by Pat Launer March 2019
San Diego Jewish Journal
Jews, WASPs, Mormons, angels, ghosts and global warming. “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” has it all. And a whole lot more.
The first part of the masterwork by Tony Kushner won the Pulitzer Prize in 1991, and garnered Tony Awards for Best Play in 1991 and 1993 for each of its two mammoth halves: Part I “Millennium Approaches” and Part II “Perestroika.”
When “Millennium” premiered in 1991, Newsweek called it “the most ambitious American play of our time.” Frank Rich, of the New York Times, said, “Mr. Kushner has written the most thrilling American play in years.” Ten years after its premiere, Washington D.C.’s Metro Weekly labeled it “one of the most important pieces of theater to come out of the late 20th century.”
Nearly 30 years after it first opened, “Angels in America” is as brilliant and timeless as ever. Kushner’s magnum opus is a multi-layered masterpiece, equal parts fanciful, political and philosophical.
Kushner is intellectually and analytically Talmudic in his approach to life and humankind. His New York Jewish smart, neurotic ambivalence is perhaps most keenly represented in the character of Louis Ironson, whose boyfriend, the funny and flamboyant Prior Walter, has just been diagnosed with AIDS. It’s the mid-‘80s, the midst of the Reagan presidency, and the AIDS epidemic is swallowing up numerous young lives, especially in New York.
But there are other Jewish characters in the play, most notably, Roy Cohn, the ruthless New York lawyer who helped put Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in the electric chair in 1953 for spying for the Russians. A cold-blooded, closeted homophobic and anti-Semitic Jew, Cohn was also a mentor of Donald Trump. When Roy is on his deathbed, Ethel Rosenberg comes back to haunt him.
With seven hours of total playing time (the two parts run in rotating repertory at Cygnet Theatre), and issue upon issue piled on, it’s hard to wrap your mind around this work of genius.
Why this play? And Why Now?
Cygnet founding artistic director Sean Murray calls it “an all-encompassing undertaking. I was doing a lot of musicals. I wanted to scare myself, to shake myself up. Those were my personal motivations.”
The planning for this season took place during the 2016 election.
“This seemed like the perfect response to what was going on,” he says. “We didn’t realize how incredibly relevant the piece would be. Donald Trump and Roger Stone were both ‘Roy Boys’ who got from him an entrée into society, into the right places.
“Trump learned everything, all his tactics, from Cohn,” Murray continues. “In the play, Roy talks about his tactics and techniques: ‘Attack first. Deny everything.’ Karma does eventually show its face.”
When he was originally considering producing “Angels,” Murray says, he wasn’t trying to make a statement.
“I was surprised by how relevant the play is today. There are mentions of global warming, and the ozone, climate change and how the government is falling apart, helmed by a self-centered narcissist. This play broke open the conversation about AIDS. It had an immediacy then, in the era of the plague; now the diagnosis of AIDS is not a literal death sentence. Now there are drugs and therapies, and people are living with HIV for years. But that doesn’t diminish the importance or the urgency of the story. If you didn’t live through that era, you can’t really grasp the horror of what it was like to be a gay man at that time.”
Murray was in the thick of it.
“In 1987, my partner died. He was diagnosed in 1986. He was 28; I was 26. I get the terror of what those characters are going through and doing the best they can. I was in school in North Carolina. I stayed in school. I made the Louis choices; I was too terrified to know what the right thing was.”
In the play, Louis abandons Prior; he can’t deal with the illness and the caregiving. He takes up with a married, conflicted Mormon man.
“I understand,” says Murray, “that people can be blinded by fear and emotion. My partner was in hospice for several months. I spent every day, all day with him.”
Louis is a fascinating character to Murray: hyper-verbal and hyper-intellectual.
“He’s funny when he gets going, but he doesn’t know he’s funny. Ultimately, all his struggle has to be endearing. You have to root for him. He’s got to be one of those smart, neurotic, annoying friends that’s also fun to be around.”
Louis is played by Will Bethmann, like Murray and his associate artistic director Rob Lutfy, a talented alumnus of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.
“The thing about this play that makes it so beautiful,” says Murray, “is that the characters are really rich and really flawed. They’re all struggling. They go outside their bounds to change. Roy is depicted as one of the most evil persons, hospitalized under the care of a gay AIDS nurse who hates him. But that nurse, Belize, arranges for Louis to say Kaddish for Roy.”
Acclaimed local (and Shakespearean) actor James Newcomb plays Roy, a role that has been ferociously attacked by Ron Leibman, who won a Tony for the original Broadway production; Al Pacino, who garnered one of 11 Emmys for the HBO miniseries; and Nathan Lane, who snagged a Tony for the 2018 Broadway revival.
“Roy doesn’t change fully,” says Murray, “but he and Belize come to some kind of understanding. Roy is a terrified man facing mortality. He and Ethel even find some humor together. He defends his choices, says he hates traitors and communists. He thinks he did the right thing.”
The Importance of Empathy
What’s crucial in working on this play, says Murray, is “not to judge the characters. You have to try to understand and have empathy for them. Roy is backed into a corner, facing his own death. He has to justify himself. I understand that. On his deathbed, my dad told his whole life story. Everyone wants to be remembered. At his end, Roy was alone, completely distrusted, disbarred, terrified. You have to look for the humanity.
“A lot of the anti-Semitism in Roy’s life has fueled his behavior. It held him back. There were country clubs he couldn’t get into. He became a fighter, and. took revenge on his perceived enemies. What’s the point of him if we don’t see the human heart inside? It reminded me of Nixon, alone in the Lincoln Room talking to the paintings just before his forced resignation.”
Ethel, says Murray, serves as Roy’s conscience. “She’s come back to watch him die a horrible, painful death, just as she did. That’s her revenge. He says he’s proud of sending her to the electric chair. His ability to twist the story to his benefit is what is happening in the White House now. ‘I am not a homosexual,’ Roy says. ‘I’m a straight man who sleeps with men. Gay people are men without clout. I have clout. Therefore, I’m not homosexual.’
“If there’s something that always haunted you, you go to the furthest extreme to defend it. Is Ethel a ghost torturing him? Or is he torturing himself? That’s for the audience to decide.”
But nothing is cut and dried in this play.
“Ethel’s hatred of Roy is so intense. She’s just gloating over the fact that he lost his law license before he died. She wants to be the first to tell him. But when he starts to become vulnerable, she softens, and sings to him. She goes from pure hatred to giving him the comfort of a mother in the end.”
At the beginning of the play, a Rabbi (played by the same actor who portrays Ethel Rosenberg and several other characters – in the 2003 TV miniseries, Meryl Streep; at Cygnet, local favorite Rosina Reynolds) is giving a eulogy for Louis’ grandmother.
“He asks who we are as Americans,” says Murray. “He calls this ‘the melting pot where nobody melted.’ Later, the Angel tells Prior that we humans need to stop moving: Stay home. Stay put. Stop intermarrying. Just be happy. But Prior rejects that idea. Humans are imbued with curiosity, ambition, drive. They’re always moving forward – to invent, create, progress. They can’t stop.
“We’re always talking about the future. Nobody ever says ‘Things are working fine. Let’s just leave them as they are.’ The American energy is always looking forward.”
Having recently found, from DNA testing, that his genes are 3% Jewish, Murray is fascinated by “the energy of Jewish thought” he finds in the play.
“He’s analyzing Big Themes, like Justice and Democracy, Love and Compassion, and how to apply them in daily life. Each character goes through a crisis of the soul, descending to really dark places. And they all come out the better side of it.”
Twice, Murray has seen the two parts of “Angels” on the same day. Cygnet will also be offering a ‘marathon’ like that once a week. But he insists you see “Millennium” first.
“There’s something hypnotic and powerful about that marathon. It’s like a live version of binge-watching a TV show. You get drawn in. Isn’t that what we want and need? To really feel, and to be asked to think?”
The play, Murray is quick to point out, is also very funny.
“You can focus exclusively on the human side of the stories: the life, comedy, love. Watching the characters evolve is amazing. The whole sweep of the narrative is amazing.
“The production itself scares me more than the play. It’s so enormous, and we’re trying to do it on a budget. It’s a monster schedule,” he says of the four-week rehearsal period to stage two plays.
“It’s a combination of knowing exactly and precisely how it’s to be staged, and being open to collaboration, and taking a side road if need be. Like taking a road trip; you have a map, but you have to be willing to go off the plan for side roads.”
What still thrills and delights him is that “characters that shouldn’t have anything in common find common ground. Even adversaries find common ground. At the end, everyone is mending and pulling together. Maybe we need to find our way together in our own tough times.”
Part 1 “Millennium Approaches” and Part 2 “Perestroika” of “ANGELS IN AMERICA: A GAY FANTASIA ON NATIONAL THEMES” run in rotating repertory at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town , from March 6-April 20.
Tickets and information: 619-337-1525; cygnettheatre.com
Note to the easily offended: There are explicit sexual situations in the plays, as well as nudity and adult language.
He’s been called the Rebel Rabbi, the Rock & Roll Rabbi, the Folk-Singing Rockstar Rabbi, the Peace and Love Troubadour, even a life-changing cult figure.
You can judge for yourself at the upcoming production of “Soul Doctor, The musical journey of Shlomo Carlebach” (April 3-22 at the Lyceum Theatre).
Reb Shlomo, as he was known to his followers, was a rabbi, religious teacher, composer and singer considered to be the foremost religious Jewish songwriter of the 20th century. In a career that spanned 40 years, he wrote thousands of melodies (many of them still heard in synagogues today), and recorded more than 25 albums.
