Jerome Lawrence worked with Paul Muni in the Broadway production of "Inherit the Wind", and their friendship led to Lawrence writing Muni's life story "Actor", one of the best show-biz biographies ever published. This 1978 TV musical is ostensibly a dramatisation of Lawrence's excellent book. Actually, this TV special "Actor, the Paul Muni Story" will tell you almost bupkis about Paul Muni's life or career ... but it's an enjoyable low-budget musical that celebrates the Jewish travelling players of Eastern Europe and the vital Yiddish theatres of Second Avenue in the early twentieth century. And it's a fun show.
The story is told in an ill-chosen flashback structure. Hollywood, 1936: Paul Muni (well-played by Michael Kidd) returns to his home with the Oscar he has just won for "The Story of Louis Pasteur". Muni's wife Bella (always at his side in real life) is strangely absent here, so he strikes up a conversation with his Mexican manservant. They discuss the distinction between the concepts of 'macho' and 'mensch'. This leads to the main story, which is supposedly about the childhood experiences of young Muni Weisenfreund ... but which is really about Muni's parents, who were itinerant entertainers. Herschel Bernardi and sweet Georgia Brown give the best performances of their career in "Actor".
It's been said that theatre is "a plank and a passion". Bernardi and Brown prove it here, performing several delightful musical numbers with minimal props but with maximum talent. The songs are pleasant but never quite top-notch: I especially enjoyed "Kunye Lemel", a novelty song about a stock character in Yiddish comedy. The Weisenfreunds are unable to make a decent living in Europe, so they bring their two young sons to New York and try to prosper in the Yiddish theatre. Young (Paul) Muni and his older brother Joseph are minor characters in "Actor", played by two insipid child actors.
The flashback ends rather abruptly, returning us to Michael Kidd (who, regrettably, is given no chance to display his own considerable song-and-dance talents in this musical) when the grown-up Paul Muni puts his Oscar on the shelf. This is a nice little show, but don't expect to learn anything about Paul Muni here. For that, I recommend Jerome Lawrence's book "Actor".
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