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 the next two months 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!
Like most of the people who made it what it was, the American Yiddish theater was born in Europe but found its greatest success on American soil. With the seeds sown in the first known production in 1882, Abraham Goldfaden's (1840–1908) Di kishefmakhern, oder di tsoybern (The Sorceress, or the Witch), the American Yiddish theater became the entertainment of choice among immigrant Jews and their American-born children. The composers, playwrights, and actors who packed the theaters of Second Avenue and beyond for as many as nine shows per week created a body of work that exemplified immigrants' experiences as they struggled to adapt to life in a new world and come to terms with what they left behind.
Among the countless shows that were produced over more than half a century were a select few that made their way to the screen as film adaptations.
Mamele, a musical with a book by Konrad Tom and music by Abraham Ellstein, was one such production. Filmed in Poland, it featured Molly Picon (who also supplied the lyrics for several of the songs) in the lead role as Khavshe and costarred Edmund Zayenda as a musician named Mr. Schlesinger—Khavshe's love interest. Set in interwar Poland, the plot of Mamele concerns a young woman, Khavshe, who assumes the maternal responsibilities for her father and five siblings when the family's mother dies. In addition to her domestic responsibilities, Khavshe tries to disrupt an older sister’s plans to marry an undesirable man by convincing her own beloved to pursue her older sister instead. Her plan explodes. Khavshe's family chides her for mingling in her sister's affairs and Khavshe decides to leave them to their own devices. But it all works out in the end: Khavshe's family comes to an increased appreciation of Khavshe and her dedication, pleads (successfully) for her return, and Khavshe gets to live every woman's dream of marrying a musician and living at home with her family.
The film was shot in Poland in 1938 under the direction of Konrad Tom, Joseph Greene (Yidl Mitn Fidl), and Joseph Kalisch (Picon's husband). The National Center for Jewish Film—which describes Mamele as embracing "the diverse gamut of interwar Jewish life in Poland, with its nogoodniks and unemployed, nightclubs and gangsters, and religious Jews celebrating Succoth"—undertook a major restoration effort in 2013 and has since screened it to rave reviews at film festivals around the world.
Featured below are three songs from Mamele: Abi gezunt, Ikh zing, Mazl.
People like to say "At least you have your health," but how many could turn such a common expression into a "break-out" hit? In Mamele, Khavshe sings the song Abi gezunt (As Long As You’re Healthy) to her older sister while preparing for the Sabbath eve meal, reminding her sister of the quintessential Jewish sentiment that good health is all that is required for happiness. It became one of Picon’s signature pieces and a kind of break-out hit. That its popularity went beyond the confines of the Yiddish theater milieu is attested to by Cab Calloway's adaptation of the title (A Bee Gezindt—video follows below) for a swing-band number (though little if any musical similarity between the two exists). The Milken Archive's recording of Abi gezindt features soprano Amy Goldstein, a leading interpreter of Yiddish song.
Through a series of circuitous events, Khavshe’s plans to intervene in her sister’s affairs do not work. The family admonishes her for not minding her own business and Khavshe leaves home. Now on her own, she decides to try to win back her love, and while getting dolled up to do so spies him singing the song Ikh zing (I Sing), which recalls King Solomon’s love song to Shulamit in the Song of Songs. In the film, Zayenda performs Ikh zing while accompanying himself on the piano. The Milken Archive’s recording features full orchestral accompaniment and is sung here by Robert Bloch (1941–2011), who in addition to being a sought-after cantor was also an accomplished opera singer.
Khavshe’s plan to win back her true love is successful. They become engaged, get married, and her family pleads for her return, to which she agrees now with new husband in tow. Picon sings the song Mazl (Good Fortune) just prior to reuniting with her love. The song is essentially a lament of her loneliness: "Another day has already past, and the dream that I have dreamt for myself is gone with the wind once again." The Milken Archive's recording is sung by cantor and mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Shammash (watch an excerpt from the song performed by Shammash with conductor Gerard Schwarz and members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic).
Born in 1907 in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Abraham Ellstein might be said to have embodied the hopes and dreams of all of Second Avenue's “Big Four” composers (all of whom will be featured on our virtual summer stock stage). But of all of them, he probably went further than any in achieving success in both the Jewish and mainstream musical worlds. Throughout his varied career, he composed music for several Yiddish theater productions and sacred services, as well as televised oratorios and an opera on the golem legend that was produced by New York’s famed City Opera company.
Ellstein was also much in demand as an accompanist, and in that capacity worked with some of the most famous Jewish musicians and actors of his time, including Yossele Rosenblatt, Mascha Benya, and Molly Picon, the latter of whom also wrote lyrics for many of his theatrical songs, including all three featured here.
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!