He was a pioneer of the Baal teshuva movement (“returnees to Judaism”) that encouraged disenchanted Jewish youth to re-embrace their heritage, using his special brand of enlightened teaching, coupled with his inspiring stories and songs.
Carlebach was born in Berlin in 1925. He had a twin brother, who also became a rabbi. Their father was a noted Orthodox rabbi in Berlin, part of a rabbinical dynasty. As the war and the Nazi horror ramped up in Germany, the family fled to Vienna. By 1933, they were in Switzerland.
Shlomo emigrated to Lithuania in 1938, where he became a yeshiva student. That same year, his father became the rabbi of a small synagogue on the Upper West Side of New York. After their father died in 1967, Shlomo and his brother took over that synagogue. Despite his hectic performing and touring schedule, Shlomo remained the spiritual leader of what’s now known as the Carlebach Shul, until his death.
In the 1940s, Shlomo pursued extensive religious study in New York and New Jersey, and was considered to be a gifted, brilliant student.
In 1950, he set up a small Torah learning group, which he called TSGG (pronounced tas-gig), an acronym for “Taste and See God is Good.”
When he was 25, he took a crash-course in Hebrew, and the next year, in a special program at Columbia University, he learned English. Prior to that, he spoke primarily in Yiddish. He developed an unusual grammar, mixing Yiddish and English, which became his hallmark, and later influenced the language of his followers.
The Singing Rabbi
Shlomo began writing songs at the end of the 1950s, primarily based on the Torah and prayers. Although he composed thousands of songs, he could not read music. Many of his soulful renderings of Torah verses became standards in the wider Jewish community, including “Am Yisroel Chai” (‘The nation of Israel Lives’) and “Adir Hu” (‘He is Mighty’), composed in the 1960s on behalf of the plight of Soviet Jews.
He was affiliated with the Chabad/Lubavitch movement at first, but then he went on his own unique path. He found his way to Greenwich Village, where he met folkies like Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger, who encouraged his career and helped him get a spot in the Berkeley Folk Festival in 1966.
Shlomo met singer/songwriter/activist Nina Simone, the jazzy, bluesy, R&B African American Queen of Soul, at a bar in Atlantic City, and they struck up a musical friendship (some say it was more than that, but the relationship has been hotly debated). Simone recorded “Sinner Man,” a song Carlebach often sang in performance.
After his Berkeley folk performance, he decided to remain in the Bay area, to reach out to what he called “lost Jewish souls.” He opened a center called the House of Love and Prayer, to attract young people with song, dance and communal gatherings. His Hasidic melodies began to be infused with jazz and a psychedelic tinge. He played on a bill with Jefferson Airplane and other singing stars of the era.
His message resonated far beyond his concerts, recordings and interpersonal relationships. He preached a neo-Hasidic egalitarian Judaism, which was about inclusive diversity and unity, not uniformity. His non-judgmental way of appreciating others endeared him to a wide range of followers.
Though ordained as an Orthodox rabbi, he was able to “move across borders” between denominations of Judaism and beyond the faith, to spiritual leaders from Christianity to Sufism to Buddhism.
A Rocky Road
Shlomo’s path was not without difficulty or controversy. He was married and divorced; one of his two daughters, Neshama, carries on his musical legacy, touring regularly and playing his music.
He struggled to harmonize his traditional beliefs with the “free love” generation of the ‘60s. He fought against the rigid tenets of Hasidism and Jewish orthodoxy. His unconventional approach to kiruv (the Hebrew term for Orthodox Judaism’s outreach) made other rabbis uncomfortable. Although his Aquarian mysticism had a Yiddishe heart, he was ostracized by many in the Orthodox community. Ironically, his songs were later adopted by the very sects that rejected him.
Shlomo’s interactions with women were particularly suspect to the rabbinical community.
Rabbi Carlebach took down the separation between women and men in his own synagogue, he encouraged women to study and teach Jewish texts, and he gave private ordination to women before most mainstream Jewish institutions. In 1989, defying the Orthodox Jewish establishment, he presided as the feminist group, Women of the Wall, read from their own Torah scroll at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
He also abandoned the Orthodox injunction that men and women not touch publicly. In fact, he was known for his frequent hugs – of men and women alike – and often said his hope was to hug every Jew – perhaps every person – on earth.
But three years after his sudden death in 1994, at age 69, Lilith magazine, which calls itself “independent, Jewish and frankly feminist,” published long-standing allegations of sexual impropriety and inappropriate touching or interactions. Accusers were quoted, as were sources among Jewish communal leaders. Even Shlomo Carlebach had a #MeToo moment.
The issue was not confronted in an exhaustive 2003 biography, “Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: Life, Mission, Legacy.” by Natan Ophir, although the author did mention finding no evidence of a romance between Shlomo and Nina Simone.
