For Beth El Synagogue’s Rabbi Alexander Davis, being on the bima isn’t something that he always knew wanted to do. While some know it as a calling, it wasn’t until he was a college student that his eyes were opened to it – and even that came largely from Jewish music.
“On a personal level, it’s probably because of music and Jewish music in particular that I’m a rabbi, and I would even say that I’m a Jew,” he said. “When I experienced communal singing and learned some Jewish music for the first time when I went to Hillel in college, that some spark was lit. So I really attribute much of who I am as a Jew to the power of Jewish music. And I think that that’s true for a lot of people, whether you can sing or can’t sing.”
To open the 2022-23 season of the Beth El Music and Arts (BEMA) series, Cantor Ben Tisser found people who can sing. The “Clergy Boys,” four cantors from around the country who put on a Jersey Boys-style show, will be performing at Beth El on Nov. 2.
“This show is right for this moment of where we are,” said Beth El’s Cantor Ben Tisser. “We are continuing to ramp up our programming again to levels that will be like pre-pandemic, and this show will do that plus honor the incredible history of the BEMA program.”
The Clergy Boys are Hazzan Randy Herman, Hazan David Propis, Hazzan Mike Stein, and Hazzan Steve Stoehr. Stoehr had created an early iteration of the program in 2012 when he did a concert at his synagogue with local and national cantors.
“We wrote a couple of spoofs on clergy, like Frankie Valli or the Four Seasons style,” Stoehr said. “And it was fine. And it was cute. I had a good time.”
A couple of years later Propis, suggested that the show could be built out into a more significant production.
“He was talking about drop screens and videos and a bigger band and scripts. And so he and I decided to sort of partner in a creative way,” Stoehr said. “I was the creator of the show, and I’m the lyricist. But David was more of the technical developer.”
The four cantors come from different backgrounds, which is exactly what Stoehr was going for.
“The concept was to be as eclectic as we could be,” he said. “We didn’t want four people with four homogeneous kinds of histories.”
Herman descended from performing vaudevillian grandparents on one side and Eastern European orthodox Jews on the other; Propis is the son of a hazzan who studied under a famed opera diva; Stein was in the original cast of Jesus Christ Superstar before joining the Navy; Stoehr has spent his whole career at Congregation Beth Shalom in Northbrook, Ill., but also is a playwright, whose show The Lost Supper played at Beth El this past spring to a sold-out audience.
Also part of the program will be musicians hired to accompany the cantors, as well as University of Minnesota first-year student Johnna Parks, who will play the role of the show’s narrator.
Resuming this type of arts programming is something Davis said he was excited about when Tisser was brought to the synagogue.
“Something that we were excited about when we first engaged with Cantor Tisser is his experience and his vision, in a broad sense, around music and art,” Davis said. “It’s taken a year both for him to come to know the community and also for us to move past COVID for us to be able to really put some of those plans into place.”
Tisser said these kinds of shows have been central to his cantoral work.
“I would always put on one or two major shows per year, but what’s hard is that I’m still learning the community,” he said. “Last year was a transitional year working with Cantor [Emerita Audrey] Abrams. This High Holidays was the first time I was cantor of the synagogue, and it went well, making me feel good about the choices I’ve made musically.”
The other show locked in for the BEMA lineup for this year is the May 9 Israel 75 – A Tapestry of Song, which features Abrams and Tisser as soloists with the backing of a 16-piece orchestra of union musicians and the St. Olaf College alumni choir, Magnum Chorum. The guest conductor will be Dr. Noreen Green from the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony. Two other events are yet to be finalized.