Tag Archives: Musical

The Prince of Egypt

The Prince of Egypt (1998) is an animated version of the Exodus story, slightly tilted to focus on the relationship between Moses and Pharaoh.  The film follows the story of Moses (Val Kilmer) as he is saved from murder by his mother (Ofra Haza) and sister Miriam (Sandra Bullock) and put into the Nile, to be found later by the Egyptian queen (Helen Mirren).  He is apparently adopted by the Pharaoh Seti I (Patrick Stewart) and raised as the younger brother of Ramses (Ralph Fiennes.)  When Moses discovers his true identity, he is shocked, gets into trouble, and flees Egypt for Midian, where he finds the family of Yitro (Danny Glover) and marries Yitro’s daughter, Zipporah (Michelle Pfeiffer).

There is a note in the first few frames that the film is based on the story in Exodus, with some changes in the story.  In the Biblical account, Moses is adopted by the daughter of Pharaoh, and his childhood is left to midrash and imagination.  In this version, Moses is adopted by Pharaoh’s queen and raised as the brother of the next Pharaoh, raising the stakes on that relationship.

The film asks the viewer to consider the personal price Moses pays when he comes into conflict with the people who raised him and turns instead to the people from whom he came.  It also raises the profile of the women in the Moses story, especially the prophetess Miriam, his sister, and Zipporah, his wife.  It does this in ways that do not so much contradict the Biblical tale as they add to it in the spirit of midrash.  Miriam sees what her brother will be.  Zipporah is portrayed as a fierce and independent woman, which is congruent with the story later in the Biblical text in which she circumcised her own sons when Moses neglected to do so.

The animation is beautiful, and the writers wisely did not create the “cute” characters that plague too many animated films.  This is a serious film that happens to be made in animation.  The figures are beautifully drawn, and the computer-generated animation that powers miraculous events in this story does so in ways that convey the power and mystery of those events in the text.  The handling of the death of the firstborns of Egypt is gentle enough for children to see:  we see only the hand of a child who has dropped dead out of our sight, and then the body of the Pharaoh’s son.  The handling of the other plagues is similarly restrained.

The Prince of Egypt won an Oscar for Best Music, Original Song for “When You Believe.”  The enormous team who brought this film into being have given us a gift to enjoy every Passover, or every time a child asks, “Who was Moses, anyway?”

Commentary

In every generation, the haggadah admonishes us  to experience Yitziat Mitzrayim (the Exodus from Egypt) as if we had personally been present.  Before I saw The Prince of Egypt, I was skeptical about the power of an animated film to move me towards that experience.  This is an extraordinarily powerful film and would make an excellent addition to any household’s Passover activities.

That said, the script differs in some important ways from both the Biblical text and the text of the Haggadah.  It also differs from the tale as told in the oft-televised  The Ten Commandments (1956.)  Rabbi David Debow offers a template for a compare-and-contrast exercise for those inclined to parse it all out.  While there is no harm in learning stories from movies, just keep in mind that this film is a version of the story.  It fills in many of the gaps in the Exodus text, and it is worth remembering that this is not the only way (and certainly not the definitive way!) to tell the tale.

Moses is vivid in this film in a way he is not in most other depictions.  His character looms so large in religious tradition and the popular imagination  that he often seems distant or wooden.  The Prince of Egypt demands that we think about what it might have been like to be Moses.  What might it have been like to grow up a prince in Pharaoh’s court?  Was it hard to realize his true birth?  What had to happen for him to become the Moses who would go to Pharaoh and insist, “Let my people go”?  How could a man go from pampered princeling to a true leader?  What price did he pay?

The film also gives us a Miriam who is a true prophetess.  Some commentators have suggested that there are Miriam stories missing from the text; was she such a strong female figure that some redactor in the past snipped out parts of her story?  There is  a strong feminist angle to this version of the story, in which Miriam is a prophetess from early in her life (a depiction consistent with traditional midrash).  She is Moses’ protector and provocateur, insisting that he live up to the promise she saw in him.

Aaron (Jeff Goldblum) is initially played for comedy and his role in the story is much diminished.  It is one of the few faults I find in this film.  He does not speak for Moses, and is not his partner until the very end.

More than anything else, I was moved by the way in which the miracles of the burning bush, the plagues, and the Red Sea were portrayed.  The computer-generated animation achieved the wonders that deMille pointed to in his 1956 version without falling into cliche.  All through the film, in fact, there are echoes of deMille’s vision, and that of the directors of other Biblical epics, but here instead of costumes and pageantry, the animators approached true majesty.

Questions

The Biblical text tells us that God hardened the heart of Pharoah.  What hardens his heart in this film?  Why is he so unbending?

