Australia’s only Jewish musical theater company soars

By DREW LANE

JYM is Australia’s only Jewish musical theatre company, and it is based in Melbourne, VIC. Established in 2002, JYM has developed a reputation for presenting excellent musical theatre productions, gaining high praise for their 2010 production of The Witches Of Eastwick.

Describing themselves as an ‘inclusive Jewish musical theatre company’, JYM are a not for profit organisation, who rely on the support and goodwill of local business, and corporations like Hal Leonard Australia to mount productions. The company gives the Jewish community opportunities to perform in shows which, in any other theatrical society or professional production, would schedule perofmances on the Sabbath.

AussieTheatre.com’s Drew Lane had the opportunity to chat with Jem Splitter (director of their current show) about the company and their latest production.

JYM is the only Jewish musical theatre company in Australia – how do you think that sets you apart from other theatre companies?

Artistically, we’re no different from other company — we set out to make engaging, entertaining, interesting theatre, and every year we aim for a higher standard than the year before. We don’t set out from the beginning to make Jewish Theatre. We don’t do Fiddler every year or start each rehearsal with a phlegmy Hebrew prayer.

What makes JYM a “Jewish musical theatre company” is our roots in the Jewish community, and the fact that we try to provide opportunities to perform and artistically contribute to people who otherwise would be unable. For instance, three members of this year’s cast could probably not perform with any other company, as they observe the sabbath, and therefore couldn’t rehearse on Saturdays or perform Friday nights. So we don’t rehearse or perform on those times, or Jewish holidays, to give observant Jews the chance to get involved with theatre. What I said about our roots in the Jewish community really refers to the fact that a majority of our sponsors and demographic comes from that community, primarily because they want to support an organisation like ours that specifically aims to provide opportunities to its constituents. It’s tempting to make a reference to Sir Robin’s argument about Jews and Broadway, but I’ll refrain for reasons of taste. (see: Monty Python’s Spamalot)

With the faith aspect of your company in mind, how do you choose your shows?

This one’s really more of a question for our producer, Shlom Eshel. But my understanding is that not much of a faith aspect comes into it. But Shlom knows the community and her target demographic pretty well… Cabaret in 2009 sold out completely, or very nearly. Shows are chosen to fit the company’s needs, whatever they are at the time. In fact, part of the reason we’re doing Spelling Bee is that Shlom recently had a baby – mazal tov! – and had less time to spend on a show, so we picked one with a smaller cast and we’re having fewer shows than usual.

Shlom said, “I don’t think about being a Jewish company when making a show choice. It comes down to whether I like the show, whether I think people will want to audition, how many female roles there are, will people want to see it, is it depressing, who else is doing it and how good is the script.”

Do you alter the shows at all (to fit in with the beliefs of the company)?

“No, in a nutshell. Ha. Firstly, as a diverse group of people, Jews (both observant and not) and non-Jews, I don’t think it’s quite apt to say that we, as a company, have “beliefs”… more than “try to make exceptional theatre”. Secondly, we have no intention of alienating anybody, or, to put it crudely, pandering to our demographic. However, this year does present an interesting (and unprecedented) case. One character in the show is written as Asian, but we had no Asian auditionees. The element of ethnicity was quite important to me from a character point of view, so we got to thinking and eventually came up with the idea to make the character Jewish. Thematically, it works a dream – her character is all about parental pressure and high expectations, which you’ll find in abundance in Jewish schools, ha ha. (I speak from experience.) All we changed was her surname and a tweak of a line or two and we managed to maintain the cultural aspect of the character that meant so much to me. But, as I hope will be apparent in the show, and Bec Lemish’s performance, that decision was made entirely from a character point of view, rather than in an attempt to play to any particular elements of our audience. It just so happened that the best way I could tell that character’s story was with a bit of my own history and experience.

What’s your latest production?

Ah, an easy one! The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, by William Finn. Boy, when we started, that was still a chore to say all the time. Now it tumbles out of my mouth without a second’s thought.

What appeals to you about the show?

It’s so silly! I love silliness. I love the freedom of exploring an idea just because it’s funny, and even more when it’s able to point at or illuminate some ridiculous little aspect of the human experience. The show has no political commentary, and no big morals, so I don’t read those things into it, but I think the observations on character and the witty little ways these kids’ childhoods is being explored are really funny. But I also think the show is capable of surprising depth – most of these kids don’t have it so easy at home or otherwise, and some humour comes from that, but some pathos also. I mean, Spelling Bee doesn’t have the raw, gut-punch emotionality of Parade or the epic scope of Les Mis, but I find it a really well-rounded, rewarding bit of theatre.

When you cast auditionees, are you more swayed towards people who are Jewish?

Not per se, but we do try to keep in mind when, as I mentioned earlier, people audition who couldn’t be in any other productions for religious reasons. But we’re an absolutely inclusive company, so it always comes down to who’s the best for the part. The reason we have a relatively high proportion of Jews in our casts is only because we are a presence in the community, so obviously we have more Jews auditioning for us than any other company.

Your previous shows have had many positive reviews. What do you think is the key to JYM’s success?

In a word? Shlom. Like I said, JYM prides itself on high standards and constant striving for improvement. It’s not enough to say “this show was good, so let’s aim for this next year.” Every year we, with guidance from Shlom, aim higher and higher, and try to raise the bar. Whether the bar is raised every year is up for debate, sure, but every year we get a little more ambitious. Which is not to say that we try to pull off bigger and bigger shows — this year, after all, has a cast of nine — but every year we attract new talent and aim for new levels of dramatic excellence.  So, basically, the only “secret” to our success is that we’re demanding, and we put in a buttload of effort into mounting a really super show.

When can we expect to see JYM’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee?

The show opens in late August, with our gala opening night performance on August 20th at 8pm. So, realistically, August 20th at about 8:05pm. The season runs until the 27th, with five shows in total.

Finally, answer the following about “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”:

  • Favourite song:
    “Pandemonium”. Because, you know what? Life IS pandemonium.
  • Favourite character:
    Changes every week. But I loves me some deadpan humour, so the spellmaster, Douglas Panch, is a real delight for me
  • Favourite moment:
    Like Rona, the Bee’s hostess, I have several favourite moments. There’s a whole song dedicated to one character’s unfortunate erection, so that’s gotta be worth a mention. But my favourite moments are all the little character interactions and jokes that the cast comes up with.
  • Which character do you relate to the most and why?
    Leaf Coneybear. He’s so optimistic and silly, a daydreamer with a wondering attention span. I feel like I’m Leaf all the time, only I’ve grown up a few years and people have inexplicably given me a job and responsibilities.
  • What word(s) do you always tend to spell wrong?
    Chief. I always go E-I, and then immediately have to correct myself. I don’t know why!

JYM’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee opens on August 20 and plays until August 27 at Phoenix Theatre, Elwood

Book tickets via their website www.jymtheatre.com or contact Alan Samuel 0408 024 224 or alan@samuelfamily.net

Drew Lane blogs at http://drewlanecomposer.wordpress.com/.

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