Jewish composers revue brings Broadway to the Bay

A few years ago, an East Coast Jewish organization asked Broadway composer Neil Berg to put together a concert saluting the Jewish greats of musical theater. As he began to work on it, he discovered something interesting: It turned out that most Broadway greats were Jewish.

So it makes sense that the songs of the Jewish masters — Gershwin, Rogers, Bernstein, Sondheim and others — will get a workout as Berg brings his new revue, “100 Years of Broadway,” to the Bay Area for a string of performances this weekend benefiting San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts Theatre.

Oscar and Tony winner Rita Moreno will be on hand as a special guest, but she won’t be the only celebrated Broadway performer in the line-up. Everyone else in the cast is a certified veteran of the Great White Way, having starred in shows like “Phantom of the Opera,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Jekyll & Hyde.”

Berg’s show made its debut in the Bay Area last year with a premiere run at Napa’s Lincoln Theater. Subsequent productions included guest performers like Bernadette Peters, Betty Buckley and Ben Vereen.

Which is exactly the point. Berg says audiences coming to his show will be getting “Broadway stars, not just a revue with good singers. These are the actual stars recreating their big moments on Broadway, as well as delving into the canon of Broadway musical history.”

As musical director, Berg is on stage with his cast, introducing songs and sharing his extensive knowledge of Broadway lore.

Shows represented in “100 Years of Broadway” include chestnuts like “Oklahoma,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Showboat” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” as well as latter-day hits like “Phantom” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

And then there’s “West Side Story.” Moreno, the revered Oakland-based actress who won an Oscar for her work in the 1961 film version of the Leonard Bernstein musical, will be on hand to sing “A Boy Like That” from the show.

Berg’s own musicals, not featured in the show, include “The Prince and the Pauper” (which had a two-year run off-Broadway) and “The Man Who Would Be King.” He doesn’t believe he is yet in the same league as the grand masters of the past, but he seems to have the drive and passion to get there.

Born in the Bronx, Berg was raised in a traditional Jewish home. “I remember pickled herring, shmaltz, a big cow’s tongue in the fridge, Passover dinners,” he says. “It was all about family growing up.”

It was also all about music, at least for him. Though he dreamed of playing ball with the Yankees, Berg also studied piano, and by the time he was in college, he began taking music more seriously.

The experience of composing a musical for a college course sealed the deal, and from then on Berg devoted his life to the stage.

Berg suspects the storytelling tradition in Jewish culture might have something to do with the preponderance of Jews over the course of Broadway history.

“From Rodgers and Hart to Lerner and Lowe, there was incredible craftsmanship,” he says. “In my formative years growing up in the ’70s I loved them, but I also loved Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Who. They were storytellers, too, who wrote narratives in rock ‘n’ roll.”

Currently, Berg is working on a new musical based on the 1993 film comedy “Grumpy Old Men.” Maybe someday songs from that show will end up in a future edition of “100 Years of Broadway.”

Musical theater “combines everything I love: storytelling and composing,” Berg says. “Luckily, my life was changed forever by the Broadway musical.”

“100 Years of Broadway” runs 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 10-11 and 2 p.m. Sunday, March 12, at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, 3301 Lyon St., S.F. Tickets: $50-$100. Information: (415) 392-4400.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.