Bernie Kukoff is a throwback to the halcyon days of Hollywood.
fast-talking Jewish comedian raised in Brooklyn, the 77-year-old Kukoff always
has an anecdote-filled story to tell in his staccato delivery about his decades
of experience creating, writing and producing hit television series and Broadway
But he seems most excited talking about his latest
project, Ah, Jerusalem!, a musical comedy in which he combines his vast,
encyclopedic knowledge of putting a show together with his lifelong love of
Israel. Debuting February 21 at Beit Shmuel in Jerusalem, Ah, Jerusalem! is
slated for two performances a week in its initial six-month run, in the hopes of
establishing it as a cultural landmark in the capital and a tourism “must see”
Written by Kukoff, with a score by Jerusalem composer-lyricist
Danny Paller, the 75-minute musical is geared to both Jewish and Christian
tourists. The collaborative effort germinated from a meeting between Paller, who
works in Jewish education, and Kukoff which was arranged by mutual
“My wife Lydia and I have been coming to Jerusalem regularly
since 1976,” said Kukoff in the Baka neighborhood holiday rental apartment
they’ve been staying in during the intensive rehearsals leading up to the show’s
“On our last trip, I met with Danny who told me that there was a
big entertainment gap in Jerusalem for the huge number of English speakers who
come all year long. They don’t really have enough to do at night, they go to
eat, walk on the Ben Yehuda midrehov [pedestrian mall], and then what? He
thought that an English-language musical that was performed regularly would be a
big addition to the city’s culture.”
Paller, who made aliyah from the US
in 1985, didn’t have a script or even a story, just the concept and a business
plan. But Kukoff was intrigued.
“It’s a vibe I had, and I remember
thinking, ‘at this point, what do I really want?’ I had already done Broadway,
and I had written as a TV and film screenwriter, but I had never done a script
before from scratch,” he said. “And, like we know from [Academy Award-nominated
Ben Affleck film] Argo, without a script, you don’t have
Kukoff agreed to come on board on the ground level, and
working with New York writer friends Alan Gelb and Lucille Lichtblau, began
formulating some initial ideas.
“I knew it would be a comedy, but at the
same time, it’s Jerusalem, so you’re not going to do Hellzapoppin’ or satirical
like Saturday Night Live,” he said. “At the same time, you can’t get too
sentimental the other way.”
After months of revisions, they wound up with
a script summarized by the following elevator pitch: “Charlie and Madeline
Axelrod and their teenage daughter Robin are packed to go on vacation to Mexico
when Charlie gets a nighttime ‘vision’ from his ancestral Uncle Mordechai
imploring Charlie to go on a mission to Jerusalem to retrieve a family
“And so begins the adventures of the Axelrods of Indianapolis,
as they travel through centuries – encountering love in the time of King
Solomon, danger in the time of the Crusades, and a ‘ticket to history’ in the
Jerusalem bus station circa 1920.
The show is full of humor and twists,
as the Axelrods experience a high-energy, transformational journey through
While it may sound like a hokey, live-action version of the
Time Tunnel – the long-running, kitschy, multi-media historical journey at Beit
Agron – it should be remembered that the same Kukoff who wrote and produced Ah,
Jerusalem! has some impressive credentials.
He’s produced five Broadway
and off-Broadway shows, including I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change (the
second-longest-running musical in off-Broadway history), The Thing About Men
(2004 Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical), and the Elvis
Presley musical All Shook Up, he’s a graduate of the Second City Comedy Troupe,
he created Diff’rent Strokes, the TV series featuring Gary Coleman, produced
seasons of The Cosby Show, and coproduced the successful Israel-based fantasy
stage show Glow.
A GRADUATE of Yale’s drama school, Kukoff was drafted in
the pre-Vietnam days, and after his discharge, worked as an actor for a few
years. Moving to California in the late 1960s, he partnered with Jeff Harris to
write sketch comedy for variety shows, like Pat Boone and Steve Allen, before
branching into sitcoms.
