October 10, 1961, is the date of the Broadway premiere of the musical play “Milk and Honey,” about Jewish-American tourists visiting a young and inspiring State of Israel. The show, with words and music by Jerry Herman, a 30-year-old whose only previous work on Broadway had been musical revues, went on to run for 543 performances.
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The musical comedy involves the visit of a group of widows to the young country on the eve of the country’s 13th Independence Day, in the hope of finding themselves new husbands among the virile and idealistic male population. Among the women is Ruth (played by Mimi Benzell), a youngish widow who is looking to be distracted from her grief. By chance, while touring Jerusalem, Ruth meets Phil (Robert Weede), from Baltimore, in Israel visiting his daughter, Barbara, who lives on a moshav in the country’s south.
Ruth and Phil hit it off, and she visits with him and his daughter’s family at the moshav. They seem to be on their way to a relationship until Phil reveals to her that he is still married to Barbara’s mother, although they have been separated for years, and she now lives in Paris. Ruth is uncomfortable with the idea of being with a married man, and so the play, which is noteworthy chiefly for its depiction of idealistic young Israel and less for gripping plot, ends with Phil promising to travel to Paris to get a divorce, and with the two hoping to reunite in the near future.
A subplot involves Clara, played by Molly Picon, the popular, veteran star of Yiddish stage and screen, who was then 64. She also finds herself a man, Sol, a Jerusalemite who has lost his wife.
It may be hard to imagine an upbeat and hopeful drama about Israel finding a large general audience on the Broadway stage today. But in 1961, both Israelis themselves and Diaspora Jewry were united in their belief in the rightness of the country, and proud of its accomplishments, starting with the very fact of its having survived to its bar mitzvah year. It was still a time when most of what people knew about Israel had been learned from “Exodus,” whether the novel by Leon Uris from 1958, or the screen version from 1960, directed by Otto Preminger, and starring Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint.
Jerry Herman, for whom this was the first hit in a career that included the writing of “Hello Dolly” (1964), “Mame” (1966) and “La Cage aux Folles” (1976), had never been to Israel before he began working on “Milk and Honey.” Born in 1931, he had grown up in Jersey City, New Jersey, in a strongly Jewish home. Both his parents were teachers, and in the summers they ran a Jewish children’s camp in upstate New York.
One evening in 1960, after Herman had finished playing piano for his off-Broadway musical revue “Parade,” he was approached by Gerard Oestreicher, a successful real-estate entrepreneur who was looking to get into theater production. Oestreicher told Herman he wanted to produce a play about the young State of Israel, and offered to send both him and writer Don Appell, who ended up writing the script for “Milk and Honey,” to visit the country.
Herman recalled, in a 2008 interview with Playbill, how, on the flight over to Israel, “There were a couple of ladies on the airplane, traveling together, and laughing and very joyous. Don said to me, ‘What about a group of widows going to Israel to look for men?’ I loved the idea and a vague plot was launched on the plane.”
Amused by the fact that people seemed to be saying “shalom” all the time, whether they were coming or going, Herman decided to write a song around the word’s many uses: “It means a million lovely things, / Like peace be yours,/ Welcome home./ And even when you say goodbye,/ You say goodbye with Shalom.”
After tryouts in New Haven and Boston, “Milk and Honey” premiered at the Martin Beck theater (today, the Al Hirschfeld) on October 10, a Tuesday. The reviews were positive across the board. Writing about the play in Tablet in 2007, Alisa Solomon noted, however, that most critics “found the setting far more compelling than the bittersweet love story.” Writing in the New York Post, for example, Richard Watts, suggested that, “it never seems nearly so important whether [Phil and Ruth] get together or not as it is that the deserts of Israel should flourish so gloriously.”