Category: Shlemiel the First (4)
As you may already know, dear readers, Insite is always here to answer your most difficult questions. So consider it no sweat off our brow when we say that we’ve got some juicy goodies just for you. Yes sir or madam, we’ve pulled dramaturgical insights, for Insite! And it was no small feat. Specifically, dramaturgical materials for our recent, barn-stormin’ production of Shlemiel the First.
Aren’t you excited? I know, I know, admit it, you can’t wait.
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What happens when a cast aims for your funny bone, takes up a tale teasing the preservation instinct’s strange ways, and does onstage gender changes—er, costume changes—to a brash klezmer score? Shlemiel the First, if you can get to the Kasser Theater by January 24 for this rambunctious revival by Peak Performances and the National Yiddish Theatre–Folksbiene.
Shlemiel sports an evening’s worth of pleasures and a lively raft of theatrical wiles. The brainchild of Robert Brustein, the theater Hall-of-Famer who founded Yale Rep and American Repertory Theater, the piece has an astonishing pedigree: adaptation by Brustein from a play by Isaac Bashevis Singer; music by Hankus Netsky, who’s done klezmer with Itzhak Perlman and runs the New England Conservatory’s improv department; lyrics by Arnold Weinstein, librettist for operas including William Bolcom’s A View from the Bridge; and music direction by Zalmen Mlotek, Folksbiene’s artistic director. And with director/choreographer David Gordon at the helm, Shlemiel brims with chutzpah and every other effusive tagline in the book.
While creating this show @ American Repertory Theater years ago, I never thought of it as a “Jewish musical comedy.” I wouldn’t have known (and still don’t know) how to create such an event. It is a play about a middle-aged couple (Shlemiel & Tryna Ritza) w/two children who have fallen into habit and out of love years ago and are playing out the alternating irritation and ennui of a mismatched alliance with no exit in sight. Then, by a bizarre and very funny miracle, Shlemiel is forced to go on a journey away from Chelm, and through farcical machinations of clever script plotting, he winds up where he started out. Oh no! Oh yes! And because he’s a “shlemiel” he imagines he’s in another town just like his own town and there’s a house like his own house and two kids like his own kids and another Tryna just like his own Tryna— except for one thing: THEY CAN’T KEEP THEIR HANDS OFF EACH OTHER. They re-fall madly, passionately in love and are willing to fight the powers that be, to “get together” and stay together.
Now, admittedly, there is gorgeous Klezmer music, conducted by Zalmen Mlotek, and the brilliant and witty and beautiful lyrics of Arnold Weinstein, and the tilting topsy-turvy set by Robert Israel, and all the foolish sages who transform (in “fat-lady pinafores”)
into their own wives and sing about their own husbands and the musical travel scene with rocks and trees and musicians pulled on cloths, and a wooden chair dance for the Sages and Gronam Ox to “Rumania, Rumania,” and Yenta Pesha does sing about blintzes (and latkes and knishes get mentioned) BUT I WOULDN’T, NO I WOULD NOT, CALL IT A “JEWISH PLAY.”
I would call it a furiously paced postmodern farce with contagious hand-clapping, foot-tapping Klezmer music by Hankus Netsky and Zalmen Mlotek, conceived and adapted by renowned Robert Brustein, from a play by renowned Isaac Bashevis Singer, with the sweetest love-song lyrics and the most hilarious patter-song lyrics by renowned Arnold Weinstein, choreographed, directed, and edited very sincerely by David Gordon.
Shlemiel originated on a cold autumn day in 1993 when my friend Joel Grey invited me to watch him emcee a benefit at the New England Conservatory of Music. Enter a group of Jewish musicians calling themselves the Klezmer Conservatory Band, led by an intense, scholarly ‘luftmensch’ named Hankus Netsky, who thereupon launched into a set of Yiddish numbers that had me literally dancing in my seat. In a state of near ecstasy, I determined to create a Klezmer musical for the American Repertory Theater’s 1994 season in Cambridge.
There was one terrific possibility for the book of the musical—Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Shlemiel the First, which he wrote in the ‘70s for the Yale Repertory Theatre when I was in New Haven. Singer had based the play on some of his children’s stories set in the mythical town of Chelm, about the dumbest men in the world who believe they are the smartest. To me it sounded like Klezmer music in prose form, containing exactly the right brand of goofiness to support such a musical. Hankus came up with a medley of traditional melodies that again had me dancing in the aisles. And when a superb group of collaborators committed to the project, with Hankus providing the music, Zalmen Mlotek the music direction, David Gordon the imaginative stage direction and inspired choreography, Robert Israel the set, and the A.R.T. company the acting, I spent the summer adapting Singer’s script for the musical stage.
Shlemiel still needed a centerpiece, and, by coincidence, in 1950 I had once been employed as an actor for a few weeks in a Yiddish theater on Second Avenue where I nightly watched the great Aaron Lebedev (reputedly a major influence on Danny Kaye) perform his mesmerizing number “Rumania, Rumania.” This would be our show-stopper. I had been looking for a lyricist for the show. Arnold Weinstein, composer William Bolcom’s chief writer, an old friend and collaborator of mine, was an obvious candidate. But he was a highly cultivated Harvard poet with English-Jewish antecedents, and I wasn’t sure his Yiddishkeit was ripe enough to distill all the ethnic juices out of the piece. So I gave him “Rumania, Rumania” as an audition piece, and he (marrying “Rumania” with a hundred other unexpected rhymes—including “I’ll explain ya”), transformed that legendary Yiddish scat song into an unforgettable Jewish-American vaudeville in less than three hours of writing. It became the hit of the show. And the late Arnold Weinstein not only proved the perfect lyricist for Shlemiel the First. He provided a great deal of its heart and its soul.
But that was true of everyone associated with the project. It is not often that a theatrical collaboration brings one so much joy. Shlemiel gave pleasure to all its associates—cast, creative team, musicians, designers, technicians, and audiences—though regrettably not to Singer, who died before the first performance. And its Socratic maxim still seems perfect for our past political decade: namely, that you achieve wisdom only when you know that you’re dumb.