“We became a known quantity and started getting
asked by studios to work on shows, pilots and scripts,” said Kukoff. “With
Diff’rent Strokes, we had done a pilot for Paramount and they knew our
They said we’d be the perfect guys to develop a show around this
kid named Gary Coleman, so we came up with the idea and did the
Kukoff eventually tired of the TV industry, especially following
work on his 1993 sitcom Thea, which lasted only one season.
“I was done,
finished. The series was not a particularly happy, but actually quite dismal
experience. It just didn’t work the way I wanted it to. I was almost 60, and in
that business you need to be young. To write a pilot and have it sold and put on
the network schedule is miracle – then you have go out and make the show.
Sometimes a pilot works great but it doesn’t have the kind of legs you
Kukoff and his wife moved back to New York, and through
friends like Neil Simon, found a new life in the theater. There, he found that
he still had his magic touch and discovered he was back in his element, hiring
actors, going to auditions and wooing investors.
The experience proved
handy when the time came to transform Ah, Jerusalem! from paper to
With the script finally in hand, Kukoff assembled the first
reading of the play, without a score, at his home in Chatam, New York last March
with friends, neighbors from his apartment complex and acquaintances.
just wanted to see if it held together, and it did,” he said. “I invited a lot
of people who weren’t Jewish, and it worked for them too.
I’m not saying
it’s Fiddler [on the Roof], but it had fun and substance.”
The next step
was to arrange a reading in Jerusalem, in order to interest financial backers.
But for that, the team needed a score. Paller, a gifted lyricist and composer,
took charge, wrote the score, Jerusalemarea actors were hired for the reading,
and in August, the big day arrived.
“We could sense that it was
happening, but we were really going by the seat of our pants. In New York, I
would know what kind of budget we had, what we had to work with – here we
weren’t sure if we were going to be non-profit and try to get funding from the
Tourism Ministry or the city, or be a private production.”
The matter was
solved when one of the attendees of the reading, Yoel Peer, owner of the Bimot,
ticket agency, and producer of various Israeli cultural attractions, including
opera at Masada, was so taken with the concept that he became one of the
backers, enabling the show to move forward.
The Jerusalem reading also
helped Kukoff find two of the shows actors – of Nitzan Sitzer and Miri Fraenkel
– with the others – Roni Yacobovitz, Miri Fraenkel, Josh Bloomberg, Lev
Kerzhner, Gadi Weissbart and Rosie Richman – being auditioned later by him via
Skype from New York.
“I think they’re all terrific, and most are from
Jerusalem, which is important, because this is a Jerusalem show,” said
Despite his extensive experience with producing shows, Kukoff
hedged at assessing Ah, Jerusalem’s aesthetic and commercial
“I never think in terms of how something stands compared with
other work I’ve done. If you have a bomb, you have a bomb, and I’ve have enough
of those,” he said. “But this is a nice piece of work.”
One aspect of
producing a show in Israel, compared to his previous experiences in New York,
were the variables he encountered that required a little Israeli ingenuity and
“I loved working under these different conditions,” said
Kukoff. “In New York, if you have a cast, then it’s a cast that’s available for
rehearsals that you set. Here, arrangements have to be made for everyone,
because they all have jobs. So rehearsals have to work around their schedules.
And then you have to take into account milium [army reserve duty]. It’s been a
challenge, no question. I just have to be flexible. But I’ve found the crew and
actors to be professional enough, especially when it counts.”
to Kukoff, the initial run of 50 performances – every Sunday and Thursday for
the next six months – will establish Ah, Jerusalem! as a Jerusalem cultural
attraction. The hope is to increase the number of weekly shows and in addition,
tour around the country and make the rights available for other productions to
license the show.
“I feel as strongly about this show as anything I’ve
ever done,” said Kukoff. “It’s been a challenge, no question. I don’t have the
luxuries of out of town runs here, just a couple readings, a few previews and
But when the curtain goes up next week, Kukoff will likely
experience the same feelings he’s felt when his previous shows debuted –
elation. And he won’t have those New York theater critics to deal with the next
day.For ticket information, call Bimot - 02 6237000