Jews in the News: Stephen Schwartz, Idina Menzel and Beanie Feldstein

Wicked, Funny Girl, An Ex Becomes a Mensch

The PBS special “Wicked in Concert” premieres on Sunday, August 29 at 9PM. There are encore showings the same evening at 11PM and at 1 AM, the following day. Of course, the title refers to the mega-hit musical that opened on Broadway in 2003. It tells the back-story, as it were, of the “Wicked Witch of the West”, a famous “Wizard of Oz” character.

The music and lyrics were written by STEPHEN SCHWARTZ, now 73. The “book” (story/dialogue) was written by WINNIE HOLZMAN, now 67. Schwartz had a track record that gave him the “pull” to get a huge production like “Wicked” on-stage. Before “Wicked”, he wrote the songs for the stage hits “Godspell” and “Pippin”, as well as the songs for the animated film hits “Pocahontas” and “The Prince of Egypt” (the latter with Alan Menken, now 72.)

The PBS special will not be a re-staging of the musical. Rather, a very diverse group of singers from many genres will perform the “Wicked” songs. Two stars of the original Broadway production will co-host: Kristen Chenoweth and IDINA MENZEL (“Frozen”) 50.

In other musical news, it was announced that BEANIE FELDSTEIN, 28, will star in the first Broadway revival of “Funny Girl” since it premiered in 1964. “Funny Girl” was a semi-fictional depiction biography of comedian FANNY BRICE (1891-1951). As everyone knows, it made BARBRA STREISAND, now 79, a star.

When Feldstein got her first roles, I thought she was just “coasting” on the fame of her brother, JONAH HILL, 37. But she was very good in the hit comedy “Booksmart” (2019) and I’ve seen clips of her singing and she’s good (not Streisand, but who is?). Her voice was good enough to get her a co-starring role in the film version of “Merrily We Roll Around”, a STEPHEN SONDEHIM musical. It co-stars her lifelong friend BEN PLATT, 27. “Merrily” has been shot, but no release date is yet set.

Casting Feldstein is a shot across-the-bow of “pretty people” casting. She is a zaftig woman. Of course, Streisand was not conventionally beautiful by the “WASPY’ standards of 1964. However, in “Funny Girl”, and a few other films, she re-defined “sexy” almost by herself. 

Streisand had help: absurdly good-looking actors were cast as the men who adored her. In the “Funny Girl” movie, Streisand played Brice (who was homely in real life) and the gorgeous Omar Sharif, played Brice’s first husband, NICKY ARNSTEIN (who was a very homely guy). In the sequel film, Funny Lady, “hottie” JAMES CAAN, now 81, played Brice’s second husband, the (quite homely) impresario BILLY ROSE.

So, will they get another “pretty boy” to make Feldstein’s Brice seem more desirable? Or will they be honest and cast a regular looking guy?  If they “go regular”, this will be a very different “Funny Girl” and maybe a quite interesting one.

The second, eight-episode season of the Amazon Original series “Modern Love” premiered on August 13. The series is inspired by a NY Times column of the same name. The columns are short, but almost always are good. They are stories well-told, with a central point made.

The Amazon episodes are also short. No more than 35 minutes. However, unlike the columns, most “Modern Love” episodes are unsatisfying. Characters are underdeveloped and plot lines are “jerky”.

The first season got mixed reviews and all but two of the episodes in the 2nd season were panned. The good news is that the only episode with a Jewish thespian is one of the two. SOPHIE OKONEDO, 53, co-stars in the 8th episode, entitled "Second Embrace, With Hearts and Eyes Open".

Okonedo and Toby Menzies co-star as Elizabeth and Van, a long-divorced, middle-class couple who have two daughters, about 8 and 10. While the girls live primarily with Elizabeth, their father is very much in their lives. Early in the episode, Elizabeth notices how Van has morphed into a really great father and a considerate, able co-parent. Well, you can guess from the title that they get together again. But I won’t spoil it for you by disclosing more.

The episode is set in London, Okonedo’s hometown. She is the daughter of a Nigerian (black) father and a white, English Jewish mother. She was raised by her mother and firmly identifies as Jewish. She was nominated for a supporting actress Oscar for “Hotel Rwanda” and is up for a 2020 Emmy for her guest role on “Ratched”. 


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