I can’t marry you

Perhaps the most popular comedy song of the twenty-first century, Shiksa Goddess, by Jason Robert Brown, is a puzzlement to me. I don’t find it effective or amusing. It doesn’t offend me, although it could be considered offensive to Jewish women. I figure if I detail my reactions to the song, perhaps the analysis will help define what a comedy song should and shouldn’t do. Or maybe you can tell me why the song tickles you.

It’s the first time we meet the character of Jamie in The Last Five Years. In the previous number we’ve heard about Jamie: he’s broken the heart of a woman of Irish descent. (We know of her Irishness from an otherwise pointless musical interlude, referencing The Emerald Isle, in the middle of her self-pitying ballad) and he’s been clearly defined as a callous asshole. As this is a two-character musical, the fellow entering can only be Jamie, so we’re predisposed to hate him.

But lively Latin music strikes up. So Jamie must be hispanic. On comes a charming young man,

your Hebrew slave

Norbert Leo Butz. But he’s not hispanic. He doesn’t appear to be Jewish, either. You might assume, at this point, that I’m inexplicably obsessed with ethnic identification. Don’t blame me. The music and lyrics are sending strong signals, ordering the audience to think about these things. The previous song was a depressing dirge about a depressed person that broke off to play an Irish jig. That’s such a curious thing to do, we need to understand the rationale. Now comes a cheerful salsa beat and the lyric refers to some difficulty about a Jewish man dating a Christian girl. Why the Spanish music? Is Jamie supposed to be Sephardic (Jewish, but from Spain or Portugal)? Why the non-Jewish actor?

I’ll admit that casting a character who’s specifically written as Jewish can be a tricky proposition. I’ve been there before, and opted for a wonderful actor who’s “only” half-Jewish. (This year, he became an award-winning playwright.) But let’s face it: in a 200-seat house, perception matters.

I’m breaking my mother’s heart.

The longer I stand looking at you,

The more I hear it splinter and crack

OK, so this might seem to support the idea that Jamie is an asshole – here, to his mother. And we wonder, at this point, what Mommy could disapprove of.

 The J.C.C. of Spring Valley is shaking

And crumbling to the ground,

And my grandfather’s rolling,

Rolling in his grave.

Now we have a clue but I wonder what percentage of the audience gets it. Is J.C.C. a commonly-known abbreviation? And where’s Spring Valley? In an arch way, the lyricist is talking in code, a code far more likely to be understood by Jews and those aware of New York City suburbs.

A critic once said of one of my shows that I was writing for an audience that understands cultural references from 60 years ago. Guilty as charged, I’m concentrating on this problem in writing lyrics for another show set in the same era. Jason Robert Brown, here, seems content to alienate the non-Jewish, non-New York area part of his audience by making references they do not understand.

But I was one of the lucky ones who knew J.C.C. stands for Jewish Community Center and Spring Valley is in nearby Rockland County, not far from where my grandfather lived. So, I deduce, there’s a Jewish community there who might be upset that Jamie’s dating this girl.

If you had a tattoo, that wouldn’t matter.

If you had a shaved head, that would be cool.

If you came from Spain or Japan

Or the back of a van –

These things would matter to a lot of people, and their families, but not Jamie. He’d happily accept a whole host of quirks, but then comes a qualifier:

 Just as long as you’re not from Hebrew school –

Am I interpreting this right? Jamie’s O.K. with bald chicks but not Jewish girls? Clearly, this is supposed to be funny, but I’m taken back to the first line. The character seems gleeful about breaking his mother’s heart. And all theses “ifs” are describing what the object of his affection isn’t, not what she is. The “ifs” lead to an expectation that we’re going to get to a “but” or the end of some syllogism. O.K., I can be patient.

I’d say “Now I’m getting somewhere!

I’m finally breaking through!”

I’d say “Hey! Hey! Shiksa goddess!

I’ve been waiting for someone like you.”

That’s how the verse concludes. And I’m mystified as to what all those “ifs” were about. He’s barely said anything about what Cathy is, just that title. So let’s consider that:

Shiksa” is a word some Jews use to describe a woman who isn’t Jewish. It is considered mildly derisive. Of course, “Goddess” makes up for that. The two-word phrase might be used for someone like Miss America, a beauty who, from the looks of her, clearly isn’t Jewish. So Cathy fits into a cliché; is telling her this, using this phrase, supposed to be some sort of a compliment?

I know, I know: it’s a comedy song. And maybe Jamie’s so smitten, he’s not making sense, but it’s leading to one very confused audience member. If Jamie’s been waiting for a great goy girl; did he go on Non-J-Date?

I’ve been waiting through Danica Schwartz and Erica Weiss
And the Handelman twins.
I’ve been waiting through Heather Greenblatt, Annie Mincus,
Karen Pincus and Lisa Katz.
And Stacy Rosen, Ellen Kaplan, Julie Silber and Janie Stein.
I’ve had Shabbas dinners on Friday nights
With every Shapiro in Washington Heights

Ouch, this makes me wince. These previous dates he’s “waited” through all have stereotypical Jewish names. And that’s what’s supposed to be funny about this passage. He doesn’t say anything about them, just that two of them were twins. We all know the Anti-Defamation League has made a stink over less. The impression is left that Jamie didn’t like any of these ladies because of their ethnicity. Therefore, it seems he likes Cathy because she’s not of his faith. If I were Cathy, I’d slap him. There’s gotta be more to Cathy than her religious affiliation, no?

But the minute I first met you 
I could barely catch my breath.

I’ve been standing for days with the phone in my hand,
 like an idiot, scared to death.

At last, something positive about his feelings for the person he’s singing to. Kinda.

I’ve been wand’ring through the desert!
I’ve been beaten, I’ve been hit!
My people have suffered for thousands of years
And I don’t give a shit!

Here’s some fun references to Jewish history; appreciate the effort to be clever. There’s an implication here that I think we’re supposed to ignore: that if he ends up with Christian Cathy it will add to the suffering of the long-suffering Chosen People.

So let’s ignore that.

If you had a pierced tongue, that wouldn’t matter.
If you once were in jail or you once were a man,
If your mother and your brother had “relations” with each other
And your father was connected to the Gotti clan,
I’d say, “Well, nobody’s perfect!”
It’s tragic but it’s true.
I’d say “Hey! Hey! Shiksa goddess!
I’ve been waiting for someone like you.”

So we’re back to listing “ifs” and it’s a fine, fun list but it still doesn’t logically lead to anything. Cathy assumedly doesn’t fit any of the “if” descriptions, but if she did, Jamie’d utter the same concluding sorta compliment.

You, breaking the circle

I have no idea what that means. The music, here, is gentler, more romantic, so maybe it’s a good thing. If I had time to think about it, which I don’t, I might conclude that there’s a circle involved in continuing the tradition of marrying within one’s religion.

You, taking the light.

I put a similar line in a lyric, once, “The way your features capture the light” which was specific and clear; Brown’s more nebulous.

You are the story I should write –
I have to write!

This is a double-edged sword. I admire John Guare’s lyric for a love song called Symphony – “I’m planning to write a very good book. Would you mind if the heroine is very much like you?” There’s an out-of-the-ordinary honor in putting a loved one in a work of art. (It’s why I’m so moved by Sondheim’s line “Mama is everywhere; he must have loved her so much.“) The other side of the sword is that there’s a popular philosophical metaphor that we all write the stories of our own lives, if we’re fully in control, as we should be. Jamie’s plan (threat?) to write Cathy’s story implies he wants to control her.

But time out for some praise: the groove of the music is catchy and lively and I do think there’s something interesting afoot.  It would seem that the plot of The Last Five Years is going to involve two significant perils to the central romance: the fact that they come from two different religious backgrounds, and this potential problem that he has some desire to control her. Those reading this who’ve seen the whole show (I’ve seen it twice) can answer whether the writing follows through with these particular plot knots.

I don’t want to open the can of worms of how I feel about The Last Five Years as a whole, but I’ll tell you what I was feeling at this point in the show: dread. It’s a two-character musical, and after each character has a solo I wasn’t looking forward to a love story involving a complaining, self-pitying doormat and an asshole who disses his mom and enthuses over a woman’s non-Jewishness.

If you drove an R.V., that wouldn’t matter!
If you like to drink blood, I think it’s cute.
If you’ve got a powerful connection to your firearm collection,
I say, Draw a bead and shoot!
I’m your Hebrew slave, at your service!
Just tell me what to do!
I say, Hey hey hey hey!
I’ve been waiting for someone,
I’ve been praying for someone,
I think that I could be in love with someone
Like you!

I know I’m being far too literal here. It’s a comedy song: I shouldn’t take it so seriously. But at the start of a show, I need to learn a lot about the characters, and all I know is that Jamie has had a long-held fetish for Christians. Weird stuff like that can make for a funny song.

But the songwriter has left out the jokes. Humor is obviously in the funny bone of the beholder. Maybe the song’s countless fans are finding stuff to laugh at in this lyric. I see nothing laughable, and only a few things that provoke a smile. And, really, I’m the ideal audience for this song. Born Jewish in New York, dated Christians and Jews, ending up marrying a Catholic. My life experience is close enough to Jamie’s for me to get everything, and yet I don’t get any of it. Can anyone help a brother out?

3 Responses to I can’t marry you

  1. Jon88 says:

    Other songs that shouldn’t be examined too closely: “Don’t Cry Out Loud” (Melissa Manchester), “You’re My Home” (Billy Joel), “Better Than Anything” (Bob Dorough).

  2. Neil says:

    The lyrics sound like something from 1971. And I know the JCC in Spring Valley. But I haven’t seen the play. Is the main character from a very restricted Orthodox family who never interacted outside of his community before? I know that area upstate has a strong black-hatted Orthodox community. And if that is the case, he wouldn’t be hanging around the JCC. Sounds more like the writer was just reaching for cliches.

  3. Joy Dewing says:

    Norbert is just so good, he makes it work. Plus he’s dreamy… and look at the primary audience for this show: 20-something Shiksa goddesses.

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