Cabaret Comes Back to Life


By Ben Levisohn

Published February 03, 2006, issue of February 03, 2006.
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As the 19th century drew to a close, the Jews of Eastern Europe were on the move. Fleeing oppression and searching for economic opportunity, thousands made their way to the United States in a great wave of immigration. But many others headed to Vienna, the heart of the Hapsburg Empire. They brought with them their language, songs and stories and soon these Oestjuden, as they were known, were performing on the stages of this vibrant, multicultural city. Jewish cabaret was born.

This month, audiences can hear a selection of songs from the Jewish cabarets when the New Budapest Orpheum Society performs in New York on February 10 at Symphony Space. The group puts a contemporary spin on the music, with a repertoire that includes everything from Zionist anthems composed by the likes of Milhaud, Weill and Copland to forgotten broadsides aimed at Austria’s new Jewish arrivals.

Vienna offered a choice between the Prater, renowned for its modern entertainment, and Leopoldstadt, the city’s Jewish ghetto. The Oestjuden felt the opposing pull of the shtetl tradition that they had left behind and the modernity of the metropolis, and the Jewish cabarets catered to their uncertain circumstances by presenting performances that included references to Halacha, Jewish stereotypes and communities in the East. But in order to thrive, the Jewish troupes had to play to both co-religionists and general audiences alike, and they modified their shows accordingly. Yiddish tunes were refashioned for the Viennese, and European songs recast for Jewish spectators. Composer Gustav Pick wrote one such tune, “The Viennese Coachman’s Song,” with an Austrian audience in mind. After the ballad’s initial success, the Jewish cabarets transformed it into “The Jewish Coachman’s Song,” with Yiddish terminology replacing German mythology and a scion of the Rothschild banking family standing in for Count Lazeman, chief justice of the provincial courts. After Hitler’s rise to power, the song metamorphosed once more, becoming the politically charged “‘Haman’ Coachman’s Song,” with lyrics that compare Hitler to the villain of the Purim story.

As the popularity of the cabarets grew, Jewish composers flocked to the theaters to ply their trade. Hans Eisler studied classical composition with Anton Webern, but gave it up to pen political protest songs with Bertolt Brecht. Before abandoning Germany for Hollywood, Friedrich Hollander gained fame as a composer of cabaret tunes that satirized Hitler and the Nazis; in the United States, he scored such films as the Humphrey Bogart vehicle “Sabrina” and Billy Wilder’s controversial “A Foreign Affair.” Even Arnold Schoenberg, the father of 12-tone composition, had a brief career in the cabarets, writing music for the Uberbrettl, a theater in Berlin.

But to become a fin-de-siecle sensation, cabaret needed to be more than just a rowdy concert experience. It featured tightrope acts, comic sketches, shadow-puppet shows, chicken dances and popular songs all mingled together on an intimate stage. Operettas were performed alongside bawdy satirical skits, and familiar melodies were purloined in the service of newer, topical lyrics. What could have been a hodgepodge of conflicting performances were thematically linked with flash and decadent style. By the time of the Holocaust, cabaret had become such an essential part of Jewish life that performances continued even in Terezin, where two Czech- and seven German-language troupes added a small dose of levity to the travails of camp life.

Many of the broadsides, cheap reproductions of song lyrics sold for pennies on the street, were rediscovered through the efforts of Philip Bohlman, the New Budapest Orpheum Society’s artistic director. Bohlman is also the Mary Werkman professor of the humanities and of music, and chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Chicago.

“The broadsides were ephemeral by nature and were meant to be consumed and then discarded,” Bohlman said in an interview with the Forward. He regularly searches the archives of Vienna, Budapest and Berlin and often finds copies among the censor’s files, since many poked fun at the government and its policies. One such broadside, “the Jewish Country Regiment,” which appears on the group’s CD “Dancing on the Edge of the Volcano,” protests the conscription of Jews by the Hapsburg army with humorous lyrics like, “Who will make the market soar/If all the Jews are away making war.”

Many broadsides contain little more than new words for once popular melodies now shrouded by time. When Bohlman finds one, he hands it over to the group’s music director, Ilya Levinson, who is a lecturer in music at the University of Chicago and at Columbia College. Levinson creates an arrangement for the music, using the gathered evidence to reconstruct the tune before the entire band — three singers, bassist, percussionist and violinist, with Levinson on the piano — hashes out the final form.

Although the New Budapest Orpheum Society may not match the decadence and mania of the original cabarets, “we do unusual stuff that’s fun for the entire audience,” Bohlmam explained. Live, he assumes the role of “the Professor,” “a classic cabaret character who gives erudite lectures while also being something of a buffoon.” His entertaining spiels set the scene for the band’s inspired performances, bringing the lost world of Jewish cabaret back to life — if only for one night.

Benjamin Levisohn is a freelance writer and stock trader in New York.

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