Shlomo Carlebach's Daughter Brings Her Father's Music to Broadway in Soul Doctor

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29 Jul 2013

Neshama Carlebach
Neshama Carlebach

The unconventional life and music of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach comes to life, with a little help from his kin.

"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."

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach

The show that resulted turned into a more formal presentation of Shlomo Carlebach's life, and even that proved to be too rich in incidents for a comfortable stage presentation already overflowing with his melodies. Critics were kind and constructive when the musical lifted off last August at New York Theatre Workshop.

His was a convoluted journey that started with a flight from Nazi Germany; a struggle with traditional Jewish dogma; sputtering into a 1960s folk-flavored career, hanging out with Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and Timothy Leary at The Village Gate; and finally meeting his musical match with Nina Simone, creating a more melodic, soul-stirring form of Jewish music by fusing it with African-American spirituals.

Neshama Carlebach herself takes a bow for revealing to the world her father's relationship with Nina Simone and the wellspring of joyful music that came out of it.

"He and I were very close so he revealed a lot to me," she said. "He was my father, but we were really best friends. My sister needed him to be more of a father, but he was the father of the world. It's a miracle I had a mature relationship with him. I wish he'd been around longer. He was 69 when he died of a heart attack on a plane."

She had been singing on tour with him for five years. "When I was 15, he heard me sing—I'm sure something from Les Miz—and put me in his act."

Eric Anderson in Soul Doctor.
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Thirty days after his death, after the traditional period of Jewish mourning, she physically took over a year of shows he had booked; 20 years later, she's still at it. "His agent asked if I would, and I didn't hesitate, because I was terrified that the world would forget him.

"It took me a while to stop crying. It was one massive funeral. People would say, 'He was my best friend,' and I'd ask, 'How long did you know him?' 'I met him once.' He had a way of looking in your eyes and validating whatever your wishes were. When he looked at you or embraced you, you felt it was possible—and beautiful inside.

"He said, 'Singing is like praying twice,' meaning there are two things that happen: One is that you actually express a prayer, and the other is that the melody is its own prayer and that... elevates whatever you're saying because you're actually feeling more through the music. My father was the master of that. People on the outside may not know who he was—but, in our world, my father was Elvis."

Neshama Carlebach is not the only one keeping her parent's flame alive. Lisa Celeste Stroud—Nina Simone's daughter, billed simply as Simone—is also offering technical advice. Simone, interestingly, made her stage debut in a national tour of Jesus Christ Superstar, playing a character named Soul Sister.

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Eric Anderson and cast
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN