NEW YORK — When the American stage actor Eric Anderson was cast as Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach in the musical “Soul Doctor,” Broadway’s song-and-dance telling of the life and legacy one of the 20th century’s most influential Jewish characters, he didn’t have very much experience to draw from.
Not Jewish and lacking any real skills on the guitar, which was the iconic rabbi’s most prominent accessory, Anderson had quite a learning curve before him if he was to accurately portray Carlebach, AKA “The Singing Rabbi.” So he took a page from the thousands of young Jewish adults who have flocked to Israel for Birthright programs, and boarded a plane to explore the Land of Israel for 10 days.
Accompanied by Daniel S. Wise, who directs the show and also authored its book, Anderson spent Shabbat on Moshav Mevo Modi’im, the community established by Carlebach in the 1970s; he attended a Jewish wedding on the outskirts of Jericho and he touched the stones of the Western Wall. He spent time with Carlebach’s daughter Nedara and he explored Tel Aviv with Wise’s nephew. By the time he flew home, he says, his entire perspective had shifted.
“The day before I went in to audition for the show, I knew nothing about Shlomo whatsoever. I just knew that I was going in for a show called ‘Soul Doctor,’” he says. “[In Israel] I really got to spend some time with the people who were close to him. It gave me a lot, and it really centered me. I feel like I know a lot about Judaism that I would have never known before.”
The experience has served him well. “Soul Doctor,” which opened at Broadway’s Circle in The Square theater in August after a successful off-Broadway run, has received mixed reviews, with Wise’s sometimes-simplistic lyrics and the plot’s historical accuracy both getting knocks in the press.
But concerning Anderson’s portrayal of Carlebach, who lit a fire in the post-World War II followers of Orthodox Judaism and composed thousands of liturgical melodies that are still beloved today, critics have been practically unanimous in their praise.
“Mr. Anderson sings with a soft, captivating intensity, and the orchestrations often appealingly evoke Carlebach’s original recordings,” Charles Isherwood wrote in The New York Times in an otherwise tepid review. And in an even less forgiving analysis in The Hollywood Reporter, Frank Scheck took a break from hammering the musical to concede, “Anderson delivers a terrific performance in the central role, beautifully suggesting Carlebach’s gentle, shambling appeal as well as the low-key charisma that made him an unlikely recording star whose output consisted of some 25 albums.”
The musical opens in Vienna, where the jazz ingénue Nina Simone is giving a concert and calling her dear friend Shlomo Carlebach to join her on the stage. In comes the rabbi, trailed by an entourage of tie-dyed flower children, and as he takes center stage and begins to strum, his song is interrupted by a heckling old rabbi, beseeching Carlebach to stop the shanda and remember how his own people were liquidated from that very city’s streets.
The life of Shlomo Carlebach (born in Vienna in 1925; died in 1994) spanned three continents and encompassed some of the 20th century’s most critical moments. The Holocaust. The birth of the State of Israel. The Civil Rights Movement. The Summer of Love. Carlebach lived through all of it, and like a yiddishkeit Forrest Gump, his life story is also that of a great American century and one of the most stunning epochs in modern human history.
The musical is weighed down somewhat by clunking dialogue and a stubborn desire to cram its two and a half hours with as much history as possible, leaving the audience with an overdistillation of the musical man himself. It also does a gross disservice to the character of Nina Simone, played with immense poise and suavity by Amber Iman, who despite being one of American music’s most esteemed figures is relegated, in most scenes, to the role of beautiful accessory to the plot. Her unlikely friendship with Carlebach, and the implications of a black songstress and a Jewish rabbi supporting and encouraging each other through so many tumultuous American decades, could have made for great theater but instead is merely scratched at.
But Carlebach’s story is no doubt rich enough, and filled with enough existential challenges, to be explored on the Great White Way.
“His life is perfectly theatrical, he’s a perfect classical theatrical character who has a really strong ethos, pathos, and eros,” says Wise. “People say this is like the second ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ in a sense that Fiddler tells the story through Tevya and Anatevka, of the pre-war Jewish experience. ‘Soul Doctor’ is the Jewish telling of post-war Judaism, the identity crisis and reclaiming its spiritual voice.”
‘He’s a perfect classical theatrical character who has a really strong ethos, pathos, and eros’
And even if that telling is not completely historically accurate, or stumbles a bit along the way, those who were closest to Carlebach say they are overjoyed that the rabbi’s voice now has a pulpit on the Great White Way.
At the Carlebach Shul on 79th Street in New York City, which Carlebach established later in life and where his great nephew Naftali Citron is now the rabbi, the consensus on “Soul Doctor” is that it’s a proud and beautiful piece of theater.
“Overall it’s a very powerful portrayal,” says Citron. “They’re not trying to be critically detail oriented to what actually did or did not happen… There’s a lot of aspects to people like Shlomo and they couldn’t cover all of those things because it’s not a TV series, it’s a play.”
Nearly two decades after Carlebach’s death, Citron adds, his legacy lives on. “If I could speak with Shlomo,” he says, “I’m sure the idea that his music is on Broadway is something he would be happy about.”