Last week, Mandy Patinkin shared a release of two incredible songs from iconic musicals, both written by Jewish musical legends, as a kind of social commentary of the moment we’re experiencing: from the October 7 Hamas attacks and in the war in Gaza to the war in Ukraine and other humanitarian crises around the world.
The two songs are “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” the incredibly controversial number from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1949 play “South Pacific” about how kids are taught prejudice and hate, and the moving finale number from Stephen Sondheim’s “Into The Woods” called “Children Will Listen.”
It wasn’t the first time Patinkin turned to these song in times of crisis. He performed them back in 2001 at a 9/11 tribute concert in Riverside Church as part of a program called “America In Healing,” on the first Sunday after September 11th.
Patinkin first released this cover in his 1995 album, “Oscar and Steve,” a mash-up of songs by Oscar Hammerstein II and Steven Sondheim, who changed the way we think about musicals with their history-making work. Hammerstein and Rodgers gave us musicals like “Oklahoma!,” “Carousel,” “The King and I” and “The Sound of Music,” and Sondheim gave us just as many greats, from “Company” and “Sweeney Todd” to “Sunday in the Park With George,” which Patinkin starred in.
The two songs offer a perfect marriage of ideas, about the impressionability and tenderness of children and their ever open eyes and ears. They’re also an ode to the pure wonder and kindness of childhood, each in their own way.
In “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” a song that Jewish composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II (whose grandfather, Oscar Hammerstein I, was a Jewish German theater impresario) insisted on including in their musical despite great duress from those who thought its preachy and avant-garde tone was wrong for the Broadway stage, Lieutenant Joe Cable sings about how kids must be taught to hate what their parents hate, to be afraid of and bigoted against people for the way their eyes look or for the color of their skin.
“You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late/Before you are 6 or 7 or 8/To hate all the people your relatives hate,” Cable sings.
According to James Michener, who wrote the book the play was adapted from based on his experience serving in the South Pacific during WWII, when Rodgers and Hammerstein were asked to remove the song from the musical, they “replied stubbornly that this number represented why they had wanted to do this play, and that even if it meant the failure of the production, it was going to stay in.”
When people wanted to outlaw the play in states like Georgia, alleging that it was promoting “an underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow” (this was, after all, a time when Communism was the bane of all), Hammerstein said that he was surprised that “anything kind and humane must necessarily originate in Moscow,” according to “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught: The Politics of Race in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘South Pacific'” by Andrea Most.
Just like “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” “Children Will Listen” is the core message of “Into the Woods,” which takes some well-known children’s fables from the Brothers Grimm and adapts them into tales about what it means to be human, and about growing up and raising children. Some have posited that it’s a parable about the AIDS crisis, though Sondheim told the New York Times that he and James Lapine “never meant this to be specific. The trouble with fables is everyone looks for symbolism.”
The show is ”about community responsibility,” Sondheim, the grandson of Jewish immigrants, said. ”It’s about a group of people who have made little transgressions and have unleashed a force that they have to band together to fight. It’s also about parents and the legacy they pass on,” he continued.
“Careful for what you say, children will listen,” the song reminds us. It wonders about how you can tell your children “it will be alright” when “you know that it mightn’t be true?”
When you hear “Children Will Listen” at the end of “Into the Woods,” you are absolutely primed to weep, and the way Patinkin mixes both these songs, the emotion and conviction that he sings them both with, make it hard not to shed a tear, too, especially at a moment like this.
Children are at the heart of many of the crises facing the world right now, including the war in Gaza. Two Israeli children are still believed to be in captivity in the Gaza Strip, dozens of Israeli children were killed on October 7, and thousands of children have been killed in Gaza since then by Israeli airstrikes. The toll of this war on children, including those maimed in body and spirit by the traumas of war, is devastating. As artist Lorraine Schneider wrote in her famous anti-Vietnam War painting, “War is not healthy for children and other living things.”
These two songs aren’t just a call to care for children, but also a call to end the cycle of hate that we see being revived over and over in our homes and our social media feeds.
Mandy Patinkin, who is generally politically outspoken and very involved with non-profits like the International Refugee Committee, has long called for a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has been against settlement building and performing in settlements in Israel. In 2020, he released a video against the proposed annexation of the West Bank. While filming “Homeland,” an adaptation of the Israeli show “Hostages,” in Israel, Patinkin said that he dreams that his grandchildren will “be able to have hummus with their neighbors in Hebron.” It seems the actor and activist, who cares about the plight of refugees all over the world, wants, more than anything, peace.
Since October 7, on his social media, he has called for both the return of all Israeli hostages and for a permanent ceasefire that will stop the bloodshed on all sides. He has shared op-eds from the likes of Hadar Susskind, CEO of Americans for Peace Now, who wrote about why she chose to participate in the Washington March for Israel as part of the Peace Bloc.
“Peace is the only way,” Patinkin said about the war in an interview this January with Town and Country, “and don’t tell me you can’t find a way to find a way to create peace. If you can get to the moon, you can make peace. Say you can’t, or you won’t, or they won’t, or the other they won’t, whoever ‘they’ is won’t, then you are committing yourselves to cycles of violence.”
Whether or not your politics align with Patinkin, the way he melds these two songs is impossibly moving and masterful, and a heart-wrenching reminder to both care for children and not teach them hate — and how maybe those two things are the heart and the key to ending conflict, in Israel, Gaza and beyond.