To say that Sholom Secunda's family did not have high hopes for him would be, well, kind. According to a biography by Victoria Secunda, Sholom Secunda's family's nickname for him when he was young was "Lemeshke" (loser). His mother recalled him sitting listless most of the time, evincing little interest in anything. (Hard to imagine why, with your family members calling you "loser" all the time.) When his father dropped him off for his first day at chedar in the Kherson region of the Ukraine (his birthplace), he reportedly told the rabbi that Sholom was "no good for anything." It calls to mind the title of the production that spawned Secunda's biggest hit, Bay mir bistu sheyn: One Could Really Live, but They Won't Let You, also known as I Would If I Could. Bay mir bistu sheyn is no doubt the most famous (and infamous) song ever to emerge from the ranks of the American Yiddish theater, but it did comparatively little for either Secunda or its lyricist, Jacob Jacobs. (More on Bay mir below.)
According to the family lore, the day Sholom Secunda first attended chedar was the last day he was ever called lemeshke. For it was on this day that Sholom discovered his love and talent for the music of prayer and wowed his family with his musical ability. In short order, Sholom would become one of the region's most talented synagogue choir singers and child cantors. Far from being the family's problem child, Sholom became in many respects its savior and pride-and-joy. The money he earned from singing engagements helped put food on the table. His stature garnered respect for the family name. And when the family wanted to emigrate from an increasingly hostile Tsarist Russia to the gold-paved streets of New York, it was Sholom who made it possible. Sholom's father and oldest brother had moved to New York previously but could not save enough money to bring the rest of the family. Thus, the family's boat tickets to New York were purchased by an artist manager who agreed to pay for the voyage and later recoup his expenses from Sholom's earnings. He began advertising Sholom right away.
Sholom's success in America came quickly. His manager, eager to recoup his investment, helped him engage cantorial performances and promoted them to great success. His father and brothers were successful in their bed-making business, but Sholom was the family breadwinner. Yet he understood that his days as a boy cantor were limited and started working on a back-up plan. He studied piano, attended school, then college. He supported himself through college by singing in Second Avenue choirs, and the relationships he formed then would later open opportunities to write songs for some of Second Avenue's biggest stars. No musical hack, Secunda was accepted to the Institute for Musical Art, which we now know as The Juilliard School.
Secunda's experience and range of musical ability is reflected in his vast musical output. In addition to the hundreds of songs he wrote, arranged, and orchestrated for the Yiddish theater, he remained committed to the traditional liturgical Jewish music of his upbringing as well as the classical orientation of his education. A few examples follow.
Given his experience as a boy cantorial chorister and soloist, it is not surprising that Secunda developed a pronounced ability to compose for the cantorial voice. His setting of Yiru eineinu (May Our Eyes See) stands as a shining example of classic Eastern European hazzanut. It is sung here by one of the world's premier exponents of that tradition, Cantor Benzion Miller.
Just as religious themes were often part of Second Avenue productions, there was also a certain amount of musical "seepage" that ran from stage to synagogue—as was the case with a production titled In the Name of God, for which Secunda wrote Dos yidishe lid (The Jewish Song). From Milken Archive artistic director Neil W. Levin's liner notes:
Ever since Dos yidishe lid (The Jewish Song) was made famous in the mid-1920s with its premiere recording by the world-renowned cantor Mordecai Hershman, it has been perceived as an independent, quasi-cantorial Yiddish concert number. In fact, Dos yidishe lid began its life as a showstopping rendition written expressly for a newly expanded 1924 production of Sholom Secunda’s full-fledged musical melodrama In nomen fun got (In the Name of God)—with lyrics by Anshel Schorr (1891–1942) and a book by Shlome [Solomon] Shtaynberg [Steinberg].
