I could have shpieled all night

Broadway stars put on irrreverent Purim show for birthright israel cause.

March 16, 2006 07:55
4 minute read.
purim shpiel 88 298

purim shpiel 88 298. (photo credit: Illustrative photo from 'Hairspray)


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Jews are prime consumers of Metamucil, can never order directly off a menu and - enough already! - too many of them become Buddhists. These were some of the lessons of an irreverent, self-deprecating, high-octane version of the Purim story, as told by a host of Broadway stars who spent their shows' night off March 13 celebrating this holiday of Jewish redemption. The Second Annual "Broadway Purim Shpiel," sponsored by the two-year-old National Entertainment Fund for the Cultural Arts, drew a sold-out crowd of 700 to Manhattan's Hudson Theater for two hours of songs and scenes from some of Broadway's hottest shows. Performers had appeared on the Great White Way in shows including "Rent," "Wicked," "Mamma Mia," "Kiss of the Spider Woman," "The Light in the Piazza" and "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee." Their performances were all preceded by a traditional Megillah reading. "The Megillah's opening up for me," said Jackie Hoffman, who created three roles in the hit musical "Hairspray," and performed an original song about Jewish Buddhists. "Even though you think you're a Buddhist, you're still Jewish," she sang. "You've traded the Talmud for the Tao/join a shul and stop this now." The event raised $100,000 for birthright israel, a program that so far has sent close to 100,000 young people from around the world on free trips to Israel. It was the second event sponsored by NEFCA, which aims to produce events in the mainstream arts to raise money for the Jewish community. Last year, said Scott Kluge, the group's executive director, the event was held at a 250-seat theater and took in about $25,000, which covered the cost of the show. In just a year, attendance nearly tripled and funds raised quadrupled. "I'm extremely excited about that," Kluge said. "The goal of most NEFCA events is to fund-raise for the Jewish community. To get that off in the second year and raise the amount of money we raised is quite fantastic." The songs were interspersed with narration by the evening's host, Seth Rudetsky, who, with the aid of a children's version of the Megillah he'd printed off the Internet - and a barrage of amusing asides - told the Purim story, making a yeoman's effort to link it thematically to the songs the actors had chosen to sing. After reading a passage from the children's Megillah that said "even the Jews" were invited to a banquet hosted by King Ahasuerus, Rudetsky - who has played piano in the pits of 15 Broadway shows - shook his head. "Even the Jews? It's like, 'I guess you can come,' " he said. "Why do they have to make us feel bad? It's like high school all over again - I was not popular in high school." About half of the performers were not Jewish, and none of them was paid for appearing. "In our community we back everybody up," said Brandi Chavonne Massey, who performed a song from the musical "Wicked," in which she currently is appearing. "I'm sure if there were an NAACP event, they'd get my back." Massey, an African American, wasn't an outsider at the event: She grew up in Cincinnati attending a Hebrew Pentecostal church, a Christian denomination that observes some Jewish holidays - though Purim isn't one of them. The evening was co-chaired by philanthropists Michael Steinhardt, Charles Bronfman and Lynn Schusterman. Asked if cultural events were a good way of drawing Jews to Judaism, Steinhardt, shmoozing in the theater lobby with some of the young people who had arrived for the event, said, "Where else have you seen so many happy Jews?" Among the happy Jews was Elana Gordon. A modern Orthodox Jew, Gordon said she decided to forgo a traditional synagogue service in favor of the shpiel/Megillah reading because, "It looked cool." "It's different," she said. "It's a little spin on the usual going to synagogue." Kluge said NEFCA is planning a third shpiel for next year, and also has plans for additional theater shows and expanding into film. The show also included a scene from the Off-Broadway hit "Jewtopia," in which a young Jewish man preps his non-Jewish friend for dinner with his Jewish girlfriend and her mother. Among his tips for successfully pacifying the mother: When ordering of the menu, make sure to ask for enough substitutions to change the meal beyond recognition; then, when it arrives, send it back. Also, he instructs his friend, a Jew would never have anything to do with auto racing or tools, and would never admit to being in excellent health. The bespectacled Hoffman has riffed on Jewish themes before. She puts on a successful one-woman Chanukah show at New York City's Joe's Pub each year. The Purim event, she said, is "an excuse to throw in specialized stuff you can't do any other time of the year." Still, asked about the extent of her Jewish practice, Hoffman said, simply: "I eat a lot."

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