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Conducting Crowds to the Beat of His Grandparents

Michael Tilson Thomas’s grandmom had trunks in her basement. A lot of our grandmothers had stuff stacked away. But our grandmoms were not Bessie Thomashefsky.

“When I used to go visit my grandmother at her apartment in Hollywood, she had trunks in her basement and that was a special treat,” said Tilson Thomas, music director of the San Francisco Symphony and artistic director of Miami Beach’s New World Symphony, which he founded. In her basement, his grandmother “would open up these trunks, and inside them there were various costumes and scripts and photos and all these things that had been part of her life.”

Tilson Thomas, who recently opened the nation’s newest concert hall, in Miami Beach, is a major figure in the arts. So were his grandparents in their superstar time, the late 1800s and first decades of the past century. When his grandmother shared the contents of those trunks, young Michael was privy not only to his grandmother’s belongings; he was also seeing the lifeblood of the Yiddish theater in its golden age. Thomashefsky and her husband, Boris — Tilson Thomas’s grandfather — were among its most blazing stars.

Tilson Thomas was born after his grandfather died, and was 17 when Bessie passed on, in 1962. Almost 13 years ago, he began The Thomashefsky Project with a small collection of Yiddish theater artifacts he inherited, a project that researches, catalogs, translates and preserves material about his grandparents in collections at libraries, universities and institutes across America and in Israel. From these efforts, “The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater” evolved, a touring multimedia tribute with a cast that delivers songs and sketches. The tribute includes some of the nation’s major orchestras, conducted by Tilson Thomas, who gamely narrates the evening.

On April 5 and 6, Tilson Thomas will conduct the New York Philharmonic in the show, at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall. The second night’s performance is also the centerpiece of the annual gala for the National Yiddish Theatre — Folksbiene, centered in New York. The Folksbiene has operated since 1915, when more than a dozen Yiddish theater companies performed regularly in New York alone, and is the sole remaining producer from that era carrying the torch for Yiddish theater.

Tilson Thomas first brought “The Thomashefskys” to New York six years ago, and the production has evolved since then. “A lot of this show is as it is because I heard Bessie and I heard her friends, various people from the Yiddish theater who are still around — and I heard these numbers done by them in my family’s living room. So when I started reconstructing, I started with the songs I know the best because I remember how the routine of the number went. I remember where there was improvisation and where there wasn’t. In the music from which the musicians were playing, very often it just said ‘makh [make] a business here.’ There was kind of a road map basically as to what the routine of the number would be.”

In fact, says Linda Steinberg, executive director of The Thomashefsky Project and also education director at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, when researchers began looking for material, they would find music for different instruments scattered around the country — for a single piece. Most of the material was in boxes of collections in libraries and museums, “and they didn’t know what they had. No one had opened the boxes for a hundred years,” Tilson Thomas said. Steinberg sent teams of translators to work on the material: thousands of pages that include scripts and articles by and about the Thomashefskys.

In “The Thomashefskys,” which Tilson Thomas and the cast recently performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra while he was conducting concerts in Philadelphia in February, the story of Yiddish theater comes alive — not just the singing and dancing, but also the rich social context. Onstage and in real life, before they were divorced, his grandparents both performed at and owned one of New York’s most prominent theaters together, producing plays in a flash to respond to current events and how they affected the new American Jewish population. Bessie, who became a smart entrepreneur, went on to run her own theater. And Jews, especially those relatively new to America, applauded her onstage and in print. Even her beauty tips were important to women who wanted to emulate her and to be comfortable in what would become American Jewish culture.

Boris Thomashefsky went on to write and produce countless Yiddish plays in his own theater, and was an especially prolific songwriter. He’d been instrumental in staging the first Yiddish theater in the United States and, like his wife, lived to outgrow its heyday. But when he died, in 1939, his work and reputation still resonated: More than 30,000 people crowded Second Avenue on New York City’s Lower East Side to mourn him.

In his show, Tilson Thomas addresses two distinct types of Yiddish theater from the early part of the past century: serious translations of classical work as represented by the famous actor Jacob P. Adler, and the popular side, derogatorily called shund, Yiddish for “trash.” Although the Thomashefskys created and presented both — and Adler and Boris Thomashefsky were friends in life, rivals in the newspapers — they knew that popular theater not only electrified the box office, but also helped familiarize people with American culture. Many of the young people who worked with them, like the Gershwins, Sophie Tucker, Irving Berlin and Edward G. Robinson, eventually moved uptown to the new English-speaking theaters that became Broadway.

The Thomashefskys created “strings of hit shows,” Tilson Thomas said. “The shows had jokes and wisecracks, and they also had a lot of songs, so they were entertaining. But what they were about was very often some specific social issue. There was a social consciousness that was saying, ‘You, audience, you look at this scene being played out, and you tell us what you think was right.’” This blend of entertainment and issues, Tilson Thomas says, evolved into American musical theater. “You wouldn’t have shows like ‘Showboat,’ ‘Porgy and Bess’ and ‘West Side Story’; you wouldn’t have a show like “South Pacific” — the idea of an entertaining show that treats serious social issues. That’s something that absolutely comes from the Yiddish theater.” And, by extension, from those trunks.

Howard Shapiro is a Philadelphia Inquirer theater critic who also writes about travel.


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