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Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
David Geffen, the notoriously press-shy billionaire Hollywood mogul, stared at me as if I had asked him to yank out a tooth. The setting was PBS’ summer 2012 press tour, on July 22, and Geffen was there to talk about the “American Masters” documentary, “Inventing David Geffen.” I asked him how his Jewish background had influenced his marked commitment to philanthropy.
The 69-year-old music and movie industry maverick brusquely replied that his parents had met in Palestine, his mother had arrived in the United States in 1931, and that his parents “were socialists. … I was bar mitzvahed, but we didn’t have much of a religious life at all.
“Does that not answer your question?” he added, icily. When I pressed him further, he snapped, “My parents were poor. They weren’t into philanthropy.” And also: “I would think that everybody’s childhood is an influence on what happens in their future, don’t you think?”
Just then, Susan Lacy, the creator of the “American Masters” series and the filmmaker behind “Inventing David Geffen,” mentioned a story she wanted to tell about Geffen’s mother, Batya. “She wants me to talk about how my mother’s family was killed. Let’s not,” Geffen said. Lacy managed to get in that the perpetrators had been the Nazis, before Geffen cut her off and moved to other questions — a number of which he also dismissed.
After the press conference, I met with Lacy, 63, who had gotten Geffen to open up significantly about numerous subjects in her fine documentary — including the gay mogul’s torrid heterosexual relationship with Cher.
Lacy said she had very much wanted to interview Geffen about his family’s wartime experience, in part because her own father’s German family had died in the Shoah. “Growing up I was obsessed, and I still am obsessed, with the Holocaust,” Lacy said. “I had nightmares for a long, long time; I would see the Nazis coming to get everybody. It had such a profound impact on me that I thought it might also have had an impact on David.” Was the subject too painful for Geffen? “Whether it was or not, he wouldn’t talk about it, and I respected that,” Lacy said. “I got him to talk about almost everything [else],” she added.
Lacy had learned a bit about the Geffens’ experience from other sources: “David’s mother, I think, had gone out of town, when the Nazis were marching into that part of Russia; and as they were coming, the townspeople rounded up her whole family and shot them,” Lacy said. “David’s mother ended up going to Palestine and didn’t know for a very long time what had happened to her family; but there was a sister who also survived who [told her]. And when his mother got the news, she had a bit of a breakdown for six months, when David was a little boy. And David just doesn’t like to talk about it; for one reason or another he’s uncomfortable.”
Geffen did talk about the issue in some depth with Tom King, author of “The Operator: David Geffen Builds, Buys and Sells the New Hollywood” (2000); it’s a biography Geffen initially endorsed before abruptly canceling further interviews, King writes in the introduction to his book.
The biography recounts how Geffen’s mother worried when her parents did not answer letters she mailed from New York to their home in Tiraspol, Ukraine. After the war, Batya’s sister, Deena, phoned from the Soviet Union with unsettling news: “I am the only one alive. Everyone else is dead,” she said. Most of their relatives had been shot in the September 1941 massacre at Babi Yar, the enormous ravine outside Kiev that had become an infamous execution site. According to King’s biography, Batya did not tell David and his older brother about the tragedy, but repressing the news eventually led her to have the breakdown, requiring her to spend months in the psychiatric unit at Kings County Hospital. She eventually recovered and became a successful businesswoman.
Of Geffen’s Jewish identity, Lacy said, his family members “were Jews, and everybody in his Brooklyn neighborhood was either Jewish or Italian; that’s the only thing he really talks about. He’s culturally Jewish but he’s not [religious], which is true of a lot of people.”
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September 10, 2012 | 5:00 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Q: What was the impetus for the story?
A: I’ve always been fascinated by theater people, and by the fact of my being Jewish, and those two things together led me to explore something that I’d never had any personal experience with, which is the Yiddish theater.
