Tovah Feldshuh, Debra Messing and more Jewish stars perform at first-ever ‘Shabbat on Broadway’ show


(New York Jewish Week) — Nine a.m. on a Saturday morning might be one of the few times during the week that Times Square isn’t brimming with tourists, theater-goers and commuters. But when you bring in a few dozen Jewish Broadway stars and ask them to perform a Shabbat service inside a Broadway theater, the crowds will come.

This past Saturday, the St. James Theater, which most days is home to the Monty Python musical “Spamalot,” hosted “Shabbat on Broadway,” described by producer Henry Tisch as a “a non-denominational Shabbat service with a real Broadway twist.”

Led by two cantors, and featuring songs and prayers sung by Julie Benko, Adam Pascal, Tovah Feldshuh, Shoshana Bean and others, the service drew a near-capacity crowd to the 1,700-seat theater.  

“We had this feeling that, in this very dark time in the world and in the Jewish world, we wanted to put together something that really had light to it and would be this beacon and a place to celebrate and to gather together in community,” said Tisch, who produced the Shabbat on Broadway service alongside Amanda Lipitz, who also directed. 

The service felt “inevitable,” Tisch said. “Of course, there should be a Shabbat on Broadway. Certainly, there have been other gatherings of Jews in the theater world, but as far as we know, this is the first Shabbat service in a Broadway theater.”

Tisch and Lipitz began putting together the show just five weeks ago, and the tickets for the service — which were free and open to the public — ran out in just a day, they said. 

The Shabbat they chose, Jan. 27, happened to be the perfect day for such an occasion. The Torah portion read on the day, Parshah Beshalach, includes the Song of the Sea, which the Israelites sang as they crossed the Red Sea from Egypt, and is known as “Shabbat Shirah” or “Shabbat of Song.” Jan. 27 also happens to be International Holocaust Remembrance Day. 

Underneath a giant, golden Star of David that hung over the stage — a set piece normally used in the “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway” scene in “Spamalot” — celebrants interspersed traditional Shabbat prayers and straight musical numbers. Some prayers were sung to the tune of Broadway songs; the service opened with a pre-recorded video of a dozen New York City cantors singing “Hinei Matov” to the tune of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin,’” from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma.” It closed with a group of children singing “Adon Olam” to the tune of “You’ll Be Back,” from “Hamilton.” 

Both prayers were arranged by Cantor Azi Schwartz from Park Avenue Synagogue, who is known for setting Shabbat prayers to modern tunes. 

However, most of the prayers were sung with traditional melodies. Feldshuh, who most recently played Rosie Brice in “Funny Girl,” sang “Mi Sheberach.”

“I’ve spent over 50 years with you,” Feldshuh said on stage, addressing the crowd. “This is my life,” she added, calling the event an “extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime event.” 

Among other performances, Shoshana Bean, who most recently starred in “Mr. Saturday Night,” sang “Etz Chaim;” Talia Suskauer, who played Elphaba in “Wicked,” sang the Shema; Jackie Hoffman, recently seen in the anthology series “Feud,” read the Amidah, the core prayer of every Jewish worship service and Debra Messing read a prayer for the community. 

The 90-minute service was led by cantors Jenna Pearsall from Central Synagogue and Mo Glazman from Temple Emanu-El, two of the city’s most prominent Reform synagogues. It also included a sermon by Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR Synagogue in Los Angeles, from her new book “The Amen Effect: Ancient Wisdom to Mend Our Broken Hearts and World,” which was read by actress Camryn Manheim. 

“Broadway, growing up, for me was spiritual. It was a huge part of my life. So to mesh my career with a Broadway stage was a full circle moment for me. It was incredible,” Pearsall told the New York Jewish Week after the show. “It’s hard to get clergy involved on a Saturday, but I would love to do something like this again. There seems to be a huge demand for it.”

Indeed, a plethora of other prominent New York City clergy, including Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove from Park Avenue Synagogue, Rabbi Angela Buchdahl from Central Synagogue and Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum from Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, had their own Shabbat services to lead, but appeared in pre-recorded video segments throughout the service.

“The theater is a holy place,” Kleinbaum said in her recording. 

That idea — that the Broadway stage is a temple, and one influenced largely by Jews — was a throughline in the service both implicitly and explicitly.

“There are such current ties and historic ties between the theater community and the Jewish community. The history of the American musical theater is so tied to the contributions of so many Jews, so it felt really important to acknowledge that,” Tisch said. “Also given just how Jewish the theater community is today, it felt important to really provide this space and the sanctuary and celebration.”

“What a convergence of temples,” said Broadway singer Adam Kantor (“Rent,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “The Band’s Visit”), before he sang a mashup of “Oseh Shalom” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which he said he arranged in the days following Oct. 7. 

“For a lot of people in this room, a Broadway theater might also have given maybe an escape from certain religious institutions where they were supposed to experience a certain spiritual catharsis but might have instead experienced a certain feeling that they weren’t invited into that space,” he added. “Today you are all invited.”

Audience members were pleasantly surprised by how the show balanced the Broadway values of humor and showmanship with the Shabbat values of community and rest.

“It was incredible how they were able to balance it. I was wondering going in, ‘Is it going to be Broadway tunes? Is it going to be a service? What is that gonna look like?’” said Nadine, who declined to share her last name. “I felt like I got a little bit of both, which was incredible.”

Another attendee, Donna, said she often attends synagogue and also loves Broadway shows. “The convergence of all this as part of what it means to be Jewish in this city was really very beautiful,” she said.

Julie Benko, who is currently starring in Barry Manilow’s “Harmony” on Broadway, performed “Tomorrow” from Annie. 

“This event today was so special,” she told the New York Jewish Week. “I feel like I’ve never been in a space like this where I just felt like our whole community came together in this way, where I felt totally safe and connected, celebrating our community and just being together in a way that wasn’t related to ‘showbiz’ — and yet it still celebrated everything that we love in showbiz.”

“It was my favorite Shabbat service I’ve been to,” she added.