“Spamalot” is Broadway’s newest musical hit, and the producers owe it all to Steve Rosen.
Sure, there are some in the Broadway community who credit Eric Idle with the success. After all, he wrote the book, music and lyrics for the play, which is based on the movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” But that’s absolutely not true.
Others believe David Hyde Pierce, who plays Sir Robin, and Tim Curry, who plays King Arthur, had something to do with it. Again, not so much — as the play’s own dialogue reveals. There’s a moment in the middle of Act II when someone suggests that the King and his knights go to Broadway.
Arthur: Do you know this Broadway?
Robin: Yes, sire, and we don’t stand a chance there.
Arthur: Why not?
Robin: Because Broadway is a very special place, filled with very special people, people who can sing and dance, often at the same time. They are a different people. They are a multitalented people. A people who need people; who are in many ways the luckiest people in the world.
Arthur: But why?
Robin then breaks out in a song:
In any great adventure
If you don’t want to lose
Victory depends upon the people
that you choose.
So listen Arthur, darling,
Closely to this news.
We won’t succeed on Broadway
If we don’t have any Jews.
The song goes on to suggest that a plethora of Jews will result in fewer boos and better reviews.
When his importance to this project was pointed out to him, Rosen quickly agreed with the analysis.
“Thank you, thank you,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “I have to take full credit.”
Rosen, who plays Sir Bedevere among other roles, said, “I was not aware that I would have that pressure on my shoulders. But as the only out Semite in the cast, I have a certain responsibility.”
The song was always in the show, but went through “a whole gestation process that always takes place.” Initially the song was sung at a different point in the show. “I think it’s the perfect place in the show. I’m saying this as a spectator, because I make an entrance at the end of the number. I think it’s a testament to (choreographer) Casey Nicholaw that it turns into this enormous number that gets an ovation every night.”
Pierce was especially concerned that the song might offend. “It was the last thing he wanted to do. He kept asking around, ‘Is this offensive? Is that offensive?'”
Rosen, 26, grew up in Rochester, N.Y., in a Reform environment. “We attended Temple Sinai. I’m not the most religious person, but I do have a strong sense of faith.”
It was beliefs instilled in him at home. “I think the culture and tradition and values that my family taught me, the warmth and humor, instilled in me qualities that I still use today and have made me the performer I am.”
His parents also instilled in him a love of show business. They made it a point to take Steve and his brother to New York City once a year to see Broadway shows. They sent both to performing arts camps. “I have been acting since I was 7,” Rosen said.
At a Catskills camp he played a slave in a production of “The King and I.” He and two other slaves had simple roles. Walk out in their grass skirts, bow and exit the stage.
“When I stood up, I didn’t realize I was stepping on the skirt. So the skirt fell down, and I was standing there in my underwear. The audience started to laugh, so I did a little song and dance. And that’s how a kosher ham was born.”
Rosen went on to NYU’s theater program, and then did what most actors do when they start out: He struggled. He waited tables and worked as an office temp (including a job at the World Trade Center from January through July of 2001). “One of the worst jobs I ever had was handing out fliers for a bankruptcy auction. I was one of those guys whose existence everyone ignores.
“One of the indignities of being an actor is that even though I was out in the freezing cold, I was actually going to be on national television that night. I had a role on ‘Ed.’ But I still had to have a second job in the daytime. And who is the first person to come out of Grand Central Station at 6 a.m.? A kid I went to high school with.”
Ironically one of his part-time jobs got him the role in “Spamalot,” his first on Broadway. “Another way I’ve been making a living is working as a reader in auditions.” Tara Rubin, who cast “Spamalot,” hired him to read lines to actors coming in for roles.
It was cash in his pocket, of course, but Rosen says it was also great training. “I learned how to act with any actor. I learned how to be a great listener. And if acting is re-acting, I was basically spending my day re-acting.”
The production team apparently liked the way he reacted and asked him to come in and sing. He was hired.
Rosen has a sort of Jewish look about him. “I’ve played my share of Fiddlers and I’ve done my golems. I’ve played a lot of Jewish characters. I’m not a traditional leading man. I feel it’s important not to be typecast. Who I am as a human being informs who I am as an actor, but it doesn’t control who I am as an actor.
“My last name is Rosen. I assume people know I’m Jewish. But I would think my skill as an actor and the attention I pay to my craft will make people see beyond what their initial impressions might be.”