How is this Moses like the Moses of your imagination?  Is your Moses older? Younger? Angrier? Sadder? More idealistic?

What does this story mean to you?

Double Feature

The Prince of Egypt covers the same Biblical ground as The Ten Commandments. It has been said that Charlton Heston will forever be “Moses” in the eyes of many filmgoers, and certainly his Moses is different from this one.  Which Moses would you choose?  Why?

Funny Girl

Funny Girl is a highly fictionalized account of the rise to stardom of the great Jewish American clown Fanny Brice.  It was a hugely successful film musical in 1968, made from the equally successful Broadway show, and it introduced Barbra Streisand to American moviegoers.  It is above all else a premier star vehicle, and it still holds the moment of recognition:  a star really was born in that film.

It follows Brice from humble beginnings on the Lower East Side of New York, and it offers romanticized glimpses of that legendary home to Jewish immigrants and their children.  In the film, Brice is pictured as the only child of a single mother who struggles to make ends meet.  Fanny is a talented singer and comic who is not sufficiently pretty to make it as a chorus girl.  She parlays mishaps in her one chance on a burlesque stage into a show-stopping song that inspires the boss to hire the hapless chorus girl as a singer.  That same night she meets Nicky Arnstein, (Omar Sharif) a professional gambler with whom she falls madly in love.

As her career soars, his luck falters.  At the end of the film, Fanny is alone but still strong, still singing as only Streisand can.

Commentary

I have tagged  Funny Girl as “US History,” but that has to do with the film’s place in history, not with the film as history.  It was the Oscar-winning debut of a great American Jewish entertainer, Barbra Streisand.  It was made during the same period as the Six Day War, and the kiss between Streisand (a Jew, and vocal supporter of Israel) and Sharif (an Egyptian actor) was very controversial at the time.

As biography, the film is nearly pure fiction:  do not take it as a bio-pic about Fanny Brice.  The film and the play from which it was made were produced by Ray Stark, Brice’s son-in-law.  Nick Arnstein was still living, and still his father-in-law.  The real Arnstein was a con man who had done time in Sing Sing prison before he and Fanny were married, and who in real life sponged cheerfully from her, eventually dumping her when it suited him to do so.

Brice, on the other hand, is made a lot ditzier and less professional in the interest of entertainment.  The real-life Brice may have had very poor judgment about men, but she was a consummate professional who would not have quit a show to run off and get married, or given Ziegfeld an ulcer with her antics.  For more about the differences between the film and reality, check out John Kenrick’s excellent article on Musicals101.com.

Some things about this film haven’t aged well; I tend to agree with Roger Ebert that, “It is impossible to praise Miss Streisand too highly; hard to find much to praise about the rest of the film.”   If you want to see why baby-boomers get crazy about Barbra Streisand, see this film.  The great movie that could be made about the true story of Fanny Brice is, alas, yet to be made.

Video Bonus

2001 Re-Issue Trailer for Funny Girl

Rare footage of a performance by Fanny Brice

Yentl

1yentlYentl (1983) is the film adaptation of the short story, “Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy” by Isaac Bashevis Singer.  It is set in a Polish shtetl in 1907, where Rabbi Mendel, a widower, is secretly giving his daughter Yentl the sort of Talmudic education that only boys were allowed to have.  Yentl has a passion for Torah, and when her father dies, she disguises herself as a boy and travels to the yeshiva in the nearest town to study.  Barbra Streisand co-wrote, co-produced, directed and starred in Yentl; work on the film re-energized her own interest in Jewish study.

It is thus far the only major motion picture that focuses on a Jewish woman living a specifically Jewish life, and raises questions about the limitations of gender roles in traditional Jewish communal life.  Yentl is contrasted in the film with Hadass, (played by Amy Irving) who conforms to the social ideal for young women, and with the men who take their life in the yeshiva for granted.   Streisand made no secret of her own personal identification with Yentl.  Just as Yentl strove to succeed in the “man’s world” of the yeshiva, Streisand saw herself striving for success in the “man’s world” of the Hollywood film industry.

Commentary

Singer hated Streisand’s treatment of his short story.   He felt that it had been over-expanded into a star vehicle, with unsuitable music and a ridiculous ending.  Certainly that is one valid point of view on the film.

However, Streisand has perfectly conveyed the passion for Torah that is at the center of the scholar’s life, that fueled so much of the development of Jewish tradition and sacred literature.  She conveys the frustration that women have felt and still feel when they are excluded from access to the highest levels of study.  While many of Singer’s complaints are valid,  her command of the Jewish details of Yentl’s life is impressive.