Not only do I have no experience in the Yiddish theater, I had no experience with the Yiddish culture whatsoever. I grew up in a very assimilated, well-off European family. My father was from Russia but his language was not Yiddish, it was Russian and he came from a wealthy background so he had English governesses and French tutors, who didn’t speak Yiddish. And my mother came from Germany, from a prominent family that traces itself back to Moses Mendelssohn. So she didn’t speak Yiddish; in fact her language was German.
For the past 11 years I’ve been writing and researching a book on Jewish history, and in the section on turn-of-the-century America there is a mere mention, a paragraph about the Yiddish theater, but somehow I started writing this family [the Isaacs]. As a writer you don’t necessarily write and plan things out; I like to see what flows, and out comes this guy, who tells a story that he, his father, his grandfather and his great-grandfather, were all in the Yiddish theater; that his great-grandfather was brought over with the Yiddish theater to America, when the czar stopped the Yiddish theater in Russia. And as I was learning more I was writing more, making [Isaacs] the central character, and this whole family comes from a certain tradition from Yiddish theater, and I was absolutely fascinated by it.
Q: Your own family has a unique history.
A: My father eventually became a prominent businessman and actually the person who was running the economy of the free state of Danzig, sort of like the minister of trade, and then when the Nazis came to power they wanted him to continue. And he said, “I’m a Jew, it’s not comfortable to be here, and I’m giving you six months notice.” And so they sent to Berlin and got back the word that they would make him an honorary Aryan if he would stay, and that’s when he told my mother, “It’s time to leave. If they want to make you an honorary what you’re not then it’s not good to be what we are, which is Jews,” and they got in the car and drove off to Poland, and took a plane to London, where I was born.
Read the rest of the interview here.
September 5, 2012 | 11:22 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
"My favorite kind of comedy is so wrong that it's right," actor Jared Gertner said.
So it's fitting that he's starring in the blessedly twisted megahit musical "The Book of Mormon," which after scoring nine Tony Awards and a reputation for almost impossible-to-snag tickets has embarked on a national tour opening Sept. 5 at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles.
Created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of TV's satirical "South Park" along with Robert Lopez of the naughty puppet musical "Avenue Q,' "The Book of Mormon" is a blasphemous-yet-endearing bromance story of two mismatched Mormon missionaries trying to convert villagers in war-torn Uganda. The show manages to skewer all things sacred while still coming off as oddly reverent.
Gertner plays, in his own words, "the screw-up Mormon," a slovenly, insecure, "Star Trek"-obsessed schlub named Elder Cunningham, who is paired with a church golden boy, Elder Price (Gavin Creel), on their mandatory, two-year mission. They are sent to Africa, where they encounter villagers ravaged by AIDS along with a genocidal warlord with an unprintable name and a penchant for circumcising every female within reach. It's in this unlikely scenario that the nerdy Cunningham finds his mojo, converting the villagers by reinventing the Mormon story with pop culture references to "Star Wars," "The Hobbit" and, of course, "Star Trek."
One of the musical's most hilarious (and scandalous) moments comes when a tribesman denounces the religion and declares that he's off to copulate with an infant to cure his AIDS. "People back then had even worse AIDS," Cunningham replies, then goes on to improvise a hilariously profane story about Mormon founder Joseph Smith to suggest sex with amphibians actually cures the disease. When the formerly meek Cunnigham later sings, "like Jesus, I'm 'growing a pair,' " one wants to celebrate along with him.
Despite some initial concerns by the show's backers in New York, Mormon viewers have reportedly enjoyed the show. Gertner says even he was startled when he began perusing the script as an understudy for the role of Cunningham before the show's opening on Broadway last year. "I remember reading it and thinking, 'They can't say this!' " the 32-year-old actor said in a telephone interview from Denver, where the musical was playing to sold-out houses recently.
In fact, the cast and crew were given security briefings before the Broadway opening, in case angry patrons lashed out against the production. "We were warned to be careful as far as receiving mail and packages to the theater, because I think they expected the show to be more controversial," Gertner said. "But the fact is, we've been very pleasantly surprised, because people have really embraced us. And I think the show is so funny, has so much heart and so much to say."
The tone of the production is key to offsetting jokes about such things as maggot-infested genitals and pedophilia: "The best way to approach material like this is to keep it as honest as completely possible and not focus on what you're saying as blasphemous, or even on making people laugh," Gertner said, sounding as earnest as one of the doorbell-ringing missionaries in the musical. "Ultimately the show is not a platform for offending people; it's a story about two young kids who are unprepared for the horror they're about to see in the world, and how they deal with it defines who they are and who they want to be."
"My character is Mormon, but the religion doesn't really interest him," added Gertner, who grew up in a Conservative Jewish home in New Jersey. "He just wants to fit in, to have friends, to be part of things. He hasn't even read the Book of Mormon, though he was supposed to, and he doesn't really know how to be a missionary. And then he gets paired with this perfect Ken doll of a Mormon, who's ready to go out and change the world. So when they go to Africa and see all the devastation, they don't really know how to handle it, and Price, who's the 'perfect' one, kind of crumbles under the pressure. But Cunningham, to even his own surprise, rises to the challenge and is able to connect with and inspire people."
Cunningham — with his mop of unkempt hair and his gut practically bursting out of his clothing — is the fish-out-of-water among the other bright-eyed and bushy-tailed missionaries, who look immaculate in their black trousers, nametags and pressed shirts. Gertner notes that all of the actors who have portrayed Cunningham happen to be Jewish — including the Tony-nominated Josh Gad, who starred in the Broadway production before Gertner took over in June, and Gertner's own understudy, Jon Bass.
"Maybe if you're looking for people who are very different from an all-American, uptight, very white, very blond person, then physically you're going to look for a difference; maybe you're going to find a Jewish person," Gertner said. "And if there's any Jewish humor in the show, it's just humor that comes from us, because we actually all are Jewish."
Gertner's childhood home was "very Jewish," he said. His father served as president of their synagogue; the Gertners kept kosher for Passover, and young Jared attended Hebrew school as well as Hebrew high school. Then there was Gertner's Broadway-themed bar mitzvah: "We made the table centerpieces out of Playbills, so my elderly aunts and uncles sat at the 'Fiddler on the Roof' table, and my young female cousins, at 'Sophisticated Ladies,' " he recalled. His own centerpiece featured "Falsettos," a Broadway show he had unsuccessfully auditioned for not long before his bar mitzvah.
As a self-professed theater nerd, Gertner said he didn't fit in among his childhood peers; in this way he identifies with his outsider character of Cunningham.
"I've always been chubby, and I was one of, like, 10 Jews out of 450 students in my class, so I definitely remember feeling out of step," he added. Then he discovered his talent for making people laugh, "which helped me get through a lot of things, like gym class, which was always a disaster." Gertner found his niche onstage and while in his 20s went on to star in New York productions, including "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" and "Ordinary Days."
His first job on "The Book of Mormon" was as an understudy for Josh Gad, although he was initially hesitant about accepting the gig. "I've never covered before because I like being onstage," he explained. But Gertner had friends who had participated in early workshops of the show — they said he just had to be part of it — so the actor went in to audition for the musical's creators with only the goal of making Parker and Stone laugh. He succeeded and got the call that he was hired the very next day.
To prepare, he began researching the Mormon religion in earnest: "The only things I had previously known about Mormonism came from episodes of 'South Park,' " he said, sheepishly.
But he insists the show doesn't disrespect any religion.
"The stories of every faith can sound a bit goofy if you've never heard of them before," he said. "If you took someone who's [unfamiliar] with Judaism, and you said, 'There's this burning bush and a parting of the [Red Sea],' they're going to say, 'Hold on, you're crazy.' The point is, you're brought up in a tradition and you learn its stories and you take what you can from them to become a better person."
The show is actually "very pro-faith," he added — if unapologetically outrageous. "It's so funny to take in the audience's reaction, because they're simultaneously delighted and horrified," he said. "You can hear people shriek and gasp and laugh because it's affecting them in such a visceral way. But there's so much joy behind it."
For tickets and information, visit www.BroadwayLA.org.