The Great Jewish American Songbook

Reviewer's Rating

Situated beside what used to be a toll gate, the Gatehouse is a pub atop Highgate Hill boasting good food and an excellent range of real ales from microbreweries. But that is not the only reason for making the ascent up to one of the highest points in London. During the month of February, the little theatre above the pub is hosting a remarkable musical event which is not only a joy. It is an education. So take your drinks upstairs, sit back and enjoy the vocal harmonies of the four singers (surely the best foursome since the Fraser Hayes Four, whom older readers will remember from Round the Horne) and the superb musicianship of the pianist, bass player and drummer.

You will be taken on a historical tour of what is now established as the Great American Songbook, canonical works which are universally regarded as ‘standards’. What is astonishing is how much of this canon was composed by the scions of Jewish families who had emigrated to the United States from Germany and Russia in the 19th century. Despite what was in some cases an impoverished childhood in New York’s East Side, they produced a body of work spanning the period from before the First World War to the 1950s which represents one of the finest monuments of the Western musical tradition.

Starting with Jerome Kern, and proceeding chronologically through George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers and his collaborators, Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein, we are treated to a medley of songs specially chosen to illustrate the characteristics and career progression of each composer, and to shine a light on how their Jewishness affected their work. The Jewish cultural and musical tradition must indeed have played a part in the creation of this remarkable canon. The only gentile composer of equal rank during that era was Cole Porter, and when asked how to score a hit he replied, we are told, “Write a Jewish song.”

In between their perfectly phrased and choreographed rendition of the songs, the cast tell us much about the private lives of the composers. They are not always happy ones. It is remarked of Lorenz Hart, “it was not easy being five foot tall and gay at that time.” No indeed, and he ended up literally in the gutter. We learn too of the interaction of black American music – the blues, jazz, ragtime – with the Jewish tradition, which combined to produce a uniquely American style of music and a genre, the ‘musical’, which was once the mainstay of the Hollywood movie industry, and still fills the theatres of the West End and Broadway.

Alas, with the arrival of rock’n’roll this great tradition waned, and the Hit Parade took on a different cast. After last night’s show your insomniac reviewer spent some time listening to Radio 2 in the wee small hours. Pick of the Pops from this week in 1990 was featured, and what was most striking was how inferior the lyrics of modern popular songs are compared to the wit, the subtlety, the urbanity of the rhymes produced in the Thirties and Forties. As for the music itself, well, it has only gone downhill since 1990 – but then an old fogey would say that.

Thankfully, you don’t need to be an old fogey to enjoy this show. Indeed, I spotted a young schoolgirl in the audience, who was clearly enthralled. You would need to be tone-deaf not to appreciate this show, so make the ascent of Highbury Hill and cheer yourself up during this bleak month!