In the spring of 2014, Theater J presented a concert reading of Stars of David: Story to Song, based on Abigail Pogrebin’s best-selling book, for a benefit, and those involved saw something very special. That’s why the company was ecstatic to get the chance to stage a limited production of the hit 2013 Off-Broadway musical: December 22-27.
“Watching that performance, I realized just how powerful an evening of theater this show creates. The diversity of voices—both from the subjects of the interviews and the writers of the songs—makes it a truly unique piece,” says Shirley Serotsky, who is directing the show. “It’s both deeply moving and highly entertaining, while celebrating wonderful stories of some of our very favorite Jewish personalities.”
Conceived by Aaron Harnick and Pogrebin, the production, features a star-studded cast of Joshua Dick, Sherri L. Edelen, Emily Levey and Aaron Serotsky in a musical revue celebrating the Jewish identity of some of the most well-known American personalities, including Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Andy Cohen, Gloria Steinem, Kenneth Cole, Aaron Sorkin, Leonard Nimoy, and Joan Rivers.
The revue features original songs by an equally starry lineup of composers and lyricist including Marvin Hamlisch (A Chorus Line), Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home), Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof), Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater (Spring Awakening), and Tom Kitt (Next to Normal).
Serotsky prepared for the show by reading the original interviews from Pogrebin’s book and supplementing those with other interviews to better flesh out the story.
“They provide honest and candid glimpses into the lives of each of the featured subjects,” she says. “And when we were looking for clues about how to embody each character, especially when thinking about how they move and sound, I’d look at videos of the person—though we’ve been clear all along that we are not going for impersonations, rather looking for key choices to capture each person’s respective essence.”
One of the most interesting things Serotsky learned through her research was that Ginsburg was excluded from saying Kaddish (the mourner’s prayer) for her mother because she is a woman.
“It’s so inspiring. It makes clear how a moment like this motivated her to become the brilliant and dedicated legal mind we know her to be,” she says. “Her sense of justice, of right and wrong—all of that is rooted in the experience of being excluded herself all those years ago.”
In the show, Emily Levey is playing a collection of Jewish notables, including Ginsburg, Gwyneth Paltrow and Fran Drescher.
“Quite a variety of ladies! To prepare, I’ve read Abigail Pogrebin’s interviews with them and done a bit of basic background research about their lives, plus done a little YouTube-ing to get an idea how they carry themselves and their voices (especially Fran’s amazing laugh),” Levey says. “I’m not doing straight up impressions, but I do want to make each character different and give hints of the real person.”
Levey says that Stars of David does a beautiful job of showing the complicated range of modern experience with religion.
“Its focus is Judaism, but I think the stories transcend any specific faith,” she says. “Traditions, struggling to keep them or break away from them, and the power of family is totally universal and relate-able, especially at this time of year. The stories that Pogrebin uncovered are so honest and touching. These are really famous, accomplished people, and you get a glimpse into a very personal part of their lives.”
STARS OF DAVID: Story to Song
December 22 – 27
1529 Sixteenth St NW
Wasington, DC 20036
Tickets: $10 – $52
Details and Tickets
She’s also excited about the idea of a revue that features songs by many different composers, saying it keeps the experience interesting for the audience and challenging for the actors.
“It’s funny, it’s touching, it’s surprising, and the performances are truly fantastic,” Levey says. “I was lucky enough to perform in the one-night-only benefit. It’s rare to have the chance to re-visit a show and I am so excited that we get to share it with a larger audience.”
Serotsky notes that each of the interviewed subjects approached the questions in a personal and often vulnerable way, which allows those involved to truly understand the subjects in a complete way.
“You can tell that sharing their personal stories was not always easy, and that lands deeply with me and our audience. And trust me—you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy the show—the themes are quite universal (navigating family, parenthood, gender expectations, sexual identity),” she says. “It’s such a perfect show for the holiday season—bringing together family and friends of a range of ages and backgrounds. I really think with the variety of voices there is something for everybody.”