Reflecting on Judaism, musical ‘Stars of David’ explores fame and faith

The Philadelphia Theater Company is premiering a musical featuring original music by some of the most prominent composers on Broadway.

The list of contributors include Jule Styne (“Gypsy,” “Funny Girl”), David Shire (“Baby,” “Big”), Tom Kitt (“Next to Normal”), Sheldon Harnick (“Fiddler on the Roof”) and the legendary Marvin Hamlisch (“A Chorus Line”), who died last summer.

The show, “The Stars of David,” features 13 new songs, each based on an American celebrity and his or her relationship with Judaism.

The source material for the show is a book of the same name published in 2007, by Abigail Pogrebin who interviewed an array of famous people about their Jewish faith. The interviews show a spectrum of observance, from fierce pride to ambivalence, to grudging acceptance of their heritage, to open disdain for its restrictions.

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Actor Leonard Nimoy (“Star Trek”) describes his first heartbreaking brush with anti-Semitism as a child; television and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network,” “West Wing”) laments that his smart characters are sometimes seen as “too Jewish”; Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg harbors suspicion of Jewish traditions after experiencing sexism in the synagogue.

“When I spoke to more religious Jewish groups about the book, they were disappointed,” said Pogrebin. “They would say, ‘Why didn’t you speak to more observant Jews?’ And I said, ‘I spoke to famous people, and asked them how they were Jewish.’ I didn’t sift through who goes to synagogue and who doesn’t.”

Pogrebin wrote the book, “Stars of David,” but did not write the book for the musical of the same name. Veteran playwright and drag queen Charles Busch assumed that job. He connected the songs with a fictional character — “Narrator” — loosely based on Pogrebin.

Pogrebin’s job in the adaptation was to keep in touch with the celebrity subjects and get final approval of the lyrics.

Hamlisch, who died Aug. 6, composed music to accompany lyrics based on an interview with the songwriting team Alan and Marilyn Bergman (“Papa, Can You Hear Me?” “Nice ‘n’ Easy,” “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers”). The lyrics to the song, “Broken Pieces,” about the importance of saving the pieces of glass stomped on at a wedding ceremony, were written by the Bergmans themselves.

“Stars of David” continues through Nov. 18.

The recordings available for listening above were made during rehearsale and are not fully orchestrated.

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