Tears to the eyes, joy to the heart

[media-credit name=”Photo by Michael Nagle, Peak Performances ” align=”aligncenter” width=”600″]
Michael Iannucci as Shlemiel the First.

 Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Chelm stories soar

BY JERRY TALLMER  |  Just the names are enough to bring tears to the eyes and joy to the heart. Here are a few:

Oranam Ox, the wisest man in the world
Yenta Pesha, his wife
(I’ve known quite a few Yenta Peshas, haven’t you?)
Chaim, Rascal, a rascal
Dopey Petzel, a sage
Moishe Pipik, another sage
Mendel Shmendrick, another sage
Sender Shlamazel, yet another sage
And of course
Our hero Shlemiel
His wife Tryna Ryza
Their son and daughter, Mottel and Ottel.

Once upon a time, all these delightful if somewhat slow-witted inhabitants of the village of Chelm, in the old country, sprang out of the mind of Isaac Bashevis Singer — who was born in Poland in 1904, was taken from us in 1991, and in between won the 1978 Nobel Prize in Literature (his particular literature being short stories, novels, plays, essays, news reports and a great deal else in that universal loshen which is Yiddish).

Isaac Bashevis Singer’s make-believe Chelm is indeed a whole shtetl of fools, one of whom — a sort of Tolstoyan holy fool — is sent forth into the great world in search of a yet bigger fool for communal moral guidance. Wherever innocent Shlemiel goes, he is — like Voltaire’s Candide — wiser than the wise, braver than the brave.

The immensely prolific Singer packed his numerous Chelm stories into a play, that was one to day flower into a klezmer-pulsed English-language musical, “Shlemiel the First” — and it is this fond 1994 enterprise that is now back among us.

If a show loaded with talent has one prime mover, that has to be critic, author, producer teacher and all-around drama maven Robert Brustein — a New Yorker by birth who speaks little or no Yiddish but had in his early 20s (circa 1950) participated in some Yiddish theater (“three quarters Yiddish, one quarter English”) along with Boris Sagal down on Houston Street.

In 1966 Brustein joined the faculty of Yale School of Drama, and it was there, in the mid-1970s, as founder and artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre, that Brustein had a bright idea while watching a performance there of I.B. Singer’s “Shlemiel” play as directed by another drama maven, Isaiah Sheffer.

“What came to me,” the 84-year-old Brustein says today, “I figured I could adapt it into a musical for the stage. I’d done about twelve adaptations before this.”

What he needed was someone to tackle the lyrics — and for that he thought of Arnold Weinstein, a young poet-playwright (1927-2005) whose “Red Eye of Love” and “Dynamite Tonight” had been exploding all over the stage at Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s avant-garde Living Theatre.

“But I didn’t know if Arnold was the right man for the job. He was one of those ‘English’ Jews, you know, like Lionel Trilling. I actually had the chutzpah to audition him. He came up with some extraordinary lyrics” and got the job.

In 1979 Brustein moved from Yale to Harvard, where he would in turn became founding artistic director of the blossoming, highly regarded American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.).

In 1994, some two decades after Brustein first adapted “Shlemiel” into a musical, his Oscar and Tony-winning friend Joel Grey invited Brustein to a Boston Conservatory evening of then not yet widely known (in this country) Klezmer music.

“I was stunned, I was literally dancing in the aisles,” says Brustein. “Literally!” he repeats for emphasis. The knitting-together of Singer + Brustein + Klezmer resulted that year in a smash hit for the A.R.T. “Shlemiel” that went on to be duplicated all around the United States, gathering raves everywhere before heading for Broadway under a high-powered Broadway producer — and never got there.

Let Brustein tell it: “Got as far as Florida, where Boston Jews go to retire, and God, did they not want to see Jews in yarmulkes and prayer shawls….

So that was the end of that.

This show at the Skirball Center is, then, the first major New York City reincarnation of “Shlemiel the First.” Isaac Bashevis Singer and his wife lived for many years in a big old apartment house on Manhattan’s West 86th Street — where this journalist was fortunate enough to interview him twice (once when he won the Nobel). Had Bob Burstein — recent recipient, from the hands of Barack Obama, of a National Medal of Arts — ever met Isaac Bashevis Singer?

“Oh yes. I’m a great, great fan. We did three of his pieces at A.R.T. I went to visit him on 86th Street. I stood at the door of his apartment, and when he opened the door he had a bird on his head.”

Shlemiel the innocent wouldn’t have blinked an eye at that.


Adapted by Robert Brustein (based on the play by Isaac Bashevis Singer)

Lyrics by Arnold Weinstein

Direction and choreography by David Gordon

Through Dec. 31, Tues.-Sat., 7pm (additional performance Mon., Dec. 26, 7pm)

Matinees: Wed. and Sat., 2pm (additional matinee Sun., Dec. 18, 3pm and Fri., Dec. 23, 2pm)

At the Jack H. Skirball Center for the Performing Arts

566 LaGuardia Place

For tickets ($75; $10 for ages 25 and under or full-time students), call 866-811-4111 or visit nyuskirball.org, Visit folksbiene.org