Robert Brustein, artistic director of the American Repertory Theater, is known for cutting edge, often experimental productions, and is not particularly associated with Jewish theater (actually, Peak Performances goes to great lengths to distance itself from the term, “Jewish theater,” so let’s say instead, “theater with Jewish roots”). But speaking by telephone to the Forward from Cambridge, Mass., Brustein explained that he is writing a book called “Entertaining Jews: Putting on the Shpritz,” about “the impact of Jewish culture on the entertainment industry. Out of the Yiddish theater came The Group Theater, many of the people in the Federal Theater Project, Stella Adler, Paul Muni….”
Though not a Yiddish speaker himself, Brustein went once or twice to see the Yiddish Theater growing up and worked in one briefly in the 50s. He remembers being bowled over by Aaron Lebedev’s rendition of the classic Yiddish theater song, “Rumania, Rumania.” Inspired by Isaac Bashevis Singer’s description of how his work should be played “fast” (see review), Brustein thought Singer’s play “Shlemiel the First” was a perfect vehicle for klezmer music. The National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene’s artistic director, Zalmen Mlotek, was involved from the outset. He did the musical arrangements, and also wrote additional music to complement that of Hankus Netsky. Mlotek worked out the musical arrangements “note by note” with director/choreographer David Gordon.
Several songs are based on Yiddish folk and theater songs: the rich man Zalman Tippish’s song “I’m Going to Die” has a Yiddish folk melody. Mrs. Shlemiel’s lament “My One and Only Shlemiel” is based on a folk love song, and the finale’s tune comes from the Yiddish theater. Both Brustein and Mlotek wanted to communicate the joy and the theatricality of klezmer music, but Mlotek credits Gordon with the idea of putting the musicians onstage for some of the show.
Netsky, founder of the Klezmer Conservatory Band and whose teaching of Yiddish culture has won numerous awards, composed the original music. Brustein “auditioned” the poet Arnold Weinstein for lyricist with the “Geography Song.” “I knew his work, but didn’t know how connected Weinstein was to his Jewish roots,” said Brustein. As the show’s program noted, Weinstein’s audacious rhyming of “Rumania” and “I’ll explain ya” convinced him. The “Geography Song,” about where Shlemiel might travel, is performed to the tune of “Rumania, Rumania.” When “Rumania” is mentioned in the song, one of the company says, “Oh no, not Rumania!” — an inside joke for audience members who have heard “Rumania, Rumania” done to death. It’s one of Mlotek’s favorite moments.
Gordon partly conceived of the idea to emphasize the romance between the Shlemiels. He also added the wives of Chelm as characters, and, in his words, “turning the journey of Shlemiel into a major musical/dance event.” Mlotek says that Gordon’s contribution made sure that there was “not an extra word; every syllable has meaning.” The dummy, for example, “adds to the whole zaniness of the experience” as does “seeing the sages turn into their wives and children before your eyes.”
The story has Jewish roots, but, Brustein says, it appeals to non-Jews as well. Like “Brigadoon,” Lerner and Loewe’s show set in Scotland, the setting for “Shlemiel the First” is just a setting. “The more intensely ethnic something is, the more universal it is.”
The Florida tour, following a brief run at Lincoln Center’s Serious Fun Festival in 1994, and productions in Philadelphia and Massachusetts, killed its Broadway hopes. But Mlotek believes the show will continue — it fits perfectly into the mission of Folksbiene, which seeks to preserve and promote Yiddish culture, and its popularity nationwide suggests that its appeal is broad. “Shlemiel the First” is in English, which fits with Folksbiene’s expanded mission to include new works in English that connect to Yiddish culture, such as this past autumn’s piece by Theodore Bikel, “Laughter Through Tears,” about Sholom Aleichem. Doing new work in English invites new audiences in. With its starry creators and Broadway performers, “Shlemiel the First” might just do the trick.
Click here for the Forward’s review of “Shlemiel the First”