Today, I’d like to talk about musical theatre.
Why is musical theatre, remarkably, still popular in America today? True, the substance has changed dramatically over the last eighty years: From the classics of Showboat & Oklahoma, to Guys and Dolls, West Side Story, and Sondheim; from the rock musical hits of the seventies to Les Miserables and Andrew Lloyd Weber in the eighties and nineties. Then on to Rocky Horror and RENT, movie adaptations like “Thoroughly Modern Millie” & “The Producers,” and jukebox musicals like “Jersey Boys” and ABBA’s “Mamma Mia!” And of course, let’s not forget the show at the heart of televising the musical theatre idiom in 21st century–GLEE. Across age and gender, in the theatres, movies, and on television, musical theatre perhaps strangely–perhaps not strangely– continues to hold a place in our hearts.
Many of your children, I know, are aspiring and/or current actors in school musicals, giving you the opportunity to not only shep naches, but to revisit the reasons that we love musicals in the first place.
And what are those reasons? One reason, I contend, is that musical theatre demonstrates to us the vitality of human life and human emotion through song. We follow Tony’s love of Maria with bated breath, and when he begins with “The most beautiful sound I ever heard, our hearts sing with him: “Maria, Maria, Maria–Maria!” When Curly tells us about that “bright golden haze on the meadow,” and what a “beautiful morning” it is, we too begin to envisage that moment where the birds or chirping and nature sings to our souls, and we sense the chance that we too could one day feel that everything’s goin’ our way. And when Elfaba defies grafity in Wicked, we are filled with life affirming triumph at the thought that we too could rise up and defy all those voices and wizards that ever thought they could bring us down.
Musical theatre shows us life, and takes the emotions that we are so often out of touch with–happiness, sadness, grief, fear, love — and lifts them up with music. It raises a
mirror to our hearts, and, like all theatre, shows us new possibilities of what a fully vital human life can be like–a life lived with all of the zest and passion of a tap-dancing, harmony-singing, kick-lining, high-note belting, standing-ovation musical number.
Why am I talking about this? Because this week’s parashah features probably the most famous musical number in Jewish history — yes, even trumping Bock & Harnick’s “If I Were a Rich Man.”
This musical number is none other than Shirat HaYam, the song at the sea. How else can we explain thousands of Israelites breaking into the same song, at one time, with no rehearsal, about an event that had just happened?
I will tell you that this very fact confounded the Rabbis as well. The Talmud in Sotah claims that the song was repeated, that the Israelites only repeated the song AFTER Moses. The Tosefta, on the other hand, claims that the holy spirit came down and filled all of the Israelites with the same praise. And the Midrash in Mekhilta Shirtah can’t abide this, and claims that Moses must have sang on behalf of all of the Israelites.
But really, the reason’s not so important. What’s important is the moment. This is the iconic musical number of the Bible, the paradigm of Biblical song. This musical moment is so important that we Jews re-enact it by standing and singing during the Torah reading, and by giving this Shabbat the special name of “Shabbat Shirah” –Shabbat of [the] Song.
In fact, this moment is SO central that the Jewish people enshrined it in our siddur, in our daily prayers. This morning we read a paraphrase of this very scene: [Intoned]: Moshe uvnei yisrael l’cha anu shira, moses and the children of Israel sang to you a song, b’simcha rabah–with great joy, v’amru chulam–and they all said..Miiiii Chamo-cha ba’elim adonaiii!”
Whenever we sing mi chamocha, we are re-enacting this dramatic moment! We are traveling back thousands of years, and joining our ancestors at the sea. We are taking our place with them in the chorus, singing out our praises, tap-dancing our joy, belting out our liberty, and kick-lining our way down the yellow-brick road to the Promised Land.
It’s inspiring stuff! But somehow, shul seems to rarely end up being that dramatic. Which leads me to the classic question that has been asked by generation after generation of Jews:
WHY IS SHUL NOT LIKE A MUSICAL?
…Is it simply that we don’t use instruments?
…Is it that we need a different type of music?
…Or maybe if more people came to shul? A lot more people. With sequins, perhaps.
