Q: What do actress Jane Summerhays, composer/arranger Wally Harper, and musical director Jack Lee have in common?
No, that's not a misprint. These three theatre artists are working together on The Broadway Musical Project, a way to bring a little bit of Broadway technique to Israeli theatre. The idea for the project came about four years ago when producer Emanuel Azenberg invited Summerhays to visit Israel as part of an arts mission there. So taken was Summerhays with the country, she invited Harper and Lee to help establish musical theatre as an entity there.
Each year, a select group of actors and students receive intensive musical theatre training at Tel Aviv University. Twenty 1997 graduates of the program are currently visiting New York (through Nov. 2) and are not only seeing such Broadway shows as Chicago, Proposals and Side Show, but are also receiving a series of four master classes from cabaret singer and actress, Barbara Cook (She Loves Me, Candide).
Summerhays told Playbill On-Line (Oct. 10) the students are taking dance classes, attending readings of plays and studying acting with Bill Esper (who uses Meisner technique). Speech expert Dorothy Sarnoff is also working with the students.
The graduates will also perform Oct. 29, at a gala fundraiser for The Musical Theatre Library Of Israel. Cook and director Hal Prince (Show Boat, Sweeney Todd) will be on-hand for the event, which is spearheaded by Mary Rodgers, of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization. Says Rodgers, "For a change, something cheerful is happening in Israel... To launch [the Library], the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization has gladly donated a complete set of scores and libretti from the musicals my father [Richard Rodgers] wrote with Oscar Hammerstein." "In the beginning they had difficulty adapting to our way of working, so in the first year, it took some time to get in sync. The second year was like night and day. They came in ready to work, early, disciplined, open. The actors range from 18 to early 40s. Some, such as Nathan Datner, are well known at the Cameri Theatre. It's a wonderful exchange on both sides. They would like us to become a yearly thing."
A cute side-note: one student, Lilac Koch, is a distant cousin of former NY Mayor (and current TV judge) Ed Koch. She's hoping to meet with him and impart information about his family.
Yuval Zamir, 34, a company member who now splits his time between Israel and New York, raves about the project. "In Israel, we don't have a real traditional theatre," he told Playbill On-Line (Oct. 17). "Everything we're seeing here is new for us. In Israel, we don't have the right schools, techniques or tradition of dancing and singing this way. We like musicals a lot, but it's very commercial, meaning you need a lot of audience. We're a small country; we can't afford a Broadway or a West End. That's why we don't have a real tradition of musical theatre, rather than once or twice a year. There's no way for a professional performer to get the experience he needs." Asked what he's learned so far from the Broadway Musical Project, Zamir replied, "First we learned that musicals is not just singing; it's what you're saying. There's no difference between doing a monologue and doing a song. In Israel, singing is very glamourous with pretty voices. Here we learned that songs deal with relationships between people and feelings. Also we learned a lot of styles we didn't know about. As I told Jane [Summerhays], we never learned how to wear a suit or a waistcoat or a black tie -- or how to dance with these things onstage. We don't have things like proms in Israel; we're a very unformal [sic] country. But people are starting to realize that musicals are very important. So in the Project we have very young actors, 18-19, and some who were in the army. We hope to establish a real musical theatre in Israel, and the real goal is for people to start writing musicals as well."
In a story about last year's program at Tel Aviv University, The Jewish Week notes that musical director Lee's reason for joining the project had to do with his take on Israeli musicals. "A kind of savvy was missing. When a musical number starts, acting values go out the window, and the performance becomes a variety show. They don't understand the integration of the song with the scene. These actors are talented; they just haven't had much exposure. I would like to see them achieve an honesty in performance that I know they're capable of doing."
One year later, it seems they're doing just that.
--By David Lefkowitz