone interview, "a common theme was the outsider trying to fit, to get along with society and be accepted. Those themes are universal but they resonated especially with Jewish artists, many of whom came from Russia and Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century."
Irving Berlin, for example, reportedly came to America in 1893 as a 4-year-old who watched his house burned down in a Russian pogrom. Growing up on New York's Lower East Side, he had to quit school to help support his family after his father died.
Kurt Weill was a refugee from Nazi Germany. George Gershwin was born to Russian immigrants in Brooklyn in 1898.
It was not a stretch, Goller said, for these and other early Jewish Broadway legends to connect with the theme of the downtrodden outsider who ultimately overcomes obstacles to succeed.
Part of their genius, Goller noted, was how they translated these themes to adapt to popular tastes, as witnessed in some of Irving Berlin's most popular songs (not included in the concert), "White Christmas," "Easter Parade" and "God Bless America."
"Our stranger status hasn't always worked out so well for us," Goller concluded his sermon that inspired the concert, "but the turn-of-the-20th-century America was one success story for the Jews-as-strangers, one that even benefited and enriched our new adopted home."