The Story Behind Lemon’s ‘A Million Matzoh Balls’ Sing-along, One of the Greatest Jewish Film Moments Ever

By

The most delightful moment in Janicza Bravo’s absurdly bleak (and critically lauded) new comedy Lemon may be when, seemingly out of nowhere, 11 members of the cast burst into a sing-along of Dean Friedman’s classic-that-never-was, “A Million Matzoh Balls.”

Picture the world’s most awkward Seder. Brett Gelman’s protagonist, Isaac, a failed actor, has just been dumped by his blind girlfriend (Judy Greer), and is coming off his best job in years: an ad for hepatitis-C prevention. Fred Melamed’s patriarch has told his wife (played by Rhea Perlman) that her food tastes like dog food. Helen Heller’s (likely Orthodox) Zelda has turned mute in the wake of a massive head injury. David Paymer’s Dr. Gold is going through a divorce and a possible suicidal streak. A very pregnant Ruthie (Shiri Appleby of UnREAL) has been puking in the living room. And Martin Starr’s conservative Adam has objected to Ruthie’s adopted black son (Keith L. Williams) asking the Four Questions, upon which Ruthie defends her son, then yells at her Latina nanny (Elizabeth De Razzo).

But no sooner has Ruthie growled “I can’t stand you” to Adam than they’re all in the living room around a grand piano jamming out to Friedman’s hilarious children’s song about his momma making so many matzoh balls that they were in the toaster, in the vacuum cleaner, and on every chair. As the song goes, “There were matzoh balls everywhere!”

One wouldn’t necessarily expect the black, Panamanian director of Atlanta’s brilliant “Juneteenth” episode to dream up a sequence that may well enter the canon of great Jewish film moments. But Bravo did grow up Jewish, by way of her nonpracticing mother, and is married to “the most Jewish person ever,” she says, in Gelman, who’s also Lemon’s co-writer. (His family is the basis for the sequence.) She first heard “A Million Matzoh Balls” when she was 19, at the Seder of a friend’s family who knew Friedman and had invited him to come. Friedman never made it, but, she says, “I think we listened to it like 20 times in a row, and by the end I knew a good chunk of the words.”

As soon as she heard “AMMB,” Bravo says, “I was like, This song has to be in a movie. It’s so great and so ridiculous and so lovely.” Her background is in theater (she’s directed eight shorts and Lemon is her first feature film) and, she says, “I always love when I think of theater or early moves and the magical-ness of a musical number or a dance number. And I wanted to have something like that in this movie, and that it would be unexpected.” She and Gelman also both come from families, she says, “that can be abrasive and really harsh, and there can be this sort of explosive fighting, and the next second it’s as if everything is fine. Every family has this kind of moment. So they’re coming off this heated, race-infused fight, and then a sing-along! Because why not? It just felt like a great and perfect end to the Seder.”

Their original plan had been to have Friedman in the movie, but he was on tour and couldn’t make it, which Bravo says is for the best, since it means he wasn’t as aware of how dark and twisted the script is. “It’s off-brand for him for sure, and we were nervous that he would be trepidatious of having it in the film,” she says. “But I think we did a pretty good job of pitching the heart of the piece and how I came to know the song, which is through these people that he kind of knew.”

Shooting the sing-along then brought a whole new host of problems. “Oh my god, that scene was so stressful,” says Gelman, “and really fun. It sort of mirrored for the actors and Janicza and the crew what it was serving for the Lockman family in the movie. There was all this stress and misery going on and it was so hot in there and it was the last thing we shot in the whole movie, so we were all exhausted, but then the joy of the song would lift you. Every time we’d sing it we were somehow able to forget all of that. And it’s just so Jewish! It’s like, ‘None of that horrible stuff happened! We’re singing now!’ Which of course gives the promise of repeats in the future, of misery. It’s just a temporary break from the strife.”

Though Melamed is sitting at the piano, that’s the film’s composer Heather Christian playing. She was also off-camera conducting the cast as they sang. Perlman and Melamed, Paymer, and Starr and Appleby all got moments in the spotlight. “They were really worried,” says Bravo. “They thought something would be done to make their voices sound better and I was like, ‘No. It’s great. It should be real. If one person is a good singer, that’s fine, but it should mostly be a little bit bad.’ And it is!”

Having kids around definitely helped. “I felt like the rest of the cast had to show up with a kind of enthusiasm, because the three children were so happy,” says Bravo. And, of course, there’s that amazing sequence where Appleby starts dramatically flipping her hair in her solo. “Shiri has the best hair,” says Bravo. “She should shoot a Pantene Pro-V commercial or something; It reminds me of Ali MacGraw hair. Just so luscious and brown and thick.”

But the dance moves were all Appleby’s idea. “We get downstairs,” says Gelman, “and she’s like, ‘J, what do you think if I flip my hair like I’m at a Phish show or like I’m Cher?’ And Janicza’s like, ‘I love it, but you’re not at a Phish show. There’s no Phish show in my work. You are Cher.’ It was very funny. And then you see, if the movie had a GIF, it would be Shiri dancing to the matzoh-ball song.”

Tags:

Watch Lemon’s ‘A Million Matzoh Balls’ Sing-along