There’s No Seder Like a Showbiz Seder
Posted April 6, 2018 6:48 p.m. EDT
NEW YORK — Why was this Passover Seder different from all other Passover Seders? Well, for one, it took place on Monday night, the fourth night of the holiday and not one on which the traditional dinner is called for.
But that’s showbiz: Some of the 100 guests, and most of the evening’s performers, were Broadway actors, composers, producers — and Mondays are when Broadway theaters are dark, meaning casts and crews are available for socializing.
It took place in a large downtown apartment in a prewar building, decorated with billowing scarves, bright pillows and hanging palm branches to replicate a Bedouin tent. The usual holiday prayers and songs, which commemorate the biblical exodus of Jews from slavery, were replaced by a high-caliber revue of poetic and musical performances from stars of some of the biggest current Broadway shows, including “Hamilton,” “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Frozen.”
The story of exodus that was told over the course of the night was not of Moses and the ancient Jews’ sojourn eastward across the Red Sea, but of a man named Mohammed Al Samawi, who escaped a near-certain death in his home country, Yemen, by traveling westward over the Red Sea on what happened to be the second night of Passover in 2015.
Haggadah Meets ‘Hamilton’
“Unleavened,” as this night was billed, was organized by Adam Kantor, an actor appearing in “The Band’s Visit”; Benj Pasek, the lyricist of “La La Land,” “Dear Evan Hansen” and “The Greatest Showman”; and four other friends, all of whom are interested in contemporizing Judaism and making it relevant in an increasingly secularized climate.
“The idea is to look at the Passover story about the passage from slavery to freedom and to contextualize it for 2018,” Kantor said.
The cost of the interior design, lighting and dinner was underwritten in part by Reboot, a cultural organization for young Jewish adults who work in creative professions that encourages its members to rethink and express religious identity.
As guests (of many ethnicities and faiths) arrived, they found small round tables, like tree stumps in a pillow forest, on which small dishes of olives, horseradish and parsley were set by stacks of matzo. Around the periphery of the room, jazz singers, piano players and Broadway performers were stationed, ready. But for what?
“I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do here,” said Katie Couric, when she walked into the room, red wine imported from the Galilee region of Israel in a plastic cup in her hand.
Ronan Farrow, a reporter for The New Yorker, was equally perplexed. “I feel like this is an Agatha Christie novel we’ve all walked into and someone is not going to be able to leave,” he said.
The guests settled onto their pillows, and Cécile McLorin Salvant, whose “Dreams and Daggers” won the 2018 Grammy for best vocal jazz album, soon brought chatter to a halt with her rendition of “Go Down Moses,” sung a cappella.
Then Amichai Lau-Lavie, the founding rabbi of Lab/Shul, an experimental synagogue, welcomed everyone to the Jewish Passover Seder, which he called, “the most complicated dinner party in history.”
This one may have been the best programmed. After settling in many months ago on Al Samawi’s story as “the clothing line” that would extend throughout the night, Kantor said before the Seder began, “we have been talking about what we can drape from it.”
One performance was by Daniel J. Watts, an actor and writer who appeared on Broadway in “Hamilton.” He said he was asked by the organizers to create a piece about the concept of enemies. He wrote his poem, “Inimicus,” the morning of the Seder. When it was his turn, he stood with a microphone in his hand and spoke while turning himself slowly in full revolution. His audience was mesmerized.
Escape, Then and Now
They were also captivated by Rachel Bay Jones, who won a 2017 Tony for her role as Heidi Hansen in “Dear Evan Hansen” and Caissie Levy, who plays Elsa in the new Broadway production of “Frozen,” singing “Over the Rainbow” in two parts, sandwiching a reading from NPR’s Ari Shapiro about the song’s history and context.
Shapiro told the assembled that “The Wizard of Oz” came out just after Kristallnacht, the pogroms in Germany and Austria that were a precursor to the Holocaust, and that the movie’s best-known song was written by two Jewish immigrants to America. “Hear the lyrics in their Jewish context and suddenly the words are no longer about wizards and Oz,” he said, quoting Simcha Jacobovici, a filmmaker and journalist, “but about Jewish survival.”
For the final performance, the singer and songwriter Shaina Taub sat at a piano and sang her forthcoming song “Huddled Masses,” which was inspired by a protest poster that quoted from Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus,” which she noticed at Kennedy Airport after President Donald Trump first proposed restrictions upon travelers from certain countries, including Yemen.
“That was very powerful, and very special,” said Jeffrey Richards, a producer who has helped stage plays including the 2015 revival of “Fiddler on the Roof,” in which Kantor played the role of Motel the tailor.
Each of the Seder performances connected to Al Samawi’s story, which was told by him and Daniel Pincus, 39, a Jewish businessman and philanthropist who helped him escape Yemen, and whose apartment was the setting for the dinner.
Al Samawi was raised a Muslim, and taught to hate Jews, Christians and Americans. He eventually committed himself to multifaith advocacy and found himself in grave danger amid violence in Yemen brought on by al-Qaida and other extremist groups. Three years ago, Al Samawi hid alone in a bathroom, posting about his plight on Facebook. Four virtual American strangers responded and spent the next two weeks trying to save a man they barely knew. “Jews and Christians saved my life,” he said.
Al Samawi has written a memoir about the experience, “The Fox Hunt,” which will be published by William Morrow next week. The film rights have been optioned by Marc Platt, who produced “La La Land,” and Pasek will also be a producer. (Becky Sweren, Pincus’ wife, is Al Samawi’s literary agent.)
By 9:30, a kosher dinner of Persian jeweled rice and pomegranate and walnut stew was served, prepared by Behzad Jamshidi, a child of Iranian refugees. A microphone was passed around for impromptu interpretations of “Moses Song,” guests congratulated performers and snapped selfies, and Al Samawi tried to take it all in.
“I was hiding in a small bathroom waiting to be killed and now I’m here,” he said.