Double Feature

Yentl makes an interesting companion to the other big Jewish musical, Fiddler on the Roof.  They are set in the same period, they begin in the same sort of place (a tiny shtetl in the Pale of Settlement) but they depict different classes in Jewish society.  Where Tevya and his daughters are peasants, Yentl is the rabbi’s daughter and Hadass is a city girl, daughter of a wealthy Jewish merchant.  How are the women’s lives similar?  How are they different?  Do you notice any other interesting similarities or contrasts between the two films?

The Jazz Singer

TheJazzSingerThe Jazz Singer (1927)tells the story of Jakie Rabinowitz, a cantor’s son who has inherited his father’s gift for song  but who feels driven to express that gift in the music hall rather than in the synagogue.  It recounts his rift with his father, his rise to secular fame as “Jack Robin,” and his struggle to be true to himself as well as to his family and tradition.

The movie is famous, also, for Al Jolson’s use of blackface.  Jolson was a Russian-born Jew who performed in blackface long before this role.  The short story (“The Day of Atonement”) and play upon which the film is based were written by Samson Raphaelson, who saw Jolson perform in blackface in 1917 and felt that he had seen such emotional intensity in performance only in the singing of cantors in synagogue.  The story, the play and the movie are based loosely on Jolson’s own life.

By the way, this film should not be confused with the 1953 remake with Danny Thomas, or the 1980 remake with Neil Diamond, also titled The Jazz Singer.   The 1953 remake is fairly harmless, but the 1980 film is just plain awful.

Commentary

The film marked a watershed in American film history:  it was the first feature length commercial film with synchronized dialogue:  the first of the “talkies.”  It deals with themes that are central to the Jewish experience in America:  the tension between the “religious Jew” and the “secular Jew” (often, as in this case, in a single Jew), tensions around the observance of family tradition, and issues of assimilation.  It acknowledges the debt that first-generation American Jews owed to their immigrant parents, and the tension between those two generations.

In many ways the film is like a drawing by M.C. Escher:  the symmetries overwhelm.  The Warner Brothers, born Wonskolaser in Poland, were Jews who immigrated to North America and became involved in film distribution and later production.  (Today Warner Bros. is a subsidiary of Time Warner, with headquarters in Burbank, CA.)  They are a sterling example of Jewish success in America,  where some new fields (like entertainment and the movies) offered an open door to Jews, shut out of more well established professions.  Their company pioneered the talkies by making this film, and by partnering with Western Electric to produce the technology that made it work.  The Jazz Singer is not only Al Jolson’s story, but the story of the Warner brothers themselves and their children:  the immigrant and first American-born generation.  The film also features a recital by Cantor Joseff Rosenblatt, an American-born cantor who some years later would dabble in acting.

This 1927 film is a “must see” on several grounds: as a close-up of the Askenazi immigrant experience, as a piece of history in its own right, and as a melding of two musical traditions, chazzanut [cantorial singing] and jazz, which have both been central to the American Jewish experience.

Fiddler on the Roof

fiddlerFiddler on the Roof (1971) is the screen adaptation of the hit Broadway musical by the same name.  It is based on the story “Tevye the Milkman” by Sholom Aleichem, the most prolific Yiddish writer of his time.  The story is set in Anatevka,  a shtetl [village] in the Pale of Settlement of pre-revolutionary Russia, about 1910, with WWI on the horizon, although there are also details that seem to point to a time about 1883.   Topol stars as Tevye, the milkman who faces the problems of shtetl life:  finding husbands for his daughters, food for his family, and survival in the face of the crushing regime of the Czar.  One casting item of note:  the matchmaker is played by Molly Picon, one of the great actors of American Yiddish stage and cinema.

The film won three Oscars (Cinematography, Music, and Sound) out of eight nominations.

Commentary

Fiddler offers a somewhat fantasized version of the brutal life of the shtetl.  It is a touchstone for the American Jewish psyche and a prime example of laughing through tears, the hallmark of much Jewish humor.  It is also the most easily accessible introduction to the Yiddish world of Sholom Aleichem.

Most importantly, Tevye is a Jewish Everyman:  he suffers, but he endures.  His world  is crumbling:  even in the muddy shtetls of the Ukraine, modernity is changing things, changing attitudes, making history.  The old traditions are under pressure; the young people have new ideas.  Tevye is devoted to tradition, but he recognizes that some forces cannot be resisted.  In every age, the conflict between tradition and change has challenged Jews:  “what now?  How shall we maintain our traditions in this new place?” has been the cry in every age, beginning perhaps on the banks of the Nile, in Egypt.

Not to be missed!

Double Feature

There is another big American movie musical about the same period, Yentl.  It tells a story set in Eastern European shtetl and town life from a woman’s point of view.  If you choose to watch both, it’s fun to compare them.