Phantom of the Deli? Smoke-lahoma?

A newspaper column about Schwartz’s deli in Montreal has inspired a musical

Phantom of the Deli? Smoke-lahoma?

Illustration by Lauren Catermole

Let’s get this straight: a newspaper article begat a book that begat a $200,000 musical . . . about smoked meat? This turn of events seems less hare-brained when the smoked meat in question comes from Schwartz’s, the Montreal deli with shrine-like status. Newspaper columnist and author Bill Brownstein turned his Montreal Gazette article about Schwartz’s franchising dilemma into a book on the history of the famed eatery. Then he turned his book over to musical-comedy duo Bowser and Blue to write the musical. Schwartz’s: The Musical debuts in March at the Centaur Theatre.

“That’s wild! As a fan, it works for me!” exclaimed Peter Lenkov, an executive producer who just left CSI: NY to make Hawaii Five-O. Lenkov grew up in a Montreal suburb and visits Schwartz’s every time he’s home from Los Angeles. “Today, we’re getting lunch from Langer’s, L.A’s big deli, where the pastrami is good, but it’s not Schwartz’s.”

Up on the wall at Schwartz’s, there’s a script from CSI: NY signed by Lenkov, plus a cast photo. The staff at Schwartz’s have to rotate the photos and newspaper clippings to give everyone wall time. “See? It’s the most democratic of institutions—no reservations, no favours, everyone waits in line and sits together,” said Brownstein, who grew up in Montreal believing his great-grandfather invented smoked meat. “A lot of Romanian Jews laboured under the same illusion. Schwartz’s didn’t invent smoked meat; they were just the most successful.” Ironically, that success came despite, not because, of cantankerous founder Reuben Schwartz. “He was too cheap to renovate or use preservatives. That gave it cachet,” laughed Brownstein, who wrote Schwartz’s Hebrew Delicatessen: The Story in 2006. The book spent 15 weeks on the Gazette’s bestseller list. In November, Montreal publisher Véhicule Press is launching an updated edition with a new cover.

“I got over 1,000 emails when I wrote the  article,” recalled Brownstein, who is a consultant for the musical. “The messages came from Zimbabwe to Alaska.”

Bowser and Blue feel the pressure. “When you say ‘Schwartz’s’ and ‘musical,’ there are expectations,” said George Bowser, as he tucked into a medium-fat smoked meat sandwich at Schwartz’s. “We met an old friend at Moses Znaimer’s IdeaCity conference and when we told him about the musical, he said, ‘You’ve taken on something very important here. You’ve got a long way to fall.’ I [felt] the rustling of fate in the wings!”

“It’s about the three most important things in life: music, food and love,” said Rick Blue, grazing on a smoked meat plate. Beside him, Bowser tossed out ideas, riffing aloud. Phantom of the Deli. Smoke-lahoma. There are 18 songs, including a gospel number as the show opener. “It reflects the fact that Schwartz’s is a pilgrimage destination, a holy place. I don’t want to say there’s a spirit helping us write it, but . . . ” Bowser provided the punchline: “The Schwartz’s is with us.”

Bowser and Blue start workshopping the songs with the actors this week. “Thank God I don’t have to dress up like a pickle,” deadpanned Stephanie Martin, who plays the lead. “The show is really a love letter to Montreal. It’s silly and sweet and pokes some fun.”

“But there are no politics!” stated Blue, who teamed up with Bowser in 1979. Their fans expect humour based on their unofficial status as the spokespeople for Quebec’s anglophone minority. (They have an album called Westmount Rhodesians.) “We want francophones to enjoy this too. The bad guy is from Toronto, which is one thing everyone in Montreal can agree on.”

The present owner of Schwartz’s, Hy Diamond, didn’t ask to hear the songs. “What do I have to hide? I’m proud of our product,” explained Diamond, who was the deli’s accountant before he bought it in 1999. “Bill’s book reminded me of a Neil Simon play, so I thought, why not a musical?” Diamond has not interfered with the creative process, but he did float the idea of serving smoked meat right off the stage during the show. “I love the idea in theory, but it’s tricky,” replied Roy Surette, the show’s director. “I think the health department would have issues with it.”

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