It was a mere four days before the opening night of “Ah, Jerusalem” and director Bernie Kukoff looked rumpled and disgruntled, not altogether pleased with the scene unfolding onstage.
“You really shouldn’t be here,” he said to me, waving a hand at the stage. “I just wrote this scene over the weekend.”
At 77, Kukoff, a seasoned writer and producer with more than 40 years logged on Broadway and in Hollywood, is used to making last-minute changes to a script — adding a title song, say, to perk up a lackluster opening.
“That happened in ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,’ he said, retelling a favorite tale. “They were out of town, and it was dying and this is after weeks of rehearsals. So they wrote a song for the opening and it immediately put the audience in the right place. That’s the kind of magic that a theater can have.”
It’s what he’s hoping will happen with “Ah, Jerusalem,” the original musical he wrote with Danny Paller, a local composer from Jerusalem. As a longtime producer and screenwriter known for collaborating on the popular 1980s television shows “Diff’rent Strokes” and “The Cosby Show,” Kukoff has been working on Broadway and Off-Broadway for the last decade. He also produced a show in Tel Aviv four years ago, “Glow,” a comics-driven love story set in eight different languages.
He comes to Israel regularly with his family, and was here with his wife and granddaughter for a bat mitzvah trip when he was introduced to Paller’s kernel of an idea by a mutual friend during a Friday night dinner in Jerusalem.
“It fascinated me: a musical, something to go to at night in Jerusalem,” he said. “There weren’t any particular ideas yet, no business plan, nothing. So I said, let me write the thing. You first need a book for the musical before you do anything. There were a lot of false leads, but ultimately we came up with an idea.”
The idea was a musical time-travel story, as the Axelrod family from Indianapolis takes a raincheck on their Cancun vacation following a dreamtime visit from Great Uncle Mordechai, who sends Charlie, the dad, on an adventure to find a family treasure in Jerusalem.
The storyline is family-friendly, appropriate for all ages and with plenty of deft, energetic song-and-dance pieces in between the historical tableaux that set the scene for the Jerusalem tale. It’s material that should appeal to the tourists who are expected to make up a good chunk of the audience for the play’s six-month run.
The show has several Israeli investors, including theater company Bimot and Kukoff himself. The show, while geared toward tourists, aims to attract local English-and Hebrew-speaking audiences as well.
“I know we have entertainment value for both [local and visiting] audiences,” said Paller. “It tries to be universal, about family life and tourism, and that should be enough to transcend both audiences. The local scene is finite, whereas tourism is totally renewable and something the city is greatly interested and invested in.”
For Paller, Kukoff’s local partner, co-director and the creative source who first came up with the idea, “Ah, Jerusalem” is a convergence of his own professional paths. When he first made aliya more than two decades ago, he worked with Nesiya, a now nearly-defunct youth program that focused on the arts, which served as his “baptism into the Israel arts scene” and as a window on what it meant to be new to Israel as he watched groups of teens come summer after summer.
Paller kept thinking about an entertainment vehicle that could appeal to the tourist industry, combining education and entertainment in an effort to introduce audiences to the global history of Jerusalem. “We thought about different narratives and different formats and we brainstormed,” Paller said. “It wasn’t clear at the beginning what this was and how this story should be told.”
At least until the irrepressible Kukoff entered the picture and saw it as a pure theatrical experience, with actors on a stage telling a story.
For Paller, the decision to create a musical theater piece allowed him a certain leeway with the lyrics and music, which clearly had to reflect the characters and speak the language of the visitor to Israel. So the show offers a “New York, American quality and sense of humor,” he said.
At the same time, working with local actors, many of whom are Israeli-born to English-speaking parents, has been a particularly Israeli experience for Kukoff.
“There’s different professional levels here. It’s a mixed bag,” he said. “That’s something I immediately understood from ‘Glow,’ which was on a more professional level, probably because Tel Aviv has more happening. But what Jerusalem has for me, which I’m so attracted to, is it has excellent professionals. They need more experience, more technique, but they have talent and that’s been a very nice kind of experience for me.”
Rehearsals have been going on for weeks, but only during the evenings, between 6 and 10 p.m., another major adjustment for Kukoff, who’s accustomed to rehearsing eight hours a day, “every day,” and then performing eight times a week.
“I’m working with them, giving whatever I can give them in terms of what I know,” he said. “This is not like New York at all, you take what you can get when you can get it, because they [the actors] have to do other things; Miri [Fraenkel, who plays the Axelrods’ teenage daughter] has military service.”
With two premiere shows this week and next, the show is “pulling together,” said Kukoff. “Shows have a way of easing themselves into the way they need to be,” he said. “It’s there when it’s there.”
“Ah, Jerusalem” premieres Thursday, February 21, and Wednesday, February 27, and will be performed every Sunday and Thursday evening at 8 p.m., at the Beit Shmuel Theater, 6 Shama Street, Jerusalem. For information and ticket reservations, contact bimot.co.il or call 02-623-7000.