Like most artists in the American Yiddish theater, the “big four” all had aspirations toward bigger and better things. It’s true, I think, that the Yiddish theater did provide a viable outlet for artistic expression, but if Broadway, Hollywood or Carnegie Hall came knocking on the door, you answered. Some artists moved freely between different musical worlds. Others who found greener pastures never looked back. One of the things that makes Joseph Rumshinsky—who was once referred to as “crazy Wagner”—different is that he had those aspirations not so much for himself, but for Yiddish theater as a whole. More than any of his colleagues in the big four, Rumshinsky sought to transform the American Yiddish theater into something more—in New York terms—uptown. Which is to say: Rumshinsky didn't want to move on from the Yiddish theater, he wanted to take it with him.
Born in Vilna, Joseph Rumshinsky displayed musical inclinations at an early age, even earning the nickname “note-devourer” (that’s notn-freser in Yiddish). Later, he became a choir boy/choral assistant (m’shorer) and toured throughout the Pale of Settlement. It was on one such tour that the young Joseph first encountered Yiddish theater through the famous Kaminski theatrical company—which he later joined.
Rumshinsky emigrated to London in 1902 to avoid military conscription but wound up in New York just two years later. It was here that he hoped to turn the disparate and more populist-oriented genres of the American Yiddish stage into something loftier and more unified—more along the lines of light opera. Once he secured a decent position he began deploying larger orchestras and demanding trained singers and instrumentalists. Neil Levin points out in his biographical sketch of Rumshinsky that “when he first added harp, oboe, and bassoon to his orchestrations, word had it that some actors in those productions referred to him as ‘crazy Wagner!’”
Rumshinsky’s stamp on American Yiddish theater is undeniable. He entered the field ealier than any of the other in the big four. He worked closely with American Yiddish theater’s “founding father,” Boris Thomashefsky, as well as it’s “sweetheart,” Molly Picon, whose career he helped develop. The later composers who took 24-piece orchestras and well-trained musicians for granted had Rumshinsky to thank.
However, his efforts to transform American Yiddish theater into something along the lines of operetta remained largely unfulfilled. And while he himself composed plenty of music that could not be considered as such—love songs and vaudeville hits populate his oeuvre—we nonetheless conclude our Summer Stock series with a look at some of the pieces that point toward Rumshinsky’s operatic aspirations.
When Rumshinsky first encountered Molly Picon in Poland in 1921 he was immediately taken with her talent and je ne sais quoi. She was there putting on a show with her new husband, Jacob Kalich, an actor and producer whose name was ubiquitous throughout the Second Avenue milieu both on and off stage. When all three had returned to New York they eventually became a kind of team—to the extent that a New York Times article referred to them as “the Three Musketeers of the East Side.”
One of the first productions the three collaborated on was the musical comedy Tsipke, which became one of Rumshinsky’s most beloved musicals and one of Molly Picon’s most acclaimed roles.
Played by Picon, Tsipke is a young woman who gets involved in a ruse to extort a wealthy family whose son is believed to have been killed in the First World War. Tsipke had earlier been somewhat forced into a marriage with a young man of the same name. At her unscrupulous uncle’s urging, Tsipke claims to have secretly married the son of the wealthy family in hopes of gaining some access to their fortune. But in a very Second Avenue twist of plot, the son turns out to be alive and shows up at home while Tsipke is there. He is enamored of her and goes along with the ruse that he married her just to see where it leads. But in the end they actually fall in love, get married, and go on to live a happy life together.
Molly Picon wrote the lyrics to the song A bisl libe, un a bisl glik (A Bit of Love and a Bit of Luck), which expresses Tsipke’s discontent at her lack thereof. Performed here by soprano Amy Goldstein and the Vienna Chamber Orchestra, its lilting rhythms and subtle backbeat help convey the lighthearted theme suggested by the song’s title.
The three-act operetta Di goldene kale (The Golden Bride) spawned, amongst its 20 musical numbers, the lovely duet Mayn goldele. The show’s plot involves an orphaned girl who, when she grows up, inherits her father’s fortune and is suddenly besieged by an onslaught of suitors seeking her hand in marriage. Since she is intent on discovering what happened to the mother that abandoned her as a child, she offers to marry whomever can find and reunite her with her mother. Neil Levin describes how the plot unfolds:
In a scene worthy of Italian opera at its grandest, Goldele organizes a masked ball, and each eligible male guest is challenged to bring her mother, if she can be found. In a farcical parade, each of her many suitors brings a woman either claiming to be Goldele’s mother—assuming that the passage of years would cloud physical recognition—or truly hoping to find a long-lost daughter.
Disguised in a mask, Misha [Goldele’s true love] arrives to bring “regards from Misha,” and he sings a song of hope couched in a Zionist reference: “Palestine, our land . . . may the sh’khina (God’s feminine manifestation, or presence) rest on her; Land of Israel, one day I will see it again.” He and Goldele chat, and she asks if he can tell her anything that might relieve her pain. Telling her that Misha has sent along a song, he begins echoing Mayn goldele, and she soon joins him as in the original duet. In a climactic moment worthy of Verdi, Goldele’s mother appears, heavily disguised and masked as an elegant grande dame. She reveals her identity and—you guessed it!—she points at the disguised Misha, acknowledging that it is he who has found and brought her. Before the curtain falls, Misha triumphantly unmasks himself.
First produced in 1923 at the Kessler Second Avenue Theater, Di goldene kale starred Michal Michalesco, and also included Annie Thomashefsky (sister of Boris) and Hyman “Hymie” Jacobson. Mayn Goldele is sung here by soprano Nell Snaidas and the late tenor and cantor Robert Bloch. Bearing little that is distinctively Jewish in terms of musical material, it seems comfortably at home as a light opera duet.
In the 1918 musical The Rabbi’s Wife, Rumshinsky—along with lyricist and star of the show, Boris Thomashefsky—transformed a typical liturgical expression of the Judaic notion of God’s oneness into a plea for God’s assistance for a young man in pursuit of true love…with a woman he believes is his niece, no less.
The confusion begins when Regina, the aforementioned love interest, returns to Europe from America, where she has been studying, for a family reunion of sorts where she will meet her three paternal uncles for the first time. But she arrives to the home in advance of her father, whereupon she encounters his youngest brother, Nokhum, and the two—being unaware of their relationship to one another—become taken with each other.
Although, as Neil Levin points out, there is nothing Halakhically wrong or historically anomalous concerning a relationship between an uncle and a niece, Regina finds the idea taboo and refuses to entertain Nokhum’s advances. Nokhum sings Sh’ma Yisro’el just after revealing his true feelings and being rejected by Regina.
As with many Second Avenue productions, this quandary was solved through revelation. It turns out that Regina was adopted and thus there is no biological relationship between her and Nokhum, and they pursue their relationship with the family’s blessing. (What’s that they say about suspended disbelief?)
Neil Levin observes that Rumshinsky’s American career moved in lock step with the general development of the American Yiddish theater—which is to say that we can view his life and work as a kind of mirror to American Yiddish theater as a whole. Rumshinksy may not have achieved all he set out to do, but Second Avenue (thankfully) wouldn’t have been the same without him.
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!
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