By Myra Chanin
You wouldn’t believe what’s going on at the going-on-101-years-young National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene! Partnering with the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park has given them a permanent home for the first time in 40 years! Not just a home, but a HOME! with a view of every immigrant’s favorite sight for sore eyes. The Statue of Liberty!
With God’s help (and contributions from supportive foundations and individual enthusiasts) NYTF is still alive and singing in a language people declared was as dead as Latin! Their current production, The Golden Bride, in Yiddish with English and Russian subtitles, looks like a tri-lingual hit. Why? Why not? It’s gotten non-stop glowing notices on theatrical websites, and, best of all, a rave review and a starred listing in the Friday Arts section of the New York Times from critic Laura Collins-Hughes! None of her three names sounds Jewish, but her appreciation of recent Yiddish productions — The Golden Bride and Death of a Salesman – suggests that some of her DNA travelled to Ellis Island in steerage.
The story behind NYTF’s current production is spooky. A 1923 hit followed by an international tour, The Golden Bride was revived in 1948 and then forgotten, despite a melodious score by “The Jewish Victor Herbert,” Joseph Rumshinsky. As for Frieda Freiman’s charming libretto, she had to give her husband credit for the work to get it published! Oy vey! Did Rumshinsky have any influence on Broadway’s Jewish tunesmiths? Hard to say, but in his autobiography, he mentions hearing one of his tunes played by a neighbor’s son through an open window. The kid’s name? George Gershwin, who frequented the local Yiddish theaters with his older brother Ira.
In 1984 after 36 years of oblivion, Harvard Music Librarian, Michael Ochs, stumbled on a substantial but incomplete manuscript of The Golden Bride’s vocal score in the library stacks and was stunned to learn that Rumshinsky had composed 100 operettas. Before Ochs returned the original manuscript, he made a copy for himself and kept it in mind. In 2002 when he retired as Music Editor at W.W. Morton, he sent a proposal to the American Musicological Association about translating the libretto into English for publication. Their enthusiastic response led him to YIVO, New York’s Institute for Jewish Research, where he found a typescript of the dialogue and lyrics in the papers donated by Freiman’s grandchildren, David and Lisa Roth. YIVO’s musical archivist and Yiddish music Doyenne, the late Chana Mlotek, told her son Zalman Mlotek, Artistic Director of the NYTF to call Ochs. It was a match made in heaven.
Mlotek was only familiar with the show’s hit song, “Mayn Goldele” but nothing else and joined in the research. They found scraps and bits at Harvard, YIVO and surprisingly at UCLA where the original orchestrations had been donated by Rumshinsky’s children, Murray Rumshinsky and Betty Rumshinsky Fox.
Ochs compiled and edited the full score, Mlotek unveiled it in 2014 at a NYTF concert with piano accompaniment followed by full orchestral performance at Rutgers in August 2015. Both Ochs and Mlotek understood the charm of the operetta as well as the contemporary appeal of its universal themes – seeking a better life in an unknown country and pursuing and making your dreams come true.
The plot is typical Yiddish soap opera, circa 1930-1940, broadcast every Sunday on ethnic radio stations. Goldele, a beautiful orphan girl… raised in poverty…unexpectedly inherits a fortune…from the father she never knew…and leaves for America to claim her fortune…with proposals from three no-goodnicks and Misha, the medical student who’s loved her since childhood…and vice versa…. promising to marry whoever reunites her with the mother…who vanished when she was an infant. Spoiler alert! Guess which one returns with the true Mama. They marry and live happily at least until the curtain falls.
One great joy of this production is the exuberant 14-piece orchestra under the jubilant baton of Zalman Mlotek filling the theater with melodies that had 1923 audiences dancing in the aisles. Equally enthralling were the glorious operatically trained voices of Rachel Policar as Goldele and Paul Muni-lookalike Cameron Johnson as Misha, who despite their unfamiliarity with Yiddish, in three weeks spoke and sung the language as if they’d grown up in Berdychiv. Adorable in comic roles were Jillian Gottlieb as would be actress Khanele and Glenn Steven Allen’s Jerome, her vaudevillian boyfriend. Adam B. Shapiro as Kalman, the busy matchmaking male yenta. was irresistibly resplendent in a three-piece suit made of red and white fabric that looked like it had been snatched from a Little Italy restaurant tabletop.
Well-deserved praise also to Izzy Fields’ handsome costumes, John Dinning’s stetl-to-mansion convertible set along with three cheers for the entire energetic and talented cast. And last but hardly least, heartfelt well-deserved gratitude to co-directors Bryna Wasserman (NYTF Executor Director) and Motl Didner (BYTF Associate Artistic Director} for transforming an old-fashioned operetta into a modern masterpiece.
The Golden Bride is a perfect holiday gift. You don’t have to be Jewish to love it. You just have to enjoy melody and charm.
Photos: Ben Moody
Until January 3, 2016
Museum of Jewish Heritage
26 Battery Place, NY 10280