Soul Doctor, a new musical on Broadway, presents the life of the “rock ’n’ roll rabbi” Shlomo Carlebach, from his pre-war childhood in Vienna to his coming-of-age in Brooklyn to his return to Austria, in 1972, to give a concert. If the result is far too by-the-numbers to be especially satisfying, there are scenes of heartfelt emotion and two central performances, from Eric Anderson as Shlomo and Amber Iman as his friend, the soul singer Nina Simone, to carry us through most of the rote exposition and the anti-climactic second act.
Carlebach, who died in 1994 at the age of 69, after recording at least 25 albums with strong worldwide sales, provides the music. It leans majorly on minor keys. Given so much of the sadness of contemporary Jewish history, how could it not? As one of Carlebach’s religious associates puts it, “joy is for the Gentiles.”
Carlebach’s own lyrics were not written for a full-length musical, and so are supplemented by those from David Schechter, which are efficient. The book is by Daniel S. Wise, who also directs, and the most that can be said about the storytelling is that it is more streamlined than it was in the project’s off-Broadway outing last year. The dialogue is weighed down with preachiness – about the need for love and the moral imperative for forgiveness.
The main conflict, as embodied in the struggle between the ’60s-loosened Carlebach and his more traditional rabbi father, is the one still being played out intensely in the world today: between those who embrace modernity and those who oppose it. The dramatisation of this conflict, unfortunately, is so extended that it tends to rob Carlebach of much authority. It is difficult to believe that this rabbi was so intensely charismatic that he had groupies, at a communal house in San Francisco and elsewhere.
This two-act evening is at its most effective in the scenes between Carlebach and Simone, whose unlikely friendship endured for decades. The scene of their meeting, at a New York basement club, is beautifully acted by Anderson and Iman. Whole libraries have been written about the similarities of historical struggle between Jews and African-Americans. I have never seen them put across more eloquently than in Soul Doctor.