The intriguing and historical “Jewish Roots of Broadway” concert by Chicago A Cappella comes to Evanston in mid-October.

To showcase the development and trajectory of the classic American musical, founding artistic director Jonathon Miller put together an evening of Jewish-inspired and Jewish-evolved numbers from greats such as the Gershwins, Berlin, and Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Spanning “a repertoire from Gregorian chant to the Beatles and beyond,” Chicago A Cappella has produced over 200 concerts in the Chicago area. Artistic director Jonathon Miller spoke with Evanston Now about the history of the group and the stumbling blocks along the way to success.

What are the Jewish Roots of Broadway?

(Laughs) Well, the answer is a little complicated. I was just looking at my three pages of notes…and I don’t want to overwhelm with detail.

Before the 1920’s, what people were seeing in live theatre was various styles…like blackface minstrel shows, operetta, etc. But in New York City, a quarter of the population was Jewish, and a bunch of factors came together, with a bunch of lyricists and musicians. They wanted to create something truly American where it wasn’t stigmatized to be Jewish.

You could be anyone in America, not just a Jew. You could dream big, and some people have imagined that the American dream is an invention of Jewish composers. There was a strong Yiddish theatre culture, but they didn’t want to write Jewish musicals or musicals for Jews, so they took stories everyone could relate to.

There are places where you can hear melodic parallels in historical Jewish songs. We’re not the first people to notice.

Before you read the Torah, in Synagogue, you sing this one song… “It Ain’t Necessarily So” [from ‘Porgy and Bess’] sounds a lot like that! We open the show with that parallel, drawing it back and forth. We tease the ear to say, yeah, there’s stuff in there. 

Some of the sound samples sound like “fresh takes” on the original songs – what is the process like for devising the arrangements?

This is the kind of thing we do a lot anyway, take topics that weave things together. Part of my job is to find these arrangements or arrange them myself. That’s what we do!

This program was much more difficult that many I’ve taken on, because I have a background in Jewish music and not much in musical theatre.

Jewish composers moved verses into a minor key, which was new and very Jewish.

Another thing important in this show is the sense of “anything’s possible — the sense of the American dream. Oscar Hammerstein II had a big-hearted, generous outlook on the world, and he wanted to promote social justice in his own way. Like with “Showboat,” which was revolutionary because it talked about an interracial relationship. They stretched the world that people were able to see. The Jewish phrase “tikkun olam” is about healing the world, repairing the world in our own way.

How does the community involvement aspect of Chicago A Cappella influence the work you do in performance?

We now have a singer (who joined when she was 17) who is our education coordinator. Part of what she was seeing was that she wanted to share with high schoolers some of the inside knowledge of creating a project like this from the ground up. The high school internship program helps teach about how arts programs are built. There’s no other program like this in the country.

That’s part of how we give back. We’re also working on a pretty major initiative that I can’t talk about — but we do our part to give back!

How has the group changed since you founded it in 1993?

We were talking about this the other day. One of the things we’re finding is — when you found an organization, you tend to do everything… lay out the cookies, etc. One of the best pieces of advice I got when I started Chicago a Cappella: be relentless in insisting on artistic excellence and doors will open.

Our performers want to focus their huge talent on creating an ensemble, not being soloists – that’s a rare bird. I started to realize that my ears aren’t good enough to sing and form the ensemble sound. When I stopped singing, the sound cleaned up. That was a big step in the right direction.

Then I realized we needed people with better ears than me. My focus has been on programming, but I’ve deputized and given way to the music work. That’s been a big change, in a good way.

The other thing is, I didn’t know about working with a not-for-profit board. It used to be the executive director and me in my third bedroom in my apartment. Now there are interns crawling around, and he has people, and we have years of programming history behind us.

There are lots of groups like us out there, and we have great support. I think when I started, I spent time comparing us to other groups, and over time, that’s less and less what I’m interested in. I’m more interested in letting us be the best we can be. Our focus needs to be on knocking it out of the park- every time.

The performance in Evanston at Nichols Conert Hall on Oct. 17 at 8 p.m. is sold out. Tickets for another performance on Oct. 25 are on sale now. For tickets and more information is available online or by calling 773-281-7820.

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