"Hello, 'A Pure Soul That Descended to This World,'" I say into the phone, greeting Esther Neshama Tehora Shucha Carlebach with the English translation of her given name. Laughing, she shoots back brightly, "I assume no responsibility for that name."
That was laid on her by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (1925–94), who, in addition to being her father, was "the father of popular Jewish music" and is now the subject of a Broadway musical biography, Soul Doctor, opening Aug. 15 at Circle in the Square.
It is stacked with the songs Carlebach used to bring his musical culture up to contemporary speed, hastened in that direction via a relationship with jazz singer Nina Simone—an improbable, but powerful, alliance.
Even the diminutive of her moniker, Neshama, was a stumbling block at recess. "When I was young, I felt very burdened by the name," she admits. "Plus, it was a very different-sounding name. People would say, 'What? Michelle?' I get a lot of that."
But given the direction her career has gone, which is step by step in her father's footsteps, it's a good thing that Soul is, literally, part of her name. "I was born wanting to perform. There are a lot of people in the world who are born with the bug, with the desire not only to share something inside of them but also to make people happy. I started acting and singing lessons when I was five. My dream back then was to be on Broadway—dancing, singing, [and] acting. It was all I ever wanted."
Just such an opportunity—that persisting dream of a lifetime—recently presented itself to her, and what did she do? She took the high road, for the greater good.
"The beginning vision of Soul Doctor was maybe it should be a one-woman show where I tell the story of my father's life, as I do in my shows," she says. "We started writing it, then we realized, 'we need that one homeless guy' and 'that child he saved' and so on and on. By the time we turned around, it was a cast of many."
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