When singer-songwriter Bill Burnett converted to Judaism in the early 2000s, he resolved to teach others about his new religion through the power of music, and over the years he’s put together a wide repertoire of songs that speak to children and adults about the Torah and its traditions.
More recently, he and his wife, Debrah Lemattre, created the Jubilation Musical Society, which performed a Lag b’Omer concert on May 18 showcasing such songs. There were excerpts from their original musicals, along with tunes about Shabbat and the holidays.
“I think that Judaism is cool and deep and meaningful and that a lot of people don’t know a lot of things about it,” Burnett said. “I’m trying to make it fun.”
Burnett, an Emmy and Clio winner who also goes by the Hebrew name Yuval, has written music for the likes of Nickelodeon and Bette Midler and worked as a story editor, creative director and television show creator.
At the performance, which was held at Shout! Factory warehouse in West Los Angeles, Burnett led the songs with the help of director Andy Wolf. There were solos and group numbers — some featuring as many as 10 singers — that were a mix of bluesy, rock and R&B-inspired tunes, backed by drummers, guitarists and a bassist.
The singers varied in age and background: Some were Jewish, others not. There were adults and teenagers — all singing with gusto.
Although none of the songs was specifically about Lag b’Omer, the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer, leading up to Shavuot, they did touch upon other holidays, such as Purim, Chanukah, Passover and Sukkot.
Bradley Bobbs, who has seen the group perform more than once, said he is always taken aback when he attends a concert.
“I’m so impressed by the shows. They take history and culture and heritage and make it entertaining. You retain it,” he said.
Rhiannon Lewis, who first auditioned to perform with the Jubilation Musical Society when she was in elementary school, sang “Esther’s Destiny,” a tune from the Purim musical of the same name that Burnett composed. Her mother, Lisa, said that the songs are “very creative and a way to bring more excitement to whatever holiday they’re about.”
The group also performed pieces from “The Young Maccabees,” a fictional tale based on events from the Chanukah story that premiered last year at the Skirball Cultural Center.
The entire cast stepped onto the stage to sing a selection from “Mem,” Burnett’s Passover musical that retells the story as if it were a setup against the Egyptians all along, starting from Moses’ journey down the Nile River.
“The storytelling brings it alive in a way that nothing else can,” said Lemattre, who also is the Jubilation Musical Society’s CEO. “The songs stick in your head, so you never forget them, and they put a memorable tilt on everything.”
Lemattre said that when people learn about Judaism, they don’t always understand it. Through music, they have the chance to connect to it and know what’s going on.
“People aren’t really understanding what they’re reading. This makes it super fresh. You’re there with it, as opposed to it being a million years ago and a million miles away.”
Wolf said the shows are for every Jew. There is no threshold or requirement: “It reaches every age, and it doesn’t matter at what level you are in terms of your Jewish education.”
For now, the Jubilation Musical Society is a side project for Burnett and Lemattre, who run a production company that does marketing and branding for nonprofits. They hope Jubilation will become a full-time gig, becoming a 501(c)3 nonprofit that takes their musicals and songs to English-speaking cities and countries around the world.