Anywhere I Wander


Published by
Kol Ha'Eida,
October 2007

The pantheon of great names of Tin Pan Alley, American musical theatre and early days of Hollywood is dominated by American Jews.  Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein II, Ira Gershwin, Alan Jay Lerner, Harold Arlen, E. Y. “Yip” Harburg, Sheldon Harnick, Frank Loesser and Mel Brooks, all had a substantial influence on the theatre.

As authors, Jews have never been at a loss for subject matter.  Often grim, dark, depressing, many of the themes are pervasive throughout Jewish literature.  It is reasonable to suggest the Jewish lyricist emphasized the aspiration of a people, based on a tradition of pathos and persecution.  The result was a happy synergy between lyricist and public.

From decades before “The Wizard of Oz” to today’s “Wicked,” spanning most of the 20th century and into the 21st, Jewish lyricists have shaped the poet’s angst into their own dreams and aspirations. 

“In the musical, they discovered a form particularly well suited to representing the complexity of assimilation in America,” writes Andrea Most in “Making Americans: Jews and the Broadway Musical.”  She says the lack of a “pre-existing corporate structure” was one of the reasons Jews were able to advance quickly in the entertainment field “unhampered by prejudice.”

How can one look at the lyrics of  “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and not make comparisons to other Jews writing of immigration to America?

Similarly, Frank Loesser’s “Anywhere I Wander” has to be looked at alongside the many Jewish authors who made the Diaspora their poetic outlet.      Fiddler on the Roof.” based on stories by Sholom Aleichem, took tales of Russian Jewry and made them universal.  “Far From the Home I Love,” from the show’s score, echoes many of the messages we read in other Jewish poetry regarding a break from tradition that can occur when one leaves family behind to embark on a new life in a distant land.

How can she think we wouldn't understand
Why she does what she does,
Why she must travel to a distant land,
Far from the home she loves.

Once she was happily content to be
As she was, where she was,
Safe in the bosom to her family,
Here in the home she loves.

With the emergence of the Jewish lyricist, the entire nation took note of what these poets of Broadway and Hollywood had to say.

Loesser, for example, wrote the lyrics to “Charley’s Aunt,” “Guys and Dolls” and “The Most Happy Fella.”  His lyrics from “Anywhere I Wander,” a song from the 1952 motion picture “Hans Christian Andersen,” are persuasive evidence that Jewish lyricists were significantly influenced by their immigrant heritage.

Time and again, the lyrics of Jewish songwriters expressed a thinly veiled longing to find a true home — a haven from the persecution and pogroms of Eastern Europe — a quest that dates back to the Diaspora.  The screenplay’s writers included two notable American Jews, Moss Hart and Ben Hecht, and the movie starred another Jew, Danny Kaye.

Anywhere I wander, anywhere I roam
Till I'm in the arms of my darling again
My heart will find no home
Anywhere I wander, anywhere I roam

Her arms were warm as they welcomed me
Her eyes were a fire bright
And then I knew that my path must be
Through the ever haunted night

“Her arms were warm as they welcomed me, Her eyes were a fire bright,” strongly suggests the hope inspired in more than two million Jewish immigrants as they flowed into New York harbor, past the Statue of Liberty — welcoming the “masses yearning to be free” at the gateway to the Goldene Medinah, the golden land.  If the words of Emma Lazarus welcomed the immigrants, then the lyricists of Tin Pan Alley gave them songs of yearning and promise.          

Irving Berlin, whose work spanned nearly the entire 20th century said,  "A patriotic song is an emotion, and you must not embarrass an audience with it, or they will hate your guts," a philosophy that made him one of the nation’s leading writers of patriotic songs, including “God Bless America.” 

Michael Fox says in, an Internet webzine: “The archetypal Tin Pan Alley songwriter, whether composer or lyricist, was a Jew from New York. It is tempting but dangerous to build a theory on this undeniable fact. The melodies possess no strikingly Jewish flavor but the lyrics, particularly of Hart, have a wit and sophistication that we often associate with Jewish New York.”

Jill Gold Wright observed in “American Pop,” that all the major Jewish lyricists spoke and wrote in English throughout their careers. What is more important is that many came from Jewish backgrounds in which the Yiddish language had an enormous influence.     

“There is a very distinctive element in their collective work,” says Wright, “one that has unquestionable ties to their Jewish culture and which is all but absent in the work of their Gentile counterparts. It is the simple syntactical form of asking a question, instead of making a direct statement. Especially in the new world of America, audiences began to understand this syntax as a specifically ‘Jewish’ way of using language.”             

The asking of questions is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition, most notably the asking of the four questions at Passover.  Furthermore, the entire concept of Talmudic study is based on questioning the text to extract deeper meaning.

Sarah B Cohen in “From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Jewish-American Stage and Screen,” notes that “The immigrant audience rapidly became more Americanized, more affluent. Changing their names, language, and occupations, they moved from the Lower East Side to settle in better parts of the city and suburbs.”

The desire for escape steered Jewish American writers from the Yiddish theatre to Broadway and Hollywood. Escapism enters into many of the musicals created by American Jewish lyricists.  It was in the movies, however, that perhaps the most famous expression of longing for a haven occurred.  It was in “The Wizard of Oz,” and the Arlen and Harburg classic, “Over the Rainbow.”

Somewhere over the rainbow
Way up high
There's a land that I heard of
Once in a lullaby

Somewhere over the rainbow
Skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true

Arlen and Harburg, in the Jewish tradition of question asking, end this classic song of fantasy:

Why then, oh why can't I?

The thematic search for a special place was happily altered with the establishment of the State of Israel, and manifested itself on Broadway in 1961 with Jerry Herman’s exuberant “Milk and Honey,” and its title song.

This is the land of Milk and Honey
This is the land of sun and song and
This is the world of good and plenty
Humble and proud and young and strong and
This is the place where the hopes of the homeless
and the dreams of the lost combine
This is the land that heaven blessed and
This lovely land is mine

If “Milk and Honey” marked a change in attitude, it didn’t slow down Jewish participation in the theatre.  Stephen Schwartz, another New York composer and lyricist, wrote the “Wicked,” a lineal descendent of Arlen and Harburg’s “The Wizard of Oz.”  Schwartz also wrote “Pippin,” “The Magic Show” and “Godspell.”  Steven Sondheim was lyricist of “West Side Story,” “Gypsy” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.   

                                                                                   ©2007 Michael Centor