Stars of David is a musical revue based on stories of famous Jews in pop culture that is playing right here on the UWS for one night only on April 8 at 7:30 PM at Rodeph Sholom. The cast features the best cantors from across the nation, from Beverly Hills to the Upper West Side, who will join Rodeph Sholom’s Senior Cantor Rebecca Garfein and Cantor Shayna De Lowe.
It’s a warm and entertaining show based on the best-selling book by Abigail Pogrebin, this musical adaptation celebrates the Jewish identity of America’s most notable public figures, including Fran Drescher, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Leonard Nimoy and more.
We got a chance to ask Abigail Pogrebin, the show’s creator, about this project and what makes it special.
Mike: what made you first want to write the book?
Abigail: For a long time, I wondered how the private story of Jewish identity fits into the public life of a celebrity. Most famous people don’t disclose or describe their Jewish stories in their Letterman interviews or Vanity Fair profiles, and I don’t fault them — religious connection (or lack of it) can be complex and very personal. But I had a hunch that for each of these American achievers, their Jewishness had to be integral or important in some way and I wanted to find out how. Also, to be candid, at the time I decided to write this book, I was wrestling with my own connection to heritage and tradition — not sure what to make of it or what to do with it. This was my black door way, I suppose, of figuring out how much Judaism really mattered to me, and what I wanted to pass onto my then-infant kids.
Mike: How’d you connect with all of these famous people?
Abigail: There was no special sauce in reaching out — sometimes I knew someone who knew someone, but basically I was email or mailing requests to handlers, agents, managers, producers, chiefs of staff, the usual avenues. I think it undoubtedly helped that I started with five interviews that kind of reassured other interview-subjects that I was serious and that this might be a book worth participating in. Those first five were: Mike Wallace (for whom I produced at 60 Minutes), Gloria Steinem (with whom my mother worked at Ms. Magazine), Leonard Nimoy (with whom my parents happened to study Torah), Jason Alexander (he and I were in the original cast of Sondheim’s famous flop, “Merrily We Roll Along”), and Wendy Wasserstein (she was friends with my book agent).
Mike: Can you tell me about your most revealing celebrity interview?
Abigail: It was a powerful moment to hear how designer Kenneth Cole re-connected with his Judaism after he lost his father, and to learn how seriously he chose to study our texts as an adult. I also was touched by his honesty regarding he and his wife’s decision to raise their three daughters in her religion — as Catholics — and the ways in which that felt like a loss of some kind, even though he deeply appreciated the benefits of belonging to their mother’s faith.
Mike: How did you turn this into a musical? And what made you go in this direction?
Abigail: The musical was not my idea — it was producer Aaron Harnick’s brainchild (he’s the nephew of Sheldon Harnick of “Fiddler” fame), and Aaron brought it to superstar producer Daryl Roth, who was excited about the concept. The idea was that each interview in the book could be a song because there were emotional stakes, and fascinating stories, in each conversation. So they asked hugely successful songwriters to read the book and choose a chapter to adapt musically —or conversely, sometimes the producers requested a specific interviewed be adapted — and it was remarkable who said yes: Sheldon Harnick (wrote the song for Norman Lear), Jeanine Tesori of “Fun Home” (wrote the song for Gloria Steinem), Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater of “Spring Awakening” (wrote the song for Kenneth Cole), and Tom Kitt of “Next to Normal” (wrote the song for Ruth Bader Ginsburg). What emerged was a song cycle, with the “script” being very minimal — interwoven actual quotations from the interviews in the book.
See it right here on the UWS! Go to rodephsholom.org/starsofdavid to get tickets!