Secunda wrote Dos yidishe lid expressly for Joseph Shayngold, an accomplished singer-actor (and son-in-law of the Yiddish stage idol Jacob P. Adler) who also had the ability to interpret the idioms of virtuoso cantorial art and who had already been engaged to play the part of Yitzḥak. Because Shayngold possessed what Secunda considered one of the “few cultivated voices in the Jewish [Yiddish] Theater,” he decided to compose something that would justly exploit his gifts. At the same time, since the show was scheduled to open just around Rosh Hashana, he aimed at something that would represent Judaic religious culture while resonating equally “with those who attend synagogues and those who don’t.” What emerged was a song that contains, integrated within its descriptive Yiddish “lied” framework, three of the most familiar Hebrew prayers and cantorial harbingers of the upcoming holy days: hinn’ni he’ani mimma’as, the cantor’s plea on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur for worthiness to intone the liturgy on the congregation’s behalf; kol nidrei, the recitation on the eve of Yom Kippur of an ancient legal formula absolving Jews from vows they are unable to keep; and sisu v’sim’ḥu, a traditionally lively expression in the liturgy for Simhat Torah.
But if there's one place that the theater and the synagogue flowed into one another it was the Catskills mountains north of New York City, where Secunda served as musical director at the most prominent resort—the Concord Hotel—for 28 years. Catskills events featured high-profile figures and, as Neil Levin points out, “catered to a clientele hungry for bits of cantorial, liturgical, and even Second Avenue Yiddish theatrical nostalgia.” At the Concord, Secunda conducted an orchestra and chorus for Passover and the High Holy Days, as well as for weekly concerts during the summer months, in the hotel's Cordillion Room, which seated 4,000 and accommodated a 65-piece orchestra.
So popular and successful were events at the Concord that Secunda was able to secure the participation of the singer he'd helped make the transition from cantor to opera singer—Richard Tucker—who would become one of the 20th century's greatest tenors. Their collaboration produced the Passover Seder Festival, which was performed at the Concord annually with Tucker as cantor through 1961, when he demanded more money than the management was willing to pay.
The convergence of the theatrical and the liturgical is present throughout the service, but is particularly apparent in the setting of B'tzet yisra'el—When Israel went forth from Egypt.
And what of Bay mir bistu sheyn? There's some question as to how exactly it came to be (the Secunda and Jacobs families each have their own version of the same basic story, as related by Jacobs's granddaughter in an oral history session) and the singer who made it famous, Aaron Lebedeff, reportedly had to be strong-armed into performing it as it was written. According to Victoria Secunda's research, the song received a standing ovation and three encores on opening night.
One could probably write an entire book about the song, and if there was ever a time Secunda's family might have wanted to revive his childhood nickname it was probably after an English-language version of the song in a heavy swing arrangement took the world by storm. That's because after the initial run of the show I Would If I Could, Secunda and Jacobs sold the rights to the song to a publisher for $30—comparable to about $500 in today's money. Which is not bad, considering that most show numbers didn't enjoy much life beyond their productions except as sheet music. Selling off rights after the initial production ended was not uncommon—and neither Secunda nor Jacobs could have foreseen that some other arranger and lyricist could add a little swing and English words to it and, with the help of the Andrews Sisters, turn it into a world-wide smash hit (the song also launched their very successful career). The video below is from the Milken Archive's recording of the original version of the song for the Yiddish Theater.
But that's what happened, and, unfortunately, Secunda was unable to capitalize much on the song's success. He was able to work out a reasonably fair agreement with the publisher he sold the rights to, so he at least got a decent share of the money it generated. But he tried, unsuccessfully, to use the song's success as a springboard to get more work outside of the Yiddish theater. Offers to write more songs went unanswered. A brief trip to Los Angeles landed him in meeting after meeting with film studio music directors telling him his music sounded too Jewish to be used in Hollywood.
This excerpt from Secunda's String Quartet in C minor, performed here by the Bochman Quartet, illustrates how the composer often used Jewish folk and liturgical motifs in classical forms.
True, Secunda's life had its share of twists and turns, but there was a trajectory that ran through its seemingly winding path that was marked by an ardent commitment to his craft, his family, his community, and his roots that superseded any aspirations he may have had toward fame or fortune. If you looked at his resume it would be hard not to be impressed.
Not too bad for a loser.
About Summer Stock: For many in the theater business, summer means work. From Shakespeare in the Park to opera under the stars, summer stock theater companies lure committed patrons and newbies alike through the enticement of fresh air, picnic dinners, and the possibility of getting caught in the rain. In recognition of the summer theater season, over the course of June and July the Milken Archive will highlight songs, performers, and composers from the heyday of the American Yiddish theater. Our summer stock will only be happening online—but if you want to enjoy it in the park or under the stars, grab a mobile device and your headphones and head outside!