Clearly, certain elements of Carlebach’s life remain shrouded in ambiguity. Still, no one denies that he was larger than life, an enormously charismatic man, with an undeniably compelling life story.
So why not tell this prolific singer/songwriter’s tale in a musical?
Singing like Shlomo:
“Soul Doctor” 1.0
“Soul Doctor, the Journey of a Rockstar Rabbi,” with a book by Daniel S. Wise, and lyrics by David Schechter, had short-lived Broadway and Off Broadway runs in 2012-2013. The musical was compared to “The Jazz Singer,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Rent” and “Hair.”
In one of two San Diego connections to the show, former San Diegan Eric Anderson, now a Broadway veteran, starred in the original versions.
As Lisa Klug, a reviewer on the website jewlicious.com put it, the show evoked “a full roller coaster of emotion: nachas, shpilkis, laughter and tears.” (Not sure that’s the right use of shpilkis, which is the Yiddish equivalent of ‘ants in the pants,’ but you get the idea). The writer was impressed that Anderson portrayed Carlebach so convincingly that she was surprised to learn that he isn’t Jewish. He “radiates with sweet Shlomo-like smiles, humility and warmth,” she said.
She came away thinking about Shlomo, that it was “almost incomprehensible that someone who personally underwent so much pain, and felt so much of the world’s pain, [could create such] a lasting legacy of joy.”
Other critics were less enthusiastic.
Charles Isherwood wrote in the New York Times that “Soul Doctor” was a “bizarre and sometimes bewildering musical,” with its severe tonal shifts from Nazi killings to flower power.
“He’s a rabbi with a cause, yes,” Isherwood continued, “but the cause never comes into clear focus.”
This, despite the fact that Shlomo’s daughter, Neshama, was closely involved in the creation of the musical.
Enter Gabriel Barre (pronounced like Barry), a New York-based actor/singer/writer/director with Broadway, Off Broadway and regional credits a mile long, who specializes in re-shaping acclaimed revivals and developing new musicals.
From Barre and the original creators springs a brand new edition of “Soul Doctor,” now subtitled “A Musical Journey of Shlomo Carlebach.” The entire show has been re-conceived, and begins a world tour in San Diego.
One talented member of the company, San Diegan Dylan Hoffinger, plays young Shlomo and other characters.
“Soul Doctor” 2.0
“I think that this version is a more exciting approach,” says Barre. “The Broadway version was a big splashy musical that I had nothing to do with. It was smaller Off Broadway.”
The writers and the producer reached out to Barre, he says, and they were “swept away by my ideas.
“Almost everything is revised and re-written, though the essence of the musical remains. They’re looking at this as the show they always wanted to have. We’ve pared it down to a one-act experience. It may just be a sort of ‘60s ‘happening,’ with an after-concert that involves the audience even more.”
Now, instead of a straight-ahead bio-musical, Barre and company are “trying to emulate Shlomo himself – at shuls, concerts, at the House of Love and Prayer, singing in a commune-like place that attracted people from all faiths and religions. It’s as if he were doing it himself; it’s an extension of one of his gatherings.”
The show is now set in the House of Love and Prayer in Haight-Ashbury, 1968. Barre compares the structure to the multi-Tony Award-winning 1965 musical “Man of La Mancha,” where the prison inmates re-enact the story of Don Quixote.
“The audience,” says Barre, “will be welcomed by the cast when they enter. They’ll walk into an atmosphere, and won’t even necessarily recognize when the show begins. It’s more like ‘Hair’ than ‘Jersey Boys.’ It’s about one man and his followers.
“Shlomo’s ‘Holy Beggars’ – as his followers were called – are a tribe from all walks of life and religions,” Barre explains. “They’re givers of charity. They are all these disparate characters, and then the show springs forth from that. The 20-person cast will also be the band, swapping instruments as they go. They’re all amazing actor/musicians and musician/actors.”
And our native son, Dylan, Barre asserts, “is gonna be terrific. He’s a real talent.” Dylan will travel with the show from San Diego to a month-long run in Los Angeles, followed by 4-6 weeks in Jerusalem.
Last September, Barre, the son of an Episcopal minister, took a research trip to Israel in preparation for the production; he calls it “a truly life-changing experience.”
“I knew about Shlomo,” he says, “and the show and the character and the music. But his life was so compelling, his story is so universal. What drew me was the message of inclusivity and love he preached. He said we have a better chance of celebrating what binds us as human beings if we accept and are open, rather than closing off and remaining dedicated to our own rigid beliefs.
“His message is incredibly relevant and timely, and it will make the show really resonate.”
“Soul Doctor” runs in the Lyceum Theatre from April 3-22.
For tickets and information: 619-544-1000; lyceumevents.org.