Skip To Content

Support the Forward

Funded by readers like you DonateSubscribe

‘Les Miz,’ the All-Female, All-Jewish Version

I’m not a theater buff. “West Side Story” is the only musical with which I have more than passing familiarity. So when a friend sent me an email invitation to see her perform in a community theater production of “Les Miserables,” I nearly passed it over. But upon further inspection, I realized this was no ordinary production. This cast was comprised of Jewish women. Men, in fact, were not allowed — not on stage, and not in the audience. This rendering of Les Miz was the fifth annual production of the Los Angeles-based Jewish Women’s Repertory Company. Three performances at a 400-seat venue scheduled for December 1 and 2 were nearly sold out.

I decided to check out the dress rehearsal. Driving there, I passed a giant billboard for what appeared to be a forthcoming film version of “Les Miserables” starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway. Though I’m clueless, you probably already knew about the movie; it turns out that many Jewish women tend to nurture a particular fondness for this musical. So, too, the more observant ones for whom this all-women production serves as the only outlet for secular performance. At least one-third of the company adheres to the observance of Kol Isha, a modesty law that prohibits men from hearing women’s singing voices.

“When I started the group, I did it mostly for women [who adhere to Kol Isha] and to some extent I still do,” says director Margy Horowitz. “But now it’s half for that and half because we just love the camaraderie of it.” Though some of the women won’t sing when the janitorial staff passes through the rehearsal space, the group did get approval from a rabbi to work with male technical crews to put on the show.

Many of the cast members heard “Les Miserables” as teenagers, and perhaps cultivated a taste for musical theater at all-girls Jewish summer camps or day schools. But most of the performers joined up not because they can’t imagine performing for men, but because there are so few (if any) opportunities for women to sing those choice male-role show tunes from the stage.

When I got to the theater and saw my friend Rona on stage playing the role of intellectual revolutionary heartthrob Marius — a wig, mutton chops and extra eyebrows went a surprisingly long way towards turning her into a dashing and charismatic lead — I remembered that this was not, in fact, the first time I’d seen a Jewish woman play a man.

There’s a fairly rich tradition of female-to-male cross-dressing in Jewish entertainment. Though in the two most famous instances, that cross-dressing is actually part of the plot: Barbra Streisand in 1983’s “Yentl” (based on the Isaac Bashevis Singer short story), and Molly Picon in the 1936 Yiddish-language film “Yidl Mitn Fidl.” Of course, men have been playing women on stage since the dawn of theater (most notably Shakespeare’s plays in the Elizabethan era). But I have a sneaking suspicion that this also occurred with some frequency in pre-war Europe in the form of Purim spiels.

The human mind has a great capacity for suspending disbelief. At least, mine does. Far more noticeable than the femaleness of the male characters were the flesh-colored long sleeves under slightly revealing dresses and non-costume wigs (sheitels) worn by some of the female characters. But even these distractions fell away as the three months of rehearsals and countless at-home practice hours paid off on stage. These women demonstrated a wide gamut of vocal ranges that further aided the believability of their roles, and there’s no doubt each of them relished every moment, even if they can’t share their live performances with their husbands, fathers and brothers.





    Hybrid: Online and at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan

    Oct 2, 2022

    6:30 pm ET · 

    A Sukkah, IMKHA, created by artist Tobi Kahn, for the Marlene Meyerson JCC of Manhattan is an installation consisting of 13 interrelated sculpted painted wooden panels, constituting a single work of art. Join for a panel discussion with Rabbi Joanna Samuels, Chief Executive Director of the Marlene Meyerson JCC of Manhattan, Talya Zax, Innovation Editor of the Forward, and Tobi Kahn, Artist. Moderated by Mattie Kahn.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.