When the 2008 Chabad "To Life" telethon kicks off at 4 p.m. Sunday on KCAL 9, it promises a new look courtesy of a show runner with an unusual background.
Daniel S. Wise, 44, is an Orthodox rabbi who for several years had his own yeshiva in Troy, N.Y. Lately he has been pursuing a career in musical theater and related arts ventures.
"I don't like the idea of making a living from religion -- it interferes with the religion," he said during a telephone interview.
"I'm not a rabbi because I don't work on Shavuot," he joked.
Wise was invited to help polish the Chabad production, which first aired in 1980. The telethon will still feature plenty of the traditional celebrity guests, he said, including several hours live with Larry King. But it also will have more filmed segments, shot around the globe, which tell Chabad's story.
There will be more prerecorded music, too.
"Underneath a lot of the speeches, we're creating an underscore," he said. "There will be original compositions, some based on Jewish melodies and some that are original but based on Jewish style."
The telethon will also feature more klezmer bands and "two of the best Russian dancers in America," Wise said.
In general, the behind-the-scenes production staff will be more specialized and experienced in specific duties than in the past.
But this won't interfere with the joyful, spontaneous dancing that is so much of the telethon's appeal and reason for success. Last year's telethon netted nearly $7.2 million.
Educated from a young age in Chasidic and Lithuanian yeshivas in Brooklyn, Wise didn't even have a television at home. Still, he freelanced comedy bits to "Saturday Night Live."
"I had the chutzpah to find out who was the producer and call up," he recalled. "So they put me through to Lorne Michaels' secretary, and I said I have something and don't worry, he knows me. I showed up at his office and the secretary said to leave it. I got a call back, and then a letter to sign and a check later. I used the name Jeffrey Daniels because at the time it was a little taboo for a yeshiva boy to write for television."
While taking violin lessons at The Juilliard School, Wise became interested in musical theater. He has since followed two paths in that field -- as a creative producer, responsible for some projects from conception to staging, and as an international presenter of successful Broadway shows.
He was involved in bringing a successful English-language production of "42nd Street" to a 2,500-seat Moscow theater in fall 2002, and he helped organize a Chinese production of "Rent." Wise also put together an international concert tour for rock pioneer Chuck Berry, which was staged like a theatrical production. As a result of their friendship, he's now producing Berry's first album of new material in decades.
But Wise is especially proud of "Shlomo," a musical based on the life of "Singing Rabbi" Shlomo Carlebach, which he co-conceived, wrote the book for and produced. It debuted in early 2007 as a National Yiddish Theatre presentation at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan. A Broadway engagement and national tour are in the works, he says.
"We discovered his life had a theatrical arc," Wise said. "He had a life story that was also the story of the Jewish journey from the ashes of the Holocaust to the 1980s and 1990s. And the music is electrifying and transformative."
The Chabad "To Life" Telethon airs Sunday, Sept. 14, 4-10 p.m. on KCAL 9.