Up on the Roof

National Jewish Theater

By Adam Langer

In the game known as Jewish Geography, you find another Jewish person in the city and trace your roots back until you find how you’re related, as you always are (“Oh, you’re Faye Rosenberg’s son. My son went to school with a Rosenberg”). A similar, no less popular game might be called Jewish Trivial Pursuit. When I was growing up in West Rogers Park, dinner-table conversations frequently revolved around finding the most unlikely members of the Jewish faith. (“Tony Curtis? Sure, he’s Jewish. Leonard Nimoy? Of course. Kirk Douglas? Uh-huh.”) The world often seemed divided among Jews, those who might be Jewish (Van Halen’s David Lee Roth), those who may have had Jewish relatives (Charlie Chaplin), those who married Jews (Rod Carew, Wyatt Earp), those who had some nice things to say about Jews (Mark Twain), and anti-Semites (Ezra Pound and almost everybody else).

I often wondered if my best friend’s Protestant family would sit around the dinner table and ponder the prominent members of their faith (“Sure, John Updike’s a WASP”), or if the O’Haras down the street would proudly declare, “Ted Kennedy? He’s Catholic, you know.” Then again, I recall that one friend in college used to scan the Arts & Leisure section of the New York Times for Filipino names, and that another claimed kinship with every prominent African-American from Tony Dorsett to Pam Grier to Andrew Young.

This kind of Trivial Pursuit may in fact be common among various ethnic and religious groups, but one wonders whether it’s worth expanding into a two-and-a-half-hour musical revue. That’s what Antje Gehrken and National Jewish Theater have essentially done in Up on the Roof, a collection of songs by Jewish composers and lyricists from the 60s and 70s–created a show whose main cultural value seems to be that it allows the audience to listen to pop songs, then elbow each other and say, “Hey, you know she was Jewish?”

That Jewish songwriters have contributed significantly to the history of American pop music should come as little surprise. And it is perhaps a testament to the diversity of Jewish songwriting that it is virtually impossible to create a show about it that’s both inclusive and cohesive. Up on the Roof is crammed with songs, about 60 of them. Gehrken and director Susan Osborne-Mott certainly win points for enthusiasm and scope, if not for taste or coherence.

The show begins with the company of six competent, amiable singers and dancers dressed up like characters from Archie comic books as they blaze through silly Wolfman Jack favorites like “Teenager in Love,” “Chapel of Love,” “Do Wah Diddy Diddy,” and “It’s My Party,” engaging in passable Bye Bye Birdie-style choreography. Most of the early songs are of the boy-meets-girl variety, though lip service is paid to the issues of race relations (Janis Ian’s “Society’s Child”) and the women’s movement (Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me”).

Later the performers shed their Riverdale High togs for tie-dyed shirts, fright wigs, bell-bottoms, and the occasional army uniform, as Up on the Roof explores Vietnam, the war at home, and a generation’s disillusionment through Bob Dylan and Steven Stills’s songs of social consciousness, Randy Newman’s acerbic political commentary, and Billy Joel’s disingenuous drivel. The attempt is to place the songs in a historical context, using them to explore America’s purported maturation from the allegedly innocent early 60s to the disillusioned, pot-smoking late 60s to the sadder and wiser 70s. As the evening draws near a close, the company gathers onstage to smile and hug and sing Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years.”

Transitions in time and mood are accomplished through cheesy radio announcements along the lines of “Malcolm X has been assassinated” and “Tragic news coming in from Kent State.” But there’s no genuine hope for continuity given the haphazard sequence of songs, which defies logic, chronology, and any other system of order. It is, to say the least, jarring to hear Simon’s tacky 70s pop classic “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” followed by a radio report announcing President Kennedy’s assassination.

The show’s creators simplify an entire generation by indulging in the safest, most obvious of cliches, and there’s less critical thinking about history here than can be found in any episode of WXRT’s Saturday Morning Flashback. The plight of the racially disenfranchised is summed up by a bummed-out black man singing “Up on the Roof.” The show’s cartoonish tie-dyed costumes, cheap wigs, and “Make Love Not War” placards are played for laughs, destroying any shred of credibility for the few protest songs included. And a very short, slow-motion pantomime sequence, as cast members react to news of Kent State and Vietnam, is at best inappropriate and at worst insulting to the memories of those who died.

Though playwright Jeff Lieber is given credit for “additional dialogue,” there’s precious little dialogue or dramatic context, and what there is is half-assed. Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” is rendered in only one verse and sung by a man who’s irritated at a hippie couple who won’t give a poor woman some spare change. They respond by telling him to chill out, singing Paul Simon’s “Feelin’ Groovy.” Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “Will You (Still) Love Me Tomorrow” is sung by a scared girl to an overaggressive boy in the backseat of a car. Throwing the songs together and singing them without context or in a poorly developed context robs them of any dramatic resonance they might have. Watching the show is like flipping the radio dial back and forth between easy listening, oldies, and classic rock stations.

The songs that best survive this treatment are the most inconsequential–and the more silly or mawkish the better: Cathy Schenkelberg gives a memorable performance of Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move,” and Joe Wright delivers a moving version of Randy Newman’s “Sail Away” more palatable than the original. But the show’s creators seem to have no idea what to do with more historically significant material, most notably Dylan’s. Though Barry Mann and Gerry Goffin’s doofy “Who Put the Bomp” is reprised three times during the opening medley, the still incendiary “The Times They Are A-Changin'” is whittled down to one quick verse. Similarly short shrift is paid Dylan’s visionary “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” which gets two verses, and as sung by Mark-David Kaplan sounds an awful lot like Neil Diamond.

The performers are certainly gifted enough to make the songs enjoyable, but the only real unifying element is the songs’ ethnic origins, and the issue of the writers’ Judaism and how it may have affected their work or related to their experience of the 60s and 70s is never addressed. A show so loosely constructed that it could conceivably have included works by Leonard Cohen, Gene Simmons, and Frank Zappa is, needless to say, too all-over-the-map to hold together. This “if it’s Jewish, we’ll use it” approach might be satisfactory for an Ida Crown Jewish Academy reunion, class of ’70, or as featured entertainment before Ariel Sharon’s speech at a JUF fund-raiser. But given that this is one of the area’s top theaters, with a reputation for taking on challenging work, Up on the Roof is frustrating and disheartening. Ideally you’d like the audience to take home something for the postshow dinner-table conversation more provocative than the religious upbringings of Laura Nyro and Phoebe Snow.

The only thing you wind up taking away from Up on the Roof, besides some hummable numbers and the knowledge that Billy Joel’s “Goodnight Saigon” contains some of the most dreadful rhymes ever to drip from a songwriter’s pen, is a question: why did so many Jewish songwriters wind up changing their names to something less Jewish sounding? Perhaps it was to increase their marketability in an anti-Semitic society. Perhaps it was evidence of their own self-hatred. Or perhaps it was to avoid being anthologized in a show like this one.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.