October 20, 2018

How to Make a Yiddish Musical

Update: August 9, 2007: Oscar-nominated screenwriter Mel Shavelson died yesterday at 90.

When I got the call from Montreal, fortunately I was sitting down. The woman said her name was Bryna Wasserman, and she wanted to produce a musical based on the film I had made about Harry Houdini in 1976. It had taken her years to track me down; I think she used a medium, as Houdini supposedly did when he returned from the dead.

And then I started to laugh. She informed me she wanted to present the show in Yiddish.I laughed even harder at her next line. They didn’t have enough money to pay me. I realized the show was to be very Yiddish.

I could have escaped, a la Houdini, by hanging up, but Bryna explained she was the director of the Saidye Bronfman Theatre des Arts in Montreal, one of the leading Yiddish theaters in the world; its productions have traveled as far as Vienna and South America, and its purpose is to preserve a language and a culture that is fast disappearing. I quickly realized there is nothing approaching its size and importance in the Los Angeles Jewish community outside of Art’s Delicatessen.So I agreed to write the musical on her generous terms and dedicate it to the memory of my parents, who always spoke Yiddish when they didn’t want me to know what they were saying. By paying close attention when they were discussing the relatives, I learned all the colorful words that seemed to cover most of my family.

My further education in the language occurred in Israel, where I had made a film about Gen. Mickey Marcus in Israel’s War of Independence called “Cast a Giant Shadow,” with Kirk Douglas, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, Yul Brynner, Angie Dickinson and the Israeli army. United Artists produced the film after every other executive in Hollywood had turned it down because, “We’ve already given to the UJA, and who wants to see a movie about a Jewish general?”

The real reason, of course, was that several Arab nations had threatened to expropriate the theaters of any American company that made the film. United Artists didn’t own theaters in any country at that time, so they could afford to be daring. They told me, “With that great cast, we could shoot the telephone book and still make money.” Unfortunately we shot my screenplay instead of the telephone book. I wrote a book about that experience, “How to Make a Jewish Movie,” which I also dedicated to my parents, because they were among the few who went to see that movie.In Israel, although Yiddish is a secondary language to Hebrew, it is still used by those who don’t want their children to know what they’re saying. Of course, in Israel I didn’t know what anyone was saying, including the Israelis, the Arabs and my Italian camera crew, so I managed to have a terrible time in three or four different languages.

In Tel Aviv and later at the Saidye Bronfman Theatre des Arts in Montreal, I soon learned there are three sides to everything in Yiddish: Yes, No, and Aha!

I had first become interested in the story of Harry Houdini when I learned the great magician had a Jewish mother who hated the fact that Houdini, the son of a rabbi, had married a non-Jew. Aha! I had married Lucille Myers, a beautiful Pennsylvania girl who was half Presbyterian, in spite of my mother’s warning that it would last all of a month. As of today, it has lasted 61 years. All of you should be so lucky.

I flew to Montreal and met the Yiddish Theater community, led by the talented and overworked Bryna Wasserman, who would direct the production, as she directed everything else that went on at the theater. Bryna told me that this small and largely volunteer organization of amateurs was ready to produce a musical based on my work that would make me proud to have labored on it for free.Yes? No? Aha!

The completed musical opened in March with a completely unpaid Montreal cast, to a tumultuous welcome and a standing ovation. I was one of those who stood and added to the tumult. They brought it off beautifully, in my estimation, both musically and artistically.

The Great Houdini is played by Elan Kunin, who also composed the music, with lyrics by Alexander Ary, which gives Elan the opportunity to sing his own melodies in Yiddish while hanging upside down in midair struggling to get out of a straitjacket. Luciano Pavarotti couldn’t have done better. Of course, being of sound mind, Pavarotti wouldn’t have tried. Especially since Elan is paid exactly nada, to use another language I don’t speak.

Bess, Houdini’s wife, is played by Emily Phaneuf, who has a wonderful singing voice even when she performs in Yiddish, although she is an authentic gentile who doesn’t understand a word she’s singing. Which make us equals.

The company has 42 dedicated actors, dancers, singers, acrobats, and magicians, including a Yiddish-speaking gorilla, a bearded lady, and a half-man/half-woman whose left half is goyish and right half is Orthodox.

The musical is now playing to SRO houses at the aforementioned Montreal Saidye Bronfman Centre des Arts. The dialogue and the songs are translated over the proscenium in both English and French, which is the official language in Quebec. The jokes have to play in three different languages. I’m happy if they make it in one.

The press? Unanimous. In English and French. From the leading daily, the Montreal Gazette:”If ever a newborn Montreal musical looked Broadway bound, ‘The Great Houdini’ is it… Thrills, chills, song, dance and plenty of razzle dazzle: ‘The Great Houdini’ has it all. Don’t miss it.”I’m very glad I didn’t miss any of it. To all of the cast and crew I can only say mazel tov and bonne chance. And if you get to Broadway, play it all in English … or whatever they speak in New York.Shouldn’t we have a similar Yiddish theater in Los Angeles? Yes, No, and Aha!

Melville Shavelson is a writer, director and producer living in Los Angeles.