by: Caroline Westbrook - Last updated: 2005-03-11
Having been a huge hit on the Los Angeles stage, the comedy Jewtopia is now wowing audiences in New York. It tells the story of Adam, a thirtysomething single Jew whos looking for love, and his non-Jewish friend Chris, whos also looking to meet a nice Jewish girl. SJs Caroline Westbrook meets the shows writers and stars, Sam Wolfson and Bryan Fogel. and finds out how you make a hit out of Jewish dating.
When did you first come up with the idea for Jewtopia?
Sam: Bryan was producing these one-act festivals in LA, sort of showcase where actors could perform for agents and managers and casting directors, and Id done the show a few times and met Bryan through it, and he asked me if I wanted to write something for the show, and what we ended up writing became the first scene in the play. It was never meant to be anything else other than that one scene, and we had this crazy idea of a Jewish singles mixer, and a guy who was pretending to be a Jew. So we wrote this scene and people went crazy for it, weve never had a response like that to anything weve written before. So we thought well maybe weve got something bigger here, and we started to brainstorm and outline the whole thing it probably took a couple of months but it just kind of poured of us, it was an easy thing to write.
What do your parents think of it?
Sam: They love it, they really do. My mum has probably seen it about 50 times. They come to New York about once a month to see it and hang out, all the characters in the play are based on our family, all the names are the same, and they love it.
Bryan: My parents have seen it probably about eight times, theyve been to New York once since we opened. They were our backers, we couldnt have put this on without them in Los Angeles, so our parents have been our biggest fans, theyve been pretty supportive.
How long did it take you to raise the finance for the LA production?
Bryan: It was all self-financed, basically savings, credit cards and our parents is how we launched the LA production. And then New York was a $650,000 budget with all sorts of investors who came in because of the success of LA.
Have you noticed a difference between New York and LA audiences, in terms of the way they react to the play?
Sam: Not really, no.
Bryan: Weve been asked that question so many times because everyone thinks were New York Jews, even though Sams from Florida and Im from Denver but it seems to be this common experience that Jews are Jews, no matter where they are.
How did you end up in LA?
Sam: I was always into writing and acting and performing, so I knew I wanted to do that after I graduated college, right after then I dove into that world.
Bryan: I went there after college also, doing some side businesses for the first few years, focusing pretty much on the acting, and the writing pretty much came later as a way to create roles to myself.
Are there any Jews in Denver?
Bryan: Actually Denvers got a health Jewish community, somewhere around 60,000-80,000.
Are you active in your respective communities?
Sam: Er, no. I had a Barmitzvah with a Miami Vice theme I did come dressed as Don Johnson and I did the confirmation thing. But once I got to college, I havent really stepped in a temple since.
Bryan: I came from a fairly religious background, I guess you would call my family modern Orthodox, we kept a kosher home, I had a Barmitzvah in Israel at the wall, and also in Denver. Now Im pretty non-practising Reform, but I grew up knowing who I was, and all the holidays and what it meant and Hebrew School.
How have Orthodox Jews reacted to Jewtopia?
Sam: You know, we always talk to people after the show we had four Orthodox girls here a couple of weeks ago, with wigs and everything, and they loved it. For all intents and purposes they shouldnt, but in some parts they shouted like it was a rock show. I dont think we get that many, but the ones we do get tend to be people whove heard about it from those who have seen it so they know what theyre in for before they come in the door. No-one walks out, we dont get any walkouts any more. At the beginning in LA we did, when people didnt really know what it was and they thought they were coming into a very tame Jewish play.
Did you have different references to local areas in the LA production?
Bryan: Yes, they were all LA references. The shows opening in Chicago in March and Im sure when we come to London well change the references. If youre local to each market its a nice kind of thing. So we changed all the LA stuff for example talking about the Valley in New York and doing Valley area codes wasnt funny so we changed it to something that was New York. Theres a lot of different references, restaurants, that kind of thing.
What sort of audiences do you get on Friday nights?
Bryan: The shows always sold out on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, and a lot of Jews come to it.
Sam: We get them on Fridays theres enough bad Jews out there.
Bryan: I guess the Friday night audiences seem to be a little bit more raucous than some of the other audiences. It seems to be a younger audience too.
Do you have plans to bring the show to London?
Bryan: Weve been in talks with Sam Mendes company, and within the next two to three months well have a formal announcement. If we come to London Sam and I would like to leave the New York show and come to London for a while, I think that would be good for us. Were not going to do the Chicago show or the Boston show or the Miami show. But itd be great to go and live in London for a while.
Would you be able to do the British accents?
Bryan: We haven really thought about that yet? Maybe wed be better off casting some British actors. Like the Chicago company, we just got back yesterday and the entire company is Chicago actors. Theres absolutely no shortage of actors in London.
Do you think you need to be Jewish to play the roles you play?
Bryan: No. The two lead actors in Chicago arent Jewish, our understudies arent Jewish. I think it helps to have an understanding but if youre funny youre funny and you can do it. Here it just kind of worked out that our whole cast is Jewish.
What are your favourite Jewish websites and have you ever ventured on to Jdate?
Sam: I met some ladies on Jdate it didnt work out.
Bryan: A lot of the names in the show are based on real names on Jdate. But its just ridiculous they have this pulldown menu with every country, and youre like theres no Jew in Zaire and sure enough theres s Jew in Zaire looking for a guy. We found a few in Asia, Asian women looking for Jewish men or gentiles looking for Jewish men.
What have you learned from the experience of Jewtopia?
Sam: Certainly reviews matter but if people arent walking out of here telling people to go see it, then youre going to die. I mean you can get great reviews and die, or you can get terrible reviews and be a hit. Luckily weve gotten good reviews but people come back five, six, seven times. Its insane.
How have the Jewish media been towards you?
Bryan: The Jewish media have been incredibly kind to us, Jewish Week and theres a big paper in New Jersey they all gave us very nice write-ups, so it certainly helped, at least I think so. They certainly have given us a lot of nice press when we opened and before we got here.
How true have you made the roles in terms of what its like growing up Jewish in America?
Bryan: I think that overall theres a lot of truth in the show and thats why people are relating and thats why people are laughing. I mean, I dont know Jews that go hunting. I dont know a Jew who voted for George Bush. Theres a certain commonality with that and with the assimilation, thats whats happening. Our generation is killing Judaism. The Nazis couldnt kill us but our own generation is killing Judaism through intermarriage and stuff. So I think theres a lot of truth in that.
Did you get any rabbinical advice or support in terms of correct pronunciations etc.?
Bryan: I knew it all, I think Sam knew it. I found during the writing I was filling Sam in on a lot of stuff because he is a bit more of the bad Jew and I came from such a Jewish family. I knew a lot more of the tradition and yet on my Barmitzvah we never lit 13 candles on a cake and made up rhymes, I think thats like a reform tradition and yet the audience goes crazy at that bit. But there was no candle lighting at my Barmitzvah.
Do you think youve learned more about being Jewish from this production?
Sam: I didnt learn more, I dont know if my view on Judaism has really changed at all. The most interesting thing is just hearing the reactions of people and the way other people see it. Last night a woman came up to me and said this is the funniest thing Ive ever seen, and my parents were Holocaust survivors, I connected to it because of that. So there was more going on than just laughing for her, it was this pretty powerful thing. It doesnt necessarily mean Im going to start going to temple, but so many people have this connection to it.
Bryan: I dont know if Ive learned so much apart from the fact that there is a common thread of Judaism. We thought we were writing this show we thought it was for twenty and thirtysomethings, yet our Fridays and Saturdays and Sunday matinees especially, its all ages its 13-year-olds to 85-year-olds. Its been a great feeling for us, looking out in the audience and seeing a 13-year-old laughing at something his 80-year-old grandparent has laughed at.
Is there a Jewtopia 2 on the way?
Bryan: Well, were writing the movie. Were almost done.
Sam: Once we finish were on track to start making it after the summer. Its pretty different to the play, its got a lot of the same stuff but its just more locations and spread out more.
Bryan: There are so many things alluded to in the play that you cant see, in the film you can create all these characters and these settings. Its changed quite radically. Theres a million things you cant accomplish on stage that you can do in a movie. I think itll be set in LA, I think were just better fans of the weather there.
Jewish girls or shiksas?
Sam: Both! My last girlfriend was a Jewish girl, and maybe my next one! Whoever I end up with, Im not worried about what my family thinks, they just want me to be happy.
Bryan: I think my family would prefer they were Jewish. Ive been on a gentile spree recently but that doesnt mean to say I wont change. It certainly makes it easier to be with someone of your own faith, you have things in common and you understand things.