EAST HADDAM – Nowadays, it’s not usual to link nice Jewish boys with the sport of boxing. But not so long ago, the two went together like, well, fist in glove. The “golden age” of American-Jewish boxing, 1900 to 1945, saw many Jews not only in the ring, but taking titles. The only way to get a feel for the scope of the phenomenon is to list names: Connecticut residents Louis “Kid” Kaplan, Jerry Boardman, Julie Kogon; Leo Bodner, Julie Bort, Leech Cross, Danny Kapilow, Herbie Kronowitz, Artie Levine, Al Ried, Maxie Shapiro, Allie Stolz, Vic Zimet, Charlie Gelman, Bernie Friedkin, Benny “Ghetto Wizard” Leonard, Barney Ross, Yale Okun Bobolin, “Slapsie” Maxi Rosenblum, Jackie “Kid” Berg, Sid Terris, Lew Tendler, Rube Goldstein, Ben Jeb, “Corporal” Izzy Schwartz.
World Light Heavyweight Champion Joe Choyinski and World Featherweight Champion Abe “The Little Hebrew” Attell came earlier, in the 1880s, and paved the way for later champions Kid Kaplan, Benny Bass, Izzy Schwartz, Battling Levinsky, Maxi Rosenblum, Bob Olin – and Mike Rossman, in 1978.
But while Jewish “greenhorn” boys were learning to use their fists to define their manhood and contend on the streets of their adopted home, boxing was considered a “shanda” in the Jewish immigrant world of New York. In “His People,” a 1925 silent film directed by Edward Sloman, about a young Jewish boxer growing up in the Lower East Side, one subtitle reads “A Box-Fyteh!? So that’s what you become? For this we came to America? So that you should become a box-fyteh? Better you should be a gangster or even a murderer. The shame of it. “A Box-Fyteh!”
There’s been something of a renaissance lately, with Russian-Jewish boxers Dmitriy Salita and Yuri Foreman, both former world champions, grabbing headlines. Israeli Roman “Lion from Zion” Greenberg is the current International Boxing Organization intercontinental heavyweight champion. An Israeli woman, Hagar Finer, holds the Women’s International Boxing Federation welterweight championship. But for the most part in the U.S., as soon as Jewish boys were admitted into law school and med school, MBA programs, and Wall Street, boxing no longer served as the one path out of the Lower East Side tenements.
“Cutman: a Boxing Musical,” a Goodspeed production that opens at the Norma Terris Theatre in Chester on May 12, revisits the world of the American Jewish boxer, setting him in contemporary times, and inspired by the choices we make as creatures of both a traditional world and a modern society. “What would you sacrifice for your dream?” asks “Cutman” co-writer and director Jared Michael Coseglia. “Would you break a man’s nose? Would you break your mother’s heart? Would you throw away all of your money? Would you turn a blind eye on the things you once held dear? Would you betray the traditions of your faith? Would you betray your God?” These are just some of the questions explored by co-writers Coseglia, Cory Grant, and Drew Brody. “A collision of something we were very familiar with – Judaism – and something we were not familiar with at the time – boxing – became the perfect foundation for a story about pursuing your dreams when tradition and faith interfere,” says Coseglia.
The result, “Cutman,” tells the story of Ari Hoffman, a young Jewish boxer who dreams of being the Welter-Weight Champion of the World. Trained by his father, Eli, in their synagogue basement, Ari turns pro and takes the boxing world by storm. But when his shot at the title fight is scheduled on the eve of Yom Kippur, he must choose between achieving his lifelong dream and defying his faith. “Here’s a modern group of American Jews, and all they have are their traditions, until their son becomes a star,” says Coseglia.
The co-writers came to the story through “The Contender,” a reality-TV series that follows two teams of boxers as they fight one another in an elimination-style competition. The show focuses on the boxers both in and out of the ring, with intimate glimpses into their personal and family lives.
“Before we began to write the show, I didn’t know a thing about boxing,” says Coseglia, who grew up in Dallas, the son of Sicilian-Jewish parents. “In the summer of 2006, Cory [Grant] called me and said, ‘You’ve got to watch “The Contender.” It’s heart-breaking. I cried. You’ll be so moved.’ That was my first real empathetic moment for boxers. The minute I watched it, we decided that we would write this play.”
Because professional boxing in the U.S. has long been connected with celebrity – the 1971 “Fight of the Century” between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali was photographed for Life magazine by Frank Sinatra – and more recently linked to hip-hop music and culture, the writers knew that their work would be a musical. They recruited their friend and longtime collaborator, Drew Brody.
Both Coseglia and Brody had an impression of boxing shared by many who don’t really know the sport: Mike Tyson. “He was the one glorified in the sport when I was growing up,” says Coseglia. “Although he was an amazing athlete and the most amazing boxer, he’ll be remembered for the tattoo on his face, rape charges, and going to prison. So it’s hard to have empathy for the guy, even though he returned to hard times.”
But once the writers began to dig deeper and learn what makes a boxer, they fell in love with those fighters who would sacrifice everything for the sport.
The three realized that, to write a convincing musical about boxing, one of them would have to put on a pair of padded gloves. Coseglia volunteered. “It completely changed my life,” he says. “I’ve come to love the art of the sport: it’s graceful and elegant, it has a vocabulary of moving and punching. The discipline required to be successful at it takes such a toll on your body and mind, and you want to push through those barriers. It’s made me believe I can do anything. I’ve become a better boyfriend, businessman, writer, and human being – all because of boxing.” He’s worn out 14 pairs of gloves.
This is the first full musical the three have worked on together. Unlike Coseglia and Grant, Brody didn’t fall in love with boxing, but says he developed “a healthy respect” for the sport and for those who engage in it, and likes the dance of boxing. He finds “an intrinsic musicality and percussiveness in boxing,” which serves as built-in inspiration to a composer looking for a starting point. That is one of two driving forces to the compositional approach he took to “Cutman.”
“Even in our overture, you hear drums as punches, lining up that rhythm of ‘One-two-double jab-hook-jab-hook.’ The flip side is that it’s not just any boxer, but a Jewish boxer, and it’s a contemporary setting. So I wanted to reference that Jewish musical vocabulary as well.” Brody went back to the Jewish modalities he’d grown up with – liturgical melodies; the minor, Middle Eastern scale. The show includes many other musical genres, each used to reflect a certain location. In the scenes at the boxing gym in Queens, the music is more urban hip-hop or R&B. In Eli Hoffman’s shop, it’s a combination of Jewish themes and more contemporary rock-and-roll. Grant and Coseglia wrote the story, leaving spaces for Brody to express aspects of the story through music.
Much of the play’s meaning is revealed in its title, according to Coseglia. “‘Cutman’ metaphorically refers to every character in the play,” he says. “We are all cut, damaged in some way. The male Jew is quite literally a cut man. The title character is Ari’s father, his cutman, the person responsible for preventing and treating physical damage to a boxer. Everybody in the play experiences a question of faith; everyone’s faith gets tested. No one is perfect, even God, and there’s a spirituality we have as a people that supersedes religion and faith in the broadest sense of the word.”
“Cutman” had its first developmental reading in 2007 at the New York Musical Theater Festival and was remounted in 2009 at The New 42nd Street Studios in New York. The Goodspeed production is the first full-scale staging of the musical. “It’s been a long road,” Coseglia says, not unlike what the central character goes through to chase his dream. “We’ve all made a lot of sacrifices in terms of time and art to make it happen.”
“Cutman: a boxing musical” runs from May 12 through June 5 at the Norma Terris Theatre in Chester. Tickets are available through the Box Office (860) 873-8668 or at www.goodspeed.org.