British director Tyrone Guthrie, a non-Jew, oncesaid: “If all the Jews were to leave the American theater, it wouldclose down about next Thursday.”
Maybe that explains why there’s so much Jewishtheater now in Los Angeles. Here’s a roundup of the offerings: Wecan’t guarantee they’re good, but we can
The ladies of “Backstreet,” at the SantaMonica Playhouse.
* “Backstreet,” at the Santa Monica Playhouse,through April 26. You can find patrons arguing in the lobby over theeyebrow-raising premise of this musical: It’s set in a Jewishbrothel, circa 1905. The authors based the play on a story by theYiddish author Sholom Asch, and, yes, they say, there were Jewish brothels in New Yorkat the turn of the century. “Backstreet” follows the lives and lovesof an émigré family of Backstreet Ladies, offering adifferent vision of the American dream. Admission is $16 to $20. Forinformation, call (310) 394-9779, ext. 1.
* “Sing! A Musical Journey,” at UCLA’s FreudPlayhouse, through March 15. In his one-man show, actor-pianistHershey Felder plays the piano and tells stories of survival.
* “When the Rabbi Lied,” at the Lee StrasbergTheatre Institute, through March 15. Hildy Brook’s comedy-drama abouta woman wrestling with spiritual dilemmas as she explores her Jewishroots.
* The West Coast Jewish Theatre’s “YiddishkeitIII,” at the University of Judaism, on March 25. This Borscht-Beltkind of an evening features Catskillian comics, a cabaret act,Yiddish songster Hale Porter and more. Tickets are $25. (310)476-9777, ext. 535.
* “A Different Springtime,” at the Actors’Playhouse in Long Beach, March 14 through April 19. In this play by87-year-old Joseph Stein, the protagonist wants his mother, a PolishHolocaust survivor, to get married, and, thus, he arranges for her tomeet a Landsmann. Problem is, she thinks Mr. Sakamoto, the youngapartment-building manager, is trying to seduce her. Everything getsmore confusing when Myriam the Matchmaker enters the picture. Ticketsare $15. (213) 660-8587.
* “Dinner at Grandpa’s,” at the Wooden-O Theatrein West Los Angeles, opens March 20. Bobby Wittenberg’s comedy is setat an annual family dinner that celebrates Grandpa Sidney’s heartattack, when grandson David asks about the family history. Grandpainsists that he lived the American dream — until David inadvertentlycalls up the ghost of his late grandmother. Tickets are $15. (213)612-5229.
* “Chaim’s Love Song,” at the Bitter TruthTheatre, North Hollywood, through April 26. An Irish-American facultywife from Iowa, in culture shock since moving to Brooklyn, finds anunusual friend in an elderly Jew. Tickets are $15. (818)755-7900.
* “Labor Pains,” at the Victory Theatre, Burbank,opens April 3. In Lisa Diana Shapiro’s comedy, Rose (aka Jake) ispregnant via artificial insemination by her guy best friend. She’sstraight and Jewish; he’s gay and Italian. So how will they raisetheir child? Tickets are $18 to $20. (818) 841-5421.
* “I Know You Are, But What Am I?” at the TiffanyTheatre, through April 21. Jason is Jewish, smart, twentysomething,attractive, when he meets Susan on a blind date. Thereafter, you’llfollow their dating hell as they do anything to avoid the word”relationship.” Tickets are $15. (310) 289-2999.
The King of Klezmer
By Skip Heller
Naftule Brandwine is the Louis Armstrong ofAmerican klezmer. He didn’t invent the style, but he crystallizedevery element of it, to the point of embodying it. Just as everybluegrass banjoist comes out of Earl Scruggs, so does every klezmerclarinetist come from Brandwine.
Of course, jazz sells more, so while Armstrong wasanthologized often and well in his lifetime, Brandwine’s recordedlegacy waited until the corpse had been 34 years cold for acomprehensive collection, “King of the Klezmer Clarinet NaftuleBrandwine” (Rounder Records).
Brandwine arrived on these shores in 1913,bringing with him a clarinet style modeled after the Jewishviolinists he had heard. “Heisser Bulgar” opens the disc, and is aperfect introduction to Brandwine’s trick bag — bent notes,chirping, a nearly vocal vibrato, and a command of the clarinet thatremains impressive even today.
The tunes are, predictably, mostly fast-paced OldWorld-styled bulgars and freilachs, seemingly uninfluenced by American music. Surprisingly,little here sounds noticeably dated, which is more than one can claimfor most prewar instrumental music. Largely, this is because klezmeritself resists change. But, also, it is because this music stilleffectively telecasts its conviction, and is still excitinglistening.
Brandwine’s antics are often given more attentionthan his music. His ego-and-alcohol-laden exploits make for greatanecdotes. Brandwine would often wear a red-white-and-blue Uncle Samcostume, and would hang around his neck a small neon sign that read”The Naftule Brandwine Orchestra.”
Legend has it that, one night, he sweat so muchthat he was nearly electrocuted by the sign. His drinking,unreliability, egomania, temper and inability to read music cost himin the long run. In fact, by the mid-1920s, his standing as “king ofthe Jewish clarinet” was becoming questionable.
Rival clarinetist Dave Tarras eclipsed Brandwine.He carried himself with more dignity, could read music and was a morereliable citizen. Tarras’ style of klezmer clarinet was more refined,his tone less rough, his ability to read music making him eligiblefor more kinds of employ-ment, and he recorded well into the 1950s.Also, Tarras was alive and able to play during the late-1970s klezmerrevival. This conspiracy of elements did much to assure recognition.But Brandwine is the more exhilarating of the two. (Tarras wasanthologized definitively in 1992, with the essential”Yiddish-American Klezmer Music 1925-56″ disc, available on YazooRecords).
Also, Brandwine recorded first, and he almostsingle-handedly made klezmer an American-Jewish expression. He wasthe first major, defining soloist.
Although his 1963 death went largely unnoticed,his vibrant, sparkling playing is still much of the template forklezmer music. These 25 cuts on the anthology are dinosaur tracks.The beast himself may be gone, but the footprints are just too big tobe filled by anything that now stalks our terrain.
“King of the Klezmer Clarinet” is not onlyindispensable to every Jewish music library, but also any party. Thatis what klezmer music intended to be for in the first place.
Skip Heller is a Los Angeles-based writer andmusician.