From left: Karen Murphy (Sandra Day O’Connor), Stephanie Prentice (Sonia Sotomayor), and Lynda DiVito (Ruth Bader Ginsburg) in rehearsal for "Justice" at Marin Theatre Company. (Photo/Kevin Kopjak)
From left: Karen Murphy (Sandra Day O’Connor), Stephanie Prentice (Sonia Sotomayor), and Lynda DiVito (Ruth Bader Ginsburg) in rehearsal for "Justice" at Marin Theatre Company. (Photo/Kevin Kopjak)

‘JUSTICE’: Marin musical spotlights a singing Ruth Bader Ginsburg

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At her 1993 Supreme Court confirmation hearing, Ruth Bader Ginsburg made clear that her Jewish and American identities were intertwined. She noted that she was “a Brooklynite, born and bred — a first-generation American on my father’s side, barely second-generation on my mother’s.”

She continued, “Their parents had the foresight to leave the old country, when Jewish ancestry and faith meant exposure to pogroms and the denigration of one’s human worth. What has become of me could happen only in America.”

Ginsburg’s Jewish Brooklynite background was top of mind for Lynda DiVito Hacohen, the Walnut Creek actress playing her in “JUSTICE: A New Musical,” opening Feb. 16 at Marin Theatre Company. Hacohen, who was born to a non-Jewish Brooklyn Italian family but married into a prominent Jewish Israeli family, said the Brooklyn part came easily. “My mom was born and raised in Brooklyn,” Hacohen told J. by phone on her way to rehearsal. “She never really lost the accent my whole life. I’m ‘Lynder’ with an ‘r.’ So I have the accent very much in my ear.” However, she added, she plans to keep the dialect subtle: “My biggest fear was looking like I’m trying to imitate Kate McKinnon imitating RBG.”

Hacohen affectionately calls herself “Jewish by proxy,” and she is active at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette. Her husband, Lee Hacohen, is the descendant of a well-known Israeli family based in Haifa whose roots go back to before the founding of the Jewish state. In fact, Yitzhak Rabin was the second cousin of Hacohen’s father-in-law.

Playing Ginsburg has particular meaning to Hacohen in light of her Jewish family. “It’s like an homage to them,” she said. “You know, it’s such an honor to play such an important woman and such an important Jewish woman. And I just feel like it’s like a love letter to my family.”

“JUSTICE” tells the story not just of Ginsburg, who was the second woman and first Jewish woman to serve on the Supreme Court, but also of Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman justice (who is played by Karen Murphy), and Sonia Sotomayor, the first woman of color and first Latina justice (Stephanie Prentice).

RELATED: How she went from the Notorious RBG to Ruth the Tzadik

It begins with Ginsburg’s appointment to the court and ends with her death, which memorably took place Erev Rosh Hashanah 2020. The play touches on some of the court’s most important rulings during her tenure, including Bush v. Gore, which decided the 2000 presidential election in favor of George W. Bush; United States v. Virginia, which allowed women to enroll in the Virginia Military Institute; and Obergefell v. Hodges, which gave same sex couples the right to marry.

During her career, Ginsburg reached iconic cultural status, becoming known as the “Notorious RBG” and “The great Dissenter.” Now her life and impact are being celebrated on the stage. While audiences shouldn’t expect a Supreme Court rendition of “Fiddler on the Roof,” they can look forward to a powerful characterization of one of America’s great Jewish historical figures, according to Ashley Rodbro, the director of the production.

Rodbro said that including Ginsburg’s Jewish identity helped to shape the creative process. “My goal for all the characters, and that stands for Ruth as well, is that we really get to see both the person that they are in the public eye and also who they are behind closed doors, and [Ginsburg’s Jewishness] was such an essential part of her identity,” she said.

Hacohen brings the justice’s quiet power to the role, Rodbro added. She recounted how after Hacohen sang one of the character’s big songs during a readthrough in December, the room went silent. “She brings that fire, truly,” she said. “You could have heard a pin drop. It was really powerful.”

To Rodbro, “JUSTICE” couldn’t be more timely. She hopes the audience leaves “inspired to participate in our democracy in some way … because democracy requires participation.”

When the Jewish composer Bree Lowdermilk was writing the music for the show, she had no interest in giving  Ginsburg’s songs any folksy Jewish flourishes.

“You won’t find any klezmer licks on a clarinet,” Lowdermilk told J. “There’s no like, you know, Yiddish phrases that would feel like Borscht Belt humor.”

Lowdermilk, who grew up outside of Philadelphia in a Reform Jewish community, said she focused on creating music that gave the characters the “full weight and gravity” they deserved.

Looking at photos from Ginsburg’s Supreme Court appointment, Lowdermilk was struck by the contrast between the justice’s immense power and her diminutive stature beside President Bill Clinton. “There’s something about her stature and her frame, and I can’t help but think about how much impact one life can have,” Lowdermilk said. “She feels like a historical figure that I can’t believe I got to witness. I’m grateful that I as a Jewish person got to grow up knowing that she was on the bench and not questioning that.”

“JUSTICE: A New Musical”

Feb. 16-March 12 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. $25.50-$65.50.

Sarah Rosen
Sarah Rosen

Sarah Rosen is a writer and filmmaker with bylines in The New York Times, Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, J. The Jewish News of Northern California and elsewhere.