LONDON — A decade after penning the hit musical “Oliver!,” composer Lionel Bart was on the search for a strong female character to build a new show around, alongside his partner Roger Cook, a popular singer, songwriter and record producer.
“We both wanted to write a musical about a strong woman, and Lionel came up with the idea of Golda,” Cook tells The Times of Israel. “We both read her autobiography [“My Life”] and the music and songs just sprung off the pages for us.”
Born in Kyiv on May 3, 1898, Meir moved with her family to the United States in 1906, where she lived until her immigration to British Mandate Palestine in 1921. Meir served as prime minister of Israel from March 17, 1969, until her resignation on April 11, 1974, following the Yom Kippur War. She died of lymphatic cancer on December 8, 1978, and is still Israel’s sole female prime minister.
The musical, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” was written in the mid-1970s, but Bart, who died in 1999, never saw it staged. Now, a February 11 online performance put on by the Jewish Music Institute’s (JMI) World Tour, an online gala fundraiser for Jewish music and musicians, is debuting the title number.
British actress Dame Maureen Lipman will perform the song, a pensive, catchy, lullaby crooned by the character of Blume Mabovitch — Golda Meir’s mother — to a young Golda frightened by an imminent pogrom in their Russian village.
“Musicals are about good stories and I think powerful women [such as Meir] are great exemplars of plots for musicals,” says UK musical theater producer Neil Marcus, who is also the creative producer of JMI’s upcoming event. The Jewish Music Institute’s (JMI) World Tour will include liturgical, cantorial, classical and Mizrahi pieces, as well as excerpts from musical theater.
Marcus cites the hit shows “Here Lies Love” and “Evita,” respectively about the lives of former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos and former Argentine first lady Eva Peron.
“Strong people, whether they have their supporters or detractors, are fertile ground for musical theater because they are larger than life characters,” he says.
The show “Next Year In Jerusalem” focuses on Meir’s family, life, and relationships, says Marcus, adding that “because the musical travels from Russia to Israel to America, it’s able to utilize those different musical palettes.”
“So, not only is it about an interesting woman with a real, historical story behind it, the musical also deals with music from those countries. As JMI celebrates world Jewish music, it seemed a sensible place to start,” he says.
Marcus knew Bart and used to have tea with him in his final years. “Lionel mentioned that he’d written this musical about Golda Meir and he let me listen to a bit of the score. It’s beautiful,” he says.
By the mid-1970s, Bart was suffering from ill health and struggling with debt. Asked if it was hoped that the show would relaunch Bart’s floundering career, Cook — who wrote the well-known hit “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” — answers that “he hadn’t written for a long time. Just getting together and writing rekindled his interest and enthusiasm.”
They worked for six months from Bart’s attic in the Soho area of London’s West End, went to the Albert Hall to see Golda Meir speak, and even traveled to Israel on what was supposed to be a research trip. (“We certainly didn’t do much writing there!” says Cook.) Then in 1976, Cook moved to Nashville, Tennessee. Bart came out to stay with him, and from there they laid down the songs together.
Although the show had attracted some attention, including from Israeli film producer Menahem Golan, the creators were forced to let the idea go.
“At the time, Golda was still a tender subject and we were told to cease and desist, as the theatrical rights to her autobiography were not available for seven years,” Cook says.
Cook, who is still based in Nashville, is keen to bring the show to audiences. There is interest in a full concert version, he says, and in light of the current theater closures due to the coronavirus pandemic, he is also open to staging it via a streaming platform.
“It’s fantastic that there is [this] renewed interest, and we are working on a new draft of the script,” says Cook. “After 47 years, it was a little dusty.”
A yiddishe theater
For decades, Jews have been intertwined with musical theater on both sides of the pond.
“Assimilation is key to what Jews like to do when they get to a new culture,” says Marcus. “It’s no mistake that Irving Berlin wrote ‘White Christmas’ — the most celebrated of all popular songs, written by a nice Jewish boy.”
“There’s something within Jewish musicianship that likes to absorb what’s around it,” he says. “But of course, it comes from its own Eastern European klezmer tradition. There was such an influx of Jewish artists, writers, singers who came to New York in the 1920s and ’30s, and they contributed to the melting pot at that time. The Broadway musical is a fusion of Yiddish theatre, black jazz, vaudeville and classical operetta.”
“Next Year in Jerusalem” seems to draw on its composer’s own Jewish roots, as Bart’s own parents fled Cossack pogroms in Galicia — a historic area located in modern-day Poland and Ukraine — before settling in England.
As well as that song’s debut, JMI’s World Tour includes the premiere of “Der Iker” (“The Issue”), written and performed by noted Yiddish singer and composer Shura Lipovsky, who has been the director of JMI’s annual Yiddish song school since 2005.
“I had text [for a song] but when JMI approached me a few weeks ago, offering a world premiere, I didn’t have a melody,” Lipovsky tells The Times of Israel from her home in the Netherlands. “But I thought, why not? I’ll give it a go and try something ridiculous. I had 10 days to write, rehearse and record it. Crazy. It’s all a miracle.”
“The Issue” is a passionate song about the difficult times we are living in — but, drawing on the deep-rooted Yiddish songwriting tradition, Lipovsky decided to make the tune joyful.
“There’s a well-known old Yiddish song about not having enough money to pay the rent. It’s a sad theme, but the melody is so joyful and energetic that sometimes it becomes a tonic,” she says, adding that she hopes “The Issue” will do the same and uplift her virtual audience.
Cook is certain that Bart would have been thrilled about JMI showcasing one of their songs. “For JMI to pick up the baton and arrange for Dame Maureen Lipman to perform the title song of ‘Next Year In Jerusalem’… there’s no question about it, Lionel would be deliriously happy — as am I.”
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