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Joseph Rumshinsky Tells About
Fifty Years of Yiddish Theatre
 A series of thirty-six articles written by Rumshinsky, over a four-month period, for the Jewish Forward newspaper,
from December 1, 1952, until April 2, 1953. Articles appeared in the Jewish Forward every Monday and Thursday.

Episode 26: February 26, 1953

The success of the operetta, "The Broken Violin."
-- The "Five Frankfurters" is turned into an operetta with the name, "Di chazante."
-- The operetta, "The Rabbi's Melody," is born.

The great artistic success of Maurice Schwartz made a strong impression on Boris Thomashefsky. He sent for me and said: "I must make an operetta that will be artistically successful, like Schwartz. What do I do?"

"Create a great operetta," I said to him. "With a large volume. Instead of nine musicians, there should be twenty. Around sixteen beautiful dancers. The dances should be directed by one who knows the art of performing dance, and so on."

Boris Thomashefsky looked at me for a while.

I thought that he wanted to tell me that I am a crazy person, but he said:

"Yunger-r-r-man, Her-r-rit! Not twenty, but I'll have twenty-five musicians. Instead of sixteen, I will give twenty musical numbers, trained dancers in the musical numbers, and the ballet will be directed by the famous Broadway producer Dan Doody. And our operetta will be called, 'Dos tsubrokhene fidele (The Broken Violin).' "

When I brought my first-act music for "The Broken Violin," he called out:

"God, what have I done to you? You sent me such a composer as Rumshinsky!"

I do not know if he really meant it.

Eight days later, after my coming to Thomashefsky, they told me that Thomashefsky is coming with Mrs. Zuckerberg and his son Harry.

Coming to me, Thomashefsky said: "I longed for your music, I want to hear it again." I said to him that here instead, it is impossible because everyone wants to surround us. Harry said, "Papa, let's go to Georgele's." I asked, who is this Georgele? Harry said: "You know him well. My friend George Gershwin. He lives in Fallsburg at his uncle's." George Gershwin then worked for the music firm, "Harms" for thirty-five dollars a week.

 

We  were all ready to travel to George Gershwin's uncle. There I played the music for the new operetta, "The Broken Violin," and the young George Gershwin re-mixed the music from my new operetta. A couple of days later, when Thomashefsky, Mrs. Zuckerberg and his son Harry went away, back to Hunter, I went for a walk in Fallsburg. I heard a piano playing my music from the new operetta, "The Broken Violin." At first I thought it was just me, but I listed to this more, and more and more of it was being played, note for note, tone for tone the music of my new operetta, which nobody had. I opened the door of the house where the music was coming from, and how stunned I became when I saw at the piano the young student, George Gershwin. He apologized to me and said: "I play as much as I could remember." I had already then seen that for me there stood a genie with a rare musical memory. Once he hears everything, he remembers.

"The Broken Violin" created a revolution in the Yiddish theatre world. It was what to hear and what to see.

"The Broken Violin" played for an entire season to packed houses.

The second great operetta with Boris Thomashefsky was "Di chazante (The Cantoress)."

It is interesting to note how a German play became a genuine Yiddish operetta, "The Cantoress."

On a Wednesday evening, Thomashefsky said to me: "Come, Let us go to the Irving Place Theatre." There they were playing German theatre. They were playing Carl Rossler's German play, "The Five Frankfurters," which was about the lives of the Rothschild brothers, who were part of the world of capitalism in Europe.

During the production we were both upset, because the topic of the play was a little anti-Semitic. Thomashefsky said to me: "This is the great libel against us Jews," and he said further: "Gentiles are thicker than Jews." I said: "But it is artistically written and very well acted."

"Returning from the theatre, Thomashefsky spoke no words. I said to him: "Why are you so nervous?" -- He grabbed me by the arm and said: "We will welcome the Germans uptown in Turkish. We will make the anti-Semitic  play into a genuine, Yiddish operetta, 'Di chazante,' with genuine Yiddish and cantorial music." I said, "How?" He said: "I had a brilliant idea, which will bring a lot of glory to the Yiddish theatre." And he explained further: "Just as 'The Four Frankfurters' wants to convince [the audience] how Jews control the finances of the entire world, In the same way, we will show how Jews master the art of the world. And here you have it: "been." He goes on to say, "A great, well-known cantor in a small town. He died and left a widow. Their children, who were choirboys for their father, were soon spread throughout the world. They studied in various conservatories, and over time one of them became a director of a great opera house; the second a great tenor in Italy; the third, a great symphony conductor; the fourth, a well-known composer. The fifth, the eldest, remained a cantor at his father's place. The widow had joy from them. We will name the play, 'Di chazante.' "

David Belasco, the American playwright and producer, tells that he staged his play, "Madame Butterfly" as a drama in London, England, with Leslie Carter in the main role. After the first performance, an Italian with thick black mustache ran up to him and hugged him with both hands and pleaded: "Mister Belasco, let's create music for your play, 'Madam Butterfly'!"

Belasco had no other choice but to say 'yes,' so that he would remove his hands from his throat.

The Italian was indeed the composer Puccini, who had indeed wrote the music to "Madame Butterfly."

Belasco tells later that he believed these lines, that Puccini had not seen the play as a drama, because the first half-hour of the drama, "Madame Butterfly,"  Puccini immediately became determined to write music to the play, and Belasco believed that, sitting at the production, he created certain passages and tenor for arias.

So just like the composer Puccini felt when he saw "Madame Butterfly" as a drama,  I felt this way when Boris Thomashefsky told me his plan for the "Five Frankfurters," which became "Di chazante." When he spoke, I already heard tenor in the air. And indeed as fast as lightning, we both worked, and the play with the music for "Di chazante" was done. In around two weeks, and with six rehearsals, we performed it, but they played "Di chazante" for months. "Di chazante" was not put into the repertoire for the entire year.


THE BIRTH OF "THE RABBI'S MELODY"

When I saw Ludwig Satz play in Osip Dymow's "Shklafn fun folk (Slaves of the People)," I decided that he should be my future star. Although his role in "Slaves of the People" was as a character-comic, I saw that his rhythm would fit very well in the operetta.  I already then had written music for Thomashefsky to his fifth operetta, but the "Di Toyre'le" pendulum, Israelik-Emlikl, had already taken hold of me.

At that time the director, Yosl Edelstein, opened the Second Avenue Theatre, under his management. I saw that Yosl Edelstein as a manager was able to produce operettas, which we will appeal more to the heart. Though my contract with Boris Thomashefsky was for three years, I explained to him with heavy effort and arguments,  that I can no longer write music to his type of plays, and I gave him (with Edelstein's money) a thousand dollars for the relim, that is, he should free me from the contract.

Edelstein engaged a fine company. Men: Samuel Goldinburg, Ludwig Satz, Samuel Rosenstein, Charles Nathanson, Boris Rosenthal, and Hymie Jacobson. Women: Regina Prager, Rose Karp, Fannie Lