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Jo’burg Jewish boy makes it big on Broadway

  • TaliOffBroadwayAward
It is not often that a Jo’burg Jewish boy packs up his life to move to New York in pursuit of a dream, and wins a top music award in the Big Apple. This is the story of Greg Borowsky, who recently won the Off Broadway Alliance Award for Best Family Show in New York.
by TALI FEINBERG | Jul 12, 2018

Borowsky and his team won the award for the musical Polkadots, a show for children about embracing difference and standing up against injustice.

Standing on that stage was “pretty surreal”, Borowsky says. “It’s an incredible honour. We wrote the show in the hope of combating bullying and racism, so the reward for us is really just to have the show performed around the world, to spread the message and have an impact on those who see it. Winning the OBA is the cherry on top.”

Borowsky relates his journey to this point. “I grew up in Johannesburg, went to King David Victory Park, performed in the school shows every year, and had piano lessons with my favourite honorary bobba in Houghton, Bernicia Livingstone,” recalls Borowsky. After school, he studied to be a chartered accountant, but two weeks after passing his final board exam, he signed his first record deal with David Gresham and decided accounting and auditing were not for him.

“After jumping out of my tie at banks, and into my slippers at recording studios, I soon realised I wasn’t making a lot of money as a songwriter and producer, and I was given the opportunity to start a cellular business with some friends while pursuing music on the side, until eventually, I signed with Sony/ATV as a songwriter.”

In 2013, he visited New York and met the Sony/ATV New York office with a view to moving there. “On my flight back, I sat next to an 85-year-old man from Chicago named Jerry Jaffe. After telling him I was hoping to move to New York to pursue a career in music, he told me two things that would change my life. First he said ‘I’ll tell ya kid, I’ve lived in 17 countries around the world, and if it ain’t happening in New York, it ain’t happening’. Secondly, he said, ‘If you never go, you’ll never know’. With that, I packed up my life, and returned to New York a year later on a one way ticket with two suitcases and absolutely no idea what was next.”

He started working on his album the Greg Dean Project and within six months, “met two actors who asked me to write a family musical called Polkadots with them. A year later, we recorded an all-star album with Sony Masterworks Broadway, and a year after that, we were opening Off Broadway. It all happened so fast and feels like a blur. I didn’t have the technical knowledge like all the other Berkeley or Juilliard kids, but I had some experience in working with a multitude of different artists from pop to RnB to jazz to hip hop, so I just wrote what I knew. Luckily, it turned out to be the sound the other writers were looking for”.

Looking back, moving to New York to pursue a career in music, “seems riskier in hindsight. While most of my friends were getting married, having kids and moving into beautiful homes in Sandton, I came to New York and moved into a tiny apartment with the shower and the fridge arms-length apart. I quickly realised that everyone in New York is incredibly talented, ambitious, and hungry. The level of competition is so high, but I just tried to meet as many people as possible, and learn as much as I could, until the opportunity presented itself to me and I grabbed it. Everyone comes to New York with their own dream, but I think the turning point for me was saying yes to someone else’s dream. Polkadots wasn’t my dream when I arrived, but I took the advice to open myself up to whatever opportunities New York presented. It became my dream soon enough.”

Borowsky explains that Polkadots is inspired by the story of Ruby Bridges and The Little Rock Nine students, who were the first African-American kids to be integrated into an all-white school in America.

“It’s about the hardships they encountered and had to overcome in order to make history. As a South African growing up during the transition from apartheid to democracy, the parallels struck me. I knew it was an important story to tell. We’re certainly living in one of the most divisive times in America and the world, and the more children, parents, and teachers we can reach with this story, the more we can remind them never to forget, and never to repeat.”

The reactions to the musical have been “mostly tears”, Borowsky says. “We’ve been blown away by the responses from all ages – the kids, teachers, parents and grandparents, mostly thanking us for telling this story, and for spreading a message of love, tolerance, and acceptance. We’ve even seen a college football player break down, as it struck an all-too-familiar chord of being bullied as a child.

“One of the highlights for me is the talk backs we’ve had with audiences after the shows around the country, hearing the impact the piece has had on them. There’s nothing more inspiring than seeing a child condemn notions of hatred, racism and bullying.”

Borowsky says he would not have been able to move to New York to chase his dream if he hadn’t grown up with the tools and support of the South African Jewish community. “It really is a unique and beautiful thing you don’t see all over the world. The values and confidence instilled by our close-knit community certainly gave me a practical platform from which to dream. I may not have received the same technical training as other musicians arriving in New York, but growing up in the South African Jewish community gave me a Masters in chutzpah, and that you can’t get at Juilliard or Berkeley!”

His advice to anyone wanting to follow the same path is, “If your family and friends are anything like mine, you’ll have enough love and support to follow your calling. Don’t be afraid to take a chance and fail. If you never go, you’ll never know...”

Borowsky is grateful for the love and support he has received from the community back home and the South African Jewish community around the world. “I love telling people about all the little customs that are unique to the South African Jewish culture, and hope to keep representing [the community] proudly. Also, if anyone is coming to New York anytime soon, please bring me a sloppy joe with Big Korn Bites from the KDVP tuck shop. You can take the kid out of King David, but...”

  • Polkadots makes its premier in Johannesburg at Redhill’s Redfest, from 28 September to 6 October.

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