True story. About a decade ago, a Jewish businessman — Siberian born, but Brooklyn raised — ran into Mel Brooks at the Joe Allen restaurant in Manhattan’s Theater District. “Vos macht a yid?” the man asked Brooks in Yiddish. “How’s it going?” Taking on a Yiddish intonation, Brooks replied. “Shhh …” he said. “I’m not such a Jew!”
Maybe Brooks was protesting too much.
After all, Yiddish was the first language of both men, and in June, a Montreal theater is taking Brooks’s anti-fascist satire, “The Producers,” back to his roots by reviving it — in Yiddish.
The musical, which is set in New York in 1959, follows money-hungry conmen Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom as they try to get rich by designing a show to be a flop and then taking off with the insurance share sales. Things do not go as planned, however, and their show turns out to be a hit.
“S’iz Max Bialystok’s nayste show, mir zogn aykh a groys ‘HELLO,’” the cast sings in the song “Opening Night,” or “Di Ershte Nakht.” (It’s Max Bialystock’s latest show! Will it flop or will it go?”)
The Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre, Canada’s oldest Yiddish-language theater, is putting on the popular comedy from June 19 to July 10 at Montreal’s Segal Centre for Performing Arts. Montreal, which historically had one of the largest Jewish communities in Canada, remains one of North America’s hubs for Yiddish language and culture.
Put together by the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre, Côte Saint-Luc Dramatic Society and well-known director Anisa Cameron, “The Producers: A New Mel Brooks Musical” will have a cast of 40 people and feature Canadian actors such as Sam Stein, Mikey Samra and Alisha Ruiss onstage.
A native Yiddish speaker, Stein, 65, has played Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” in both Yiddish and English. But the character of Bialystok was an exciting challenge, Stein said, both because the role is physically demanding and because the character is so slimy.
“Afterwards I sat back and said, ‘What have I just gotten myself into?’” Stein said.
Cameron said that the cast includes both native Yiddish speakers and people who took Yiddish lessons and tutorials for the show. While she has originally been apprehensive about directing a play in a different language, she said that the learning curve for both her and the actors has been hilarious.
“We laugh until we cry in rehearsal,” Cameron said.
Based on Brooks’s 1968 film of the same name, the musical broke theater records when it won 12 Tony Awards in all the categories for which it was nominated during its six-year Broadway run. The original plot, put together by Mel Brooks and the well-known theater writer Thomas Meehan, ran for 2,502 shows.
“If anything, it’s funnier in Yiddish,” Stein said, because much of Brooks’s comedy draws on his own Jewish culture.
Translated by Miriam Hoffman, Raizel Candib and Aron Gonshor, the musical will also be accessible to the general audience through English and French subtitles.
Musical director Nick Burgess and choreographer Jonathan Patterson will collaborate to re-create Brooks’d songs with new choreography. The show will feature musical hits such as “I Wanna Be a Producer,” “That Face” and “Opening Night,” although some of the songs, including “Springtime for Hitler,” will remain in English.
Three months of rehearsals have brought the cast together, but Stein said he can’t wait to be onstage, performing in front of an audience. Life imitates art, he said cheekily.
“You can hire the best people around and put together a show and it will be a flop, or in the case of this production, you hire the worst people you can find, hoping for a failure, and it succeeds,” he said.
But of course, the audience will have the final say:
Tsi vet di show takeh nemen oys,
Der oylem geyt itzt aroys!
Men efnt tirn, men geyt aroys …
Iz hert nor vos men zogt oys!
The cast is taking its final bow
Here comes the audience now
The doors are open, they’re on their way
Let’s hear what they have to say
Contact Veronika Bondarenko at email@example.com or on Twitter, @veronikabond.