Myself, I believe it is for two reasons. One is that, as actors in this musical, we struggle to learn our lines. The Hebrew can be challenging, and the siddur–the script–is really long. The music of the service is diverse, and sometimes new melodies come in that we never heard before. And on a ground level we struggle to really know what the words mean. It is clear that musical of the Siddur, like any script, requires rehearsal.
Now fortunately, I come to announce to you that for this account, your Beth El synagogue is rising to the occasion. Our clergy just piloted a Learner’s Service with great success, and it is on the road to becoming a monthly service here at the synagogue. I myself beginning a series of online recordings of all of the shabbat (and one day weekday) prayers to be put on the Beth El Website, so that you and your family can learn on your computer, iPhone, iPad, or electronic device of choice. And today, after kiddush, at 12:40pm in Zahler auditorium, I invite you to join me for our first Beth El melodies class, to be held at least once a month. There, we will sing together, learn new zemirot, niggunim and new melodies, and explore how they musically fit the theatre of the service. Especially If you love to sing, or desire to feel more at home in the synagogue–with its words and its melodies–come join us. Know that you are not alone, and our shul is responding to help.
But, it goes beyond that. For if we simply knew the words, what they meant, and knew all of the tunes, it would not necessarily produce the kind of fervor and passion that we look for in musical theatre. There are plenty of services out there filled with knowledgeable people, and yet somehow lack passion and spirit. But how can this be? What could be missing?
I believe that if services are without passion, if shul is not like a musical–
it is because we are not yet like the characters.
In some ways, our ancestors had it easy — they experienced deliverance, coming out of Egypt, the hand of God–all first-hand. They didn’t even have to be method actors — they lived it! But ever since then, generation after generation of Jews have prayed these words without having been there. They have simply acted as if. As the Haggadah reminds us each year, they saw themselves, as we must see ourselves, as if each one of us had been personally taken out of Egypt.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his book Man’s Quest for God, puts the issue succinctly. “The problem is not how to revitalize prayer,” Heschel says, “the problem is how to revitalize ourselves.” “We must learn,” he continues, “how to study the inner life of the words that fill the world of our prayer book. Without intense study of their meaning, we feel, indeed, bewildered when we encounter the multitude of those strange, lofty beings that populate the inner cosmos of the Jewish spirit. It is not enough to know how to
translate Hebrew into English; it is not enough to have met a word in the dictionary and to have experienced unpleasant adventures with it in the study of grammar. A word has a soul, and we must learn how to attain insight into its life.”
My friends, the siddur is the script for the musical of our lives, and our job is to discover
the characters that the siddur encourages us to be. If we look, as Heschel says, to the inner life, the soul of the words, we discover much about the characters who wrote them. We find that they were sensitive to the miracles of creation. They were steadfast in their love of man, of law, and of wisdom. And they were passionate about faith and the redemption of our lives. From the table in the corner, they could see a world reborn– redeemed both by Gods hands and our own. And they rose with voices ringing! singing ASHIRA LADONAI, KI GA’O GA’AH, SUS V’ROCHVO RAMAH VAYAM! The Song at the Sea!–the music of a people who will not be slaves again!
This is our musical, the one that we enact every shabbat and every day. And to feel that zest, to experience that vitality of life through song— not only must we prepare our minds, our mouths, and our voices, but our souls as well, to be transformed by this role that we were each born to play. It is a commitment, requiring study, rehearsal and an open heart. For some it may come easy, and for some it will at first feel like acting. But even acting as if, as we learned in the seder, can have profound effects upon us, opening us to deeper experiences than we ever thought possible.
Only then, when we join in this act one finale together, not only will we know the lines– we will be the characters. We will feel the redemption of our people, of our families, and what it means for us to be redeemed, we know our duty do bring redemption to the world, and pour fourth our boundless gratitude to Holy One, the Redeemer of Israel. That is the soul of the musical theatre of the synagogue. When the beating of your heart, echoes the beat of these words, there is a life about to start, and it is a Jewish life of boundless possibility. It may seem like that life will only happen tomorrow. But as we know..tomorrow comes.