Watch Your Step!
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Rumshinsky wrote the song Watch [vatsch] Your Step, with lyrics by Sam Lowenworth, for his 1922 musical comedy Berele Tremp (Berele, the Vagabond Street Boy), based on Israel Rosenberg’s play of the same name. Act I takes place in Odessa, in the Russian-style teahouse of Khayke Zets, the wife of Leybe, a former taxi driver. Young Berele Fradkin, whose wealthy father has gone to America and left him and his mother, Gitel, behind, is in love with their daughter Sonia. (The role of Berele was assigned in the production to a female, Bessie Thomashefsky.) But he and his mother have been forced into street peddling as a result of Meir’s abandonment, and Leybe is opposed to his daughter’s association with such a peddler. Meanwhile, Samuel Himmelstein, Meir’s business partner in America, comes to Odessa with his son Dave, whom he wants to leave in Odessa for a few months for a business venture. He brings Gitel three thousand dollars from Meir, along with the news that Meir has fallen in love with his bookkeeper in America and wants Gitel to accept a get (a bill of divorcement in Jewish law). After the initial shock, she is prepared to agree, but Berele intervenes to prevent his mother from so readily accepting a divorce, and he insists on accompanying Samuel back to America so that he can confront his father about why and how he can leave a wife and son. Samuel consents, remarking that young Berele possesses what is called “spirit” in America. As he departs with Samuel, Berele sings Berele bosjak, a mixed-language song with Russian as well as Yiddish lyrics about leaving “Russia” (viz., the Russian Empire, since Odessa is in the Ukraine, not Russia itself), which was published together with Watch Your Step as a single folio.
By the second act, set in Meir Fradkin’s mansion in New York, it is the day of his engagement to his bookkeeper and “sweetheart,” Flossie, a name from which the common “floozy” is derived. Samuel—obviously sympathetic to Berele and his mother and suspicious of Flossie’s financial motives—has also brought Sonia from Odessa to spy and to gain Flossie’s confidence while posing as a maid. When Berele arrives from the landing station at Ellis Island, he is introduced to his father as Sonia’s brother. At Samuel’s request, Meir hires Berele as a lift operator. Berele also offers to entertain in a skit that night for the engagement party. Meanwhile, obviously unaware of Berele’s identity, Flossie confides to him that she is marrying Meir for his money.
The rest of the characters from Odessa show up and, together, stage a playlet within the play about a husband leaving his ill wife and small child, whom no one is willing to help because it is known that they have a wealthy husband and father in America. By the end of their playlet, Meir has realized the nature and consequences of his behavior toward his family, and he has recognized his own gullibility in believing Flossie’s declarations of love. Act III finds Meir in hospital, having taken ill at the turn of events. Typically for Second Avenue, all switched identities are eventually clarified, and deserving lovers united.
Watch Your Step appears to have been an afterthought, added to the script after it was completed but still in time for the premiere of the show. Although it is not organically related to the action, it derives from a comic, vaudeville-worthy, and absurd subplot involving Dave and his obsession with Sonia, which is threaded throughout the musical.
When Dave returns to America in Act II from his business-related sojourn in Odessa, he is excited to see Sonia again, not realizing that she is Berele’s sweetheart. He does assume that she is married, but that Leybe, her father, is actually her husband. When he tries to enlist Berele’s aid in winning Sonia away from her supposed husband, Berele realizes Dave’s confusion and decides to play a joke on him by suggesting a plan of action. Accordingly, Dave approaches Leybe with an incentive for him to divorce his wife. Unaware of Dave’s erroneous assumption, Leybe is more than happy to have him take his wife, Khayke, off his hands—a stock vaudeville routine “husband’s attitude.” (Khayke, meanwhile, suspects that someone is secretly in love with her, but she thinks it is Dave’s father, Samuel.) Obviously, the contorted situation made for hilarity onstage. When Dave makes his exit from the scene in which Berele offers to help him in his pursuit of the woman he foolishly thinks is Leybe’s wife, Berele remarks on the temporary success of his joke with a bit of vengeful satisfaction—“Now! Have your wedding! Oy, I love such shtik”—and he proceeds to comment on the absurdities of American life by singing Watch Your Step.
The general theme of the frantic pace in America, which is the subject of the song, has been set up in the first act in Odessa, in dialogue between Dave and Sonia. When he tells her that he fell in love with her the moment he laid eyes on her, she challenges his claim to have developed love with such speed for a girl he doesn’t even know. He replies that in America, everything is a matter of moving quickly—of rushing and “hurrying up.” In America, he says, “as soon as a boy and a girl meet and are attracted to each other, they ‘hurry up’ so much so that the morning after the wedding they already have a baby!” In addition to Thomashefsky’s wife, Bessie, the cast included Annie Thomashefsky as Khayke; Mathilda St. Claire as Flossie, and Muni Weisenfreund.