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'Stars of David' turns words into a musical

How do you turn a book of interviews - clearly a piece of nonfiction - into, of all things, a stage musical?

How do you turn a book of interviews - clearly a piece of nonfiction - into, of all things, a stage musical?

Do you sing about the details of what people told the author? Do you compose a chorus of direct quotes from the interview subjects? Do you riff on the general nature of the plotless talk? As a matter of fact, yes, plus more.

In a bold move from out of left field, the Philadelphia Theatre Company this week presents the world premiere of Stars of David, a musical it is staging with eyes toward Broadway.

 The show is based on the popular 2005 book of 61 interviews with famous and influential American Jews. Its author, Abigail Pogrebin, was inspired by a powerfully personal question (and a deep well of chutzpah that allowed her to ask it): When you say you're Jewish, what does that mean?

The question, and the manner in which Pogrebin explored it, led to eight hardback printings and a paperback edition, and now to this "song cycle," with a script that provides a loose stitching-together of the musical numbers. It has more of a premise than a plot: Judaism affects these influential lives - or does not - in many different ways.

The book examines that very personal subject, and offers a rare, genuine glimpse into the spiritual lives and introspection of the famous.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg could not embrace Jewish observance because of experiences with sexism in the synagogue. Joan Rivers cannot shun tradition because "who am I to say, 'You buried your candles during the Inquisition and now I've decided not to continue'?"

Clothing designer Kenneth Cole tells Pogrebin what it means to him to pursue Jewish ideals of tzedakah (Hebrew for charity) and tikkun olam (repair the world). "God gave us what's here," he says, "and our job is to finish it in a morally just way. But I don't necessarily believe that one has to do it with a yarmulke on." Actor Leonard Nimoy talks about how Star Trek's Vulcan salutation came directly from Jewish tradition - and the way that hand sign was used by men during prayer in the Orthodox synagogue he attended as a child.

All of them are depicted in song in the musical version of Stars of David, which uses original work for the show by many of Broadway's most visible composers and lyricists, each assigned an interview to set to music.

Nimoy consulted with the creators of "Lenny the Great," the song about him. Cole did the same on "The Darkening Blue," the song about him, with composer Duncan Sheik and lyricist Steven Sater, who created the hit musical Spring Awakening.

Everyone depicted in song had a chance to review the lyrics taken from their interviews; Ginsburg saw the words to "As If I Weren't There," written by Pogrebin herself, with music by Tom Kitt (Next to Normal), and sent suggested changes.

"It was fantastic to get these handwritten notes from the justice. Who writes in pencil anymore?" says Pogrebin.

In all, she says, her musicalized subjects were happy to go along with the idea and asked only "for a tweak here and there. You'll see people coming onto stage as the character in the story - but what you will not see is an impersonation. Images and the script [by playwright Charles Busch] will tell you whose story you're about to hear."

It's common to turn fiction into musicals, and straight plays are often crafted from nonfiction. One of the latter is Anna Deavere Smith's electrifying exploration of health care, Let Me Down Easy, culled by Smith from 20 interviews and a box-office success last year at Philadelphia Theatre Company.

But nonfiction-into-musical is another story. Grey Gardens, another success for Philadelphia Theatre Company, is a lone recent example - a musical taken from a film documentary about two impoverished relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, then fictionalized with a plot and songs.

The idea for Stars of David - which differs from Grey Gardens because it is pure journalism, a collection of profiles taken from interviews - was to compose music and write lyrics that projected what the subjects of those interviews said.

"It's always a challenge to try to be true to the voice of a real person and still make a song that is successful in its own right," notes Michael Friedman, composer and lyricist of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, recently on Broadway and now being produced by regional theaters. Friedman, writing this week from Hong Kong, grew up in Chestnut Hill. His song, "Horrible Seders," comes from the interview with celebrated playwright Tony Kushner.

"The greatest advantage I had here," writes Friedman, "is that Tony K. is a wonderful talker, and capturing his cadences and speech rhythms and personality was a complete joy."

Friedman sang the song for Kushner "very early in the morning and we were both clutching our coffees, but he seemed to enjoy it."

Pogrebin embarked on the book because she wanted to know how being Jewish fits into a public life. "In front of me," she says, "with a tape recorder running, they began to grapple with things, things about their identities."

Four years ago, producer Aaron Harnick approached her and said he believed the book could be a musical. "I said, what!?  At first, I was surprised," says the charming Pogrebin, who has been a producer for TV's 60 Minutes and for Charlie Rose, and who lives in New York with her two teen children and her husband, the cofounder of a private equity fund.

From the start, though, Pogrebin did see that "there was drama in these stories, in the answers to these questions I was asking. The theater really comes down to emotional life, and if there are these highs and lows and layers, there's a song in it."

She and Harnick, credited with conceiving the show, worked on the idea and it evolved. More than a year ago, as Philadelphia Theatre Company's producing director, Sara Garonzik, was talking with another Broadway producer, Daryl Roth, he touted the progress being made on Stars of David. Garonzik did research and "jumped on it."

"We agreed to be the theater that would develop it," she said. "The whole structure and format for this musical had never been done before. The interviews in the book were really fascinating," says Garonzik. "And I think the music that came out of them is just gorgeous."