The rabbi is dancing and singing, his congregation swooning, his synagogue…absent. We are watching an actor only pretend to be a rabbi and are sitting in the (not-so) holy confines of a Broadway theatre, watching a preview of the new musical Soul Doctor. The musical chronicles the life of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (Eric Anderson), focusing on his active years as a “troubadour.” The show also gives insight into the relationship between Carlebach and the famous jazz singer Nina Simone (Amber Iman), as friends who inspire one another. (The show doesn’t delve into real-life rumors of a romantic relationship).
Born in Germany in 1925, Carlebach moved to America in the late 1930s to escape the Nazis. In the U.S., Carlebach excelled as a Torah scholar and was a member of the Lubavitch movement. Carlebach gave up the traditional world of Orthodoxy in order to pursue music, using it as a tool for reaching out to troubled people, and for kiruv (bringing Jews back to Judaism). Although he specialized in reaching out to Jews, Carlebach helped those of all faiths find their way and was known for breaking down barriers.
Here, Carlebach’s beloved tunes and melodies have been given an injection of English lyrics by the show’s lyricist David Schechter in order to translate them for wider audiences. But the producers and Schechter have imbued the songs with a spirit true to Carlebach and his “universalism,” says Schechter. In terms of universalism, the show’s director Danny S. Wise, admits to not being afraid of putting on a “Jewish show,” rather Wise views Soul Doctor as a “great American story,” whose themes of faith are important to our current society.
Carlebach, in the show, is referred to as a “soul doctor”, one who heals souls, by giving them a spiritual experience to make them feel whole again and with purpose. But this is far from the only aspect of soul presented. The play’s other themes include southern gospel and soul music via Nina Simone, and the war waging within Carlebach between the traditional and the modern. Carlebach must attempt to reconcile the two within himself and attempts compromise, to varying degrees of success.
The opening number is a gospel style rendition of the well known (in Jewish circles) Ki Va Moed [The Time has Come}, and though Carlebach begins the song, the reins are handed over to Simone, whose jazzy style completely overtakes the piece and renders it almost unrecognizable from the traditional tune. That’s not a bad thing in the slightest. Iman’s talented and her voice shines while getting everyone in the audience to dance and clap in their seats. Iman does not take the role of Simone lightly, and is aware of her significance as an artist, and as an African-American woman in the 60s American-South. When speaking to Iman, she says that what attracted her to the role was when you played her songs “you hear a woman telling a story not just of herself but of her people, but of a time,” and noted that she used the music as key inspiration for the role.
A later song, Somebody is Lonely, features the distraught character of Ruth, she describes in a stunning solo number how she has lost her way in the world and feels lost. Ruth is fictitious, but she’s an example of a type of person Carlebach reached out to during his life. It’s a heartbreaker of a song and the actress playing Ruth sells her pain convincingly, her eyes glistening with tears as the notes escape from her haunting voice. It’s then that Anderson’s Carlebach, who was mostly absent from the previous song, enters and ignites the stage with his magnificent energy. Anderson mentions connecting with Carlebach’s desire to “heal the world,” and Somebody is Lonely, emphasizes this, and crafts his Carlebach as a true “soul doctor.” The piece also highlights one of the stronger aspects put on display, which is the humor. Anderson plays Carlebach with a joyful twinkle in his eye, and the show likes to insert humor whenever it can, even during the emotionally difficult previous song.
The humor is on display most in the final number, Od Yishama , which was the first recording session between Carlebach and his record company, the two worlds of Carlebach’s traditional Jewish and modern 60s music meet in striking fashion, complete with fish out of water comedy and Yiddish jokes.
There are some grievances. The numbers are a bit short, and just when they get exciting some of them end abruptly. In terms of the unmentioned allegations of sexual harassment by Carlebach, director Wise said that “I have done years and years of research, and have spend lots of money and time,” and found that Carlebach made some people “uncomfortable,” but did not find much conclusive evidence of Carlebach being “sexually disrespectful to women.”
The show is truly a great American tale of the 20th century, and whether or not you are familiar with Carlebach, Soul Doctor is a delight and a sight to behold.
Preview tickets are on sale and begin in New York on July 17th.