Like most of the people who made it what it was, the American Yiddish theater was born in Europe but found its greatest success in America. And though its 1882 American premiere ended in a brawl, Yiddish theater (or "Second Avenue," after the Manhattan street that housed most of the theaters) quickly became a wildly popular entertainment choice for American Jews in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
How popular? Personal accounts—including some from the Milken Archive’s oral history project—describe up to nine shows per week, with multiple productions playing simultaneously in the theaters of Second Avenue, Brooklyn, and beyond. A 1939 review of a concert held in honor of one of its most popular composers noted a house that was "crowded to capacity, with many standees half-circling the orchestra."
In Great Songs of the American Yiddish Stage, the Milken Archive presents songs from staged theatrical shows and vaudeville revues, as well as from film and radio productions from roughly the last quarter of the 19th century through the first half of the 20th. In most cases, as Neil W. Levin explains in his introduction to this volume, the original scores and scripts from these productions were lost. The Milken Archive conducted meticulous research and worked with top orchestrators to reconstruct these songs in a historically accurate manner, at least according to the “ideal” performance context of a 24-piece orchestra.
The two most important figures concerning the origins of the American Yiddish theater are Abraham Goldfaden and Boris Thomashefsky. Goldfaden is considered the father of Yiddish theater, having established the first known company in Hungary in the 1870s. He later emigrated to the United States with hopes of great success, but never achieved it. Thomashefsky put on the first American Yiddish theater production with an acting troupe imported from London, and went on to become the genre’s most important impresario.
Beyond Goldfaden and Thomashefsky, American Yiddish theater would not have been what it was without the group Levin refers to as the “big four” composers of Second Avenue: Abraham Ellstein, Alexander Olshanetsky, Sholom Secunda, and Joseph Rumshinsky. They were a talented group, with broad musical backgrounds and diverse artistic output, much of which appears elsewhere in the Milken Archive. And though most of their songs remained within the orbit of the Yiddish-speaking world, “breakout” hits like Bay mir bistu shayn, Ikh hob dikh tsufil lib, and Abi gezindt, all of which are included here, gained traction within the mainstream culture, even if in modified form.
Over several decades, the composers, lyricists, actors, and playwrights of Second Avenue created a body of work that spoke to immigrants' experiences as they struggled to adapt to life in a new world and come to terms with the one they left behind. It was not always viewed positively, but it was crucial to the audience it served. As Nahma Sandrow has noted: "in the confusing shifting scramble for survival in a strange land, [Yiddish theater] substituted in subtle ways for the older communal institutions that had been the basis for centuries of Eastern European [Jewish] life."
The American Yiddish musical theater was a powerful force in the turn-of-the-century immigrant experience. Its songs captured the aura of an era, embodying—often simultaneously—the joy, sorrow, humor, and tragedy of a generation caught between two worlds.