Mega-talented Worcester native Al Tapper, 72, is a dynamic renaissance man whose various careers as a Broadway composer, lyricist, playwright, humorist, baseball maven, leveraged buyout specialist and philanthropist have woven a rich tapestry of distinction and success. He recently won a prestigious Peabody Award for excellence in broadcasting for his exuberant 2013 documentary Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy; this follows his acclaimed 2004 film “Broadway: The Golden Age”. He has written songs and lyrics for numerous musicals, including An Evening at the Carlyle, From Where I Stand, National Pastime and Sessions. He is co-author of two joke books — A Minister, a Priest, and a Rabbi and A Guy Goes into a Bar – and is a notable collector of baseball memorabilia.
Tapper says that his Broadway musicals documentary was “an idea that had been brewing in my head for decades … I was always amazed – I guess because I was a songwriter myself – at the number of Jews who were involved in theater. More significantly to me, it seemed as if all the composers and lyricists were Jewish!”
Through serendipitous connections he made with producer Barbara Brilliant
and writer/director Michael Kantor, Tapper began working on Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy in late 2011. The three sat down in Tapper’s apartment and began to hammer out specifics. “We asked ourselves the question why…why was this such a Jewish art form?” Each of them had a different answer. Some thought that Broadway was a welcome environment for Jews because producers didn’t ask what writers’ ethnicity was. “They simply wanted to know if you could write a melody and put clever, meaningful words to it. They would have retained a kangaroo if it could write like Richard Rodgers!” Tapper jokes.
“My theory,” he adds, “was that American popular music all had Eastern European roots. To prove it, I sat down at the piano and sang a song I had written about Joe DiMaggio. You can’t find a more American hero than Joe! The song was bright and patriotic, and when I finished everyone said … so? Then I played it again simply changing major chords to minor chords, and it sounded as if we were all in shul.” After interviewing “dozens upon dozens” of writers, children of writers and academics, the filmmakers realized that “we were all still stuck at the same place where we had started – why the Jews? But it is a terrific film and a Peabody Award was one of the results.”
Tapper, who currently resides in New York City, Boca Raton, Fla. and Cape Cod, came of age in 1950s Worcester, which he recalls with great fondness. “It was a wonderful place to grow up, and a wonderful place to bring up my two daughters.” His father immigrated
from Poland, and his mother was born in Lithuania. She came through Ellis Island and went directly to Worcester, where her relatives had arrived months before, and were already making their mark on the community. His Bubbe Sorah Lotte Zieve established the Worcester Yeshiva in the early 1930s, at first in her home; and his parents both worked in a paper business that had been started by his uncle.
He eventually went to Boston College, where he studied liberal arts for two years, and business administration for the next two. He wrote the music for the annual BU show, garnering $20 per production (“I consider that my favorite commission”), and commuted to NYC on weekends, working at the storied Brill Buildiing. There he “peddled 3-chord rock ‘n roll songs in a small cubicle” alongside the likes of celebrated songwriters Carole King and Neil Sedaka.
At the age of 22, married and with a baby on the way, he decided that he had to find a reliable way to make a living. He and his older brother Charles purchased a variety of businesses that manufactured everything from plastic cutlery and tumblers to paper and steel wool. He wasn’t interested in gimmicks, just products that stood the test of time. His business acumen brought him fortune, and his financial success supported his family and his artistic endeavors. Still, there was something missing. “I was very good at what I did, but I didn’t enjoy it,” he comments.
By 1998, Tapper and his brother sold all of their businesses, and Al “went full plunge” into writing songs, shows and books as well as film production.
As a child, Tapper had nurtured two dreams: one was to play center field for the Boston Red Sox, and the other was to write a Broadway musical. (In a 2012 interview with Bloomberg.com entitled “LBO Mogul Creates Dream Baseball Musical,” he joked, “I don’t think I’ll be trying out for the Red Sox any time soon. But maybe I’ll get the other one.”) He idolized both Ted Williams and the great Broadway songwriters such as Rodgers and Hammerstein, and
Lerner and Loewe. His dual passions merged in 2010 with the writing of his Broadway show National Pastime, a screwball comedy about a struggling Iowa radio station in 1933, whose station manager decides to boost ratings by broadcasting imaginary
games of a nonexistent
Tapper has an impressive personal collection of baseball memorabilia, which includes the original (1923) home plate from Yankee Stadium, the cap worn by New York Giants outfielder Bobby Thomson when he hit “The Shot Heard ’Round the World” in 1951, and cleats that Ted Williams wore in his last game. He describes the collection as a legacy for his four grandchildren.
To those who might consider the pursuits of the arts and business to be polar opposites, Tapper responds, “I believe they are not. In spite of what I may have accomplished in the arts, I truly believe that business is a true art form: it is real, it has day-to-day pressures that need creative solutions, and it requires one to think on his or her feet. … Of course it isn’t as much fun as writing a tune!”
Tapper has used his wealth to support both his own dreams and the dreams of others.
His philanthropic efforts extend to funding college scholarships for underachieving youths, college fellowships (including one at Clark University for students pursuing a degree in Holocaust Studies), and the Shoah Foundation, where he and his brother created the Tapper Research and Testing Center. The Center helps students and academics locate information on the 50,000+ testimonies that have been recorded by the Foundation.
A philanthropic endeavor especially dear to his heart was his purchase of Worcester’s historic Shaarai Torah synagogue in 1997. His mother had grown up right across the street from it, and he says that “the shul was beautiful to me, and when I would visit my grandmother it always had a great impact on me.” When he heard that the 100-year-old building – which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1990 — was about to be sold, Tapper bought it, planning to turn it into a community center that would be open to all residents of its multi-ethnic neighborhood. Unable to get support to bring this project to fruition, he sold the building to a real estate developer “under the condition that he maintain the front façade of the building with all the Jewish religious symbols and the Yiddish on the walls. He agreed. He built the apartments and has lived up to his promise to this day.”
As he enters his eighth decade, Al Tapper remains playful and upbeat. “I think writing, whether it be music, lyrics, or prose, is like a drug. It’s one that does no harm and possibly some good. Once you do it, you can’t stop,” he says. “I think I will continue on this trip for the foreseeable future or probably the rest of my life. As long as people like to hear or read what I write, I’m a happy guy.”
Judy Polan (www.judypolan.com; madformodblog.com)
is a musician and freelance arts and culture writer.