SHLEMIEL THE FIRST
By Robert Brustein
First let me say what a pleasure it is to be reunited with the dynamic Ari Roth and his splendid theatre, on one of the very favorite projects of my life.
Shlemiel originated on a cold autumn day in 1993 when my friend, Joel Gray, invited me to watch him emcee a benefit at the New England Conservatory of Music. Enter a group of Jewish musicians calling themselves the Klezmer Conservatory Band, led by an intense scholarly luftmensch named Hankus Netsky, who thereupon launched into a set of Yiddish numbers that had me literally dancing in the aisles. Of course I had heard Klezmer music before, but never anything like this. In a state of near ecstasy, I determined to create a Klezmer musical for the American Repertory Theatre’s 1994 season in Cambridge.
There was one terrific possibility for the book of the musical—Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Shlemiel the First, which he wrote in the seventies for my theatre in New Haven. Singer had based the play on some of his children’s stories set in the mythical town of Helm, about the dumbest men in the world who believe they are the smartest. To me it sounded like Klezmer music in prose form, containing exactly the right brand of goofiness to support such a musical. Hankus came up with a medley of traditional melodies that again had me dancing in the aisles. And when a superb group of collaborators committed to the project, with Hankus providing the music, Zalman Mlotek the music direction, David Gordon the stage direction, Robert Israel the set, and the ART company the acting, I spent the summer adapting Singer’s script for the musical stage.
Shlemiel still needed a centerpiece, and, by coincidence I had once been employed as an actor for a few weeks in a Yiddish Theatre on Second Avenue where I nightly watched the great Aaron Lebedev (reputedly a major influence on Danny Kaye) perform his mesmerizing number, “Rumania, Rumania.” This would be our show-stopper. I had been looking for a lyricist for the show. Arnold Weinstein, composer William Bolcom’s chief writer, and old friend and collaborator of mine, was an obvious candidate. But he was a highly cultivated Harvard poet with English-Jewish antecedents, and I wasn’t sure his Yiddishkeit was ripe enough to distill all the ethnic juices out of the piece. So I gave him “Rumania, Rumania” as an audition piece, and he (marrying “Rumania” with a hundred other unexpected rhymes, including “I’ll explain ya”) transformed that legendary Yiddish scat song into an unforgettable Jewish-American vaudeville in less than three hours of writing. It became the hit of the show. (I continue to hear it daily in my head.) As for Arnold, not only did he prove perfect for Shlemiel the First. He proved indispensable to it.
But that was true of everyone. It is not often that a theatrical collaboration brings one so much joy. Shlemiel gave pleasure to all its associates--cast, creative team, musicians, designers, technicians, and audiences—though regrettably not to Singer who died before the first performance. I hope it gives the same kind of pleasure to you. The work fits so well in this more intimate, more hamish theatre. And its Socratic maxim seems perfect for Washington: namely, that you achieve wisdom only when you know you’re dumb.
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