Samson Raphaelson (30 March 1894–16 July 1983) was the writer to whom we owe The Jazz Singer. A native New Yorker, he attended the University of Illinois and worked as a journalist and ad writer after graduation. His dream was to become a published short story writer.
When he was a successful ad executive in NYC, he wrote a short story based on Al Jolson’s early life, “The Day of Atonement.” It was published in Everybody’s Magazine in January 1922.
His secretary encouraged him to rework it as a play, and showed him a play manuscript so he could see the style needed. She said he’d dictated more than that in two hours yesterday, and volunteered to dictate over the weekend.
By Sunday evening, they’d produced a complete draft of a play, The Jazz Singer. The play débuted by Broadway’s Fulton Theatre (razed in 1982) on 14 September 1925. Between the Fulton and Cort Theatres, it gave 303 performances, till 5 June 1926.
A 1927 revival by the Century Theatre ran for 16 performances.
Raphaelson got the idea on 25 April 1917, when he saw 30-year-old Al Jolson in the musical Robinson Crusoe, Jr., in Champaign, IL. He was struck by how Jolson sounded not like a jazz singer, but a cantor. Raphaelson also knew Jolson’s dad was a Lower East Side cantor.
Raphaelson’s story is about a young man who breaks from his religious roots to become a jazz singer, with a conflict between father and son about the proper usage of God-given talents.
Nine-year-old Jakie Rabinowitz breaks his gang’s code by not responding to the taunts of an Irish boy from a rival gang. Because he didn’t answer to the anti-Semitic insults, another member of his gang, Joe, beats him to a pulp. Jakie is so angry, he spews the same anti-Semitic insults at Joe.
At home, Cantor Rabinowitz (of Hester Street Synagogue) beats him too, after he says he doesn’t want to become a cantor. His Hebrew school teacher also beats him.
Cantor Rabinowitz agrees to a compromise, in which Jakie will sing in shul on Shabbos and the High Holy Days, while working as a ragtime singer the rest of the time. But when Jakie neglects his religious duties, his dad kicks him out.
Jakie reinvents himself as Jack Robin and begins building a successful musical career. He falls in love with a Gentile dancer, Amy Prentiss, the daughter of a Boston lawyer. Jack hides his Jewish origins out of fear of rejection, and this inner turmoil affects his singing, as does the alcohol he’s begun imbibing.
When Jack finally tells the truth, they get engaged. His parents are horrified he’s intermarrying.
As Yom Kippur approaches, Mrs. Rabinowitz asks him to attend services, the same night Jack’s Broadway show opens. Before he dies, Cantor Rabinowitz begs his wife to get Jack to chant Kol Nidre.
In Act I of the play, Jack Robin visits his parents on his dad’s 60th birthday. His dad is an Orthodox cantor on the Lower East Side, from a long line of cantors. Needless to say, Cantor Rabinowitz highly disapproves of his son’s career as a blackface jazz singer.
After a fight, Jack is kicked out.
In Act II, Jack gets ready for his Broadway début, which he hopes will majorly launch his career. Word is relayed to Jack that his dad has fallen very ill, but he refuses to leave rehearsals.
In Act III, Jack visits his parents’ home before the show, only to find his dad has been taken to hospital. This differs from the film, where Cantor Rabinowitz remains at home the entire time.
Now it’s up to Jack to decide if the show must go on above all else, or if he’ll go back to shul to chant Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur.
The star of the show was renowned entertainer George Jessel (3 April 1898–23 May 1981). Among his many claims to fame was being one of Broadway’s most popular leading men. He, not Al Jolson, was originally slated to star in the film adaptation. More on that in future posts.
The cast list for the play is much larger than that of the film, though it’s possible all these characters are also in the film but are just unnamed. There are a number of background characters and extras amid the main players.
George Albert Jessel