The photographs below offer a small sample of the many Jewish characters that have been portrayed in plays and musicals on Broadway, focusing on the most familiar and the most recent.
The first known Jewish character on a New York stage was in 1768 — Shylock, of course, in William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” the first of fifty known productions of the play in the city’s Main Stem. In the twentieth century alone, there were some two dozen portrayals on Broadway of this less than beloved character. (The character was recast from a Jewish perspective in Edward Einhorn’s adaptation Off-Off Broadway earlier this year, “The Shylock and the Shakespeareans,”)
Given less stage time and attention, but unlikely to have been any more complimentary, were such characters as “Jew” (in “Azael The Prodigal” in 1851), “A Jew” (in “The Passing of the Third Floor Back” in 1910) or “Rich Jew” (in “Arabesque” in 1925, which starred pre-Dracula Bela Lugosi as an Arab sheik.)
David Winitsky, artistic director of the Jewish Plays Project, which bills itself as the nation’s leading incubator for new Jewish plays, has pointed out that it was only in the late 19th century that Jews themselves started depicting Jewish characters in plays, primarily writing in Yiddish. The characters created for the burgeoning Yiddish theater scene on Second Avenue made their way to Broadway, as early as Jacob Gordin’s “Di kreytser sonata” (“The Kreutzer Sonata”) in 1906 and Sholem Asch’s “Got fun nekome” (“God of Vengeance”) in 1922, which was the inspiration for Paula Vogel’s 2017 Broadway play “Indecent.
Jews have been prime machers on Broadway ever since — playwrights, composers, directors, producers and performers — but the characters they have created or portrayed were often not Jewish, at least not explicitly so. This has shifted lately. Last season, Jewish characters subjected to antisemitism took center stage on Broadway, with “Leopoldstadt” winning the Tony Award for best play, and “Parade” winning the Tony Award for best musical revival. Already this season we’ve had “Just for Us,” and, coming up, “Harmony” and “Prayer for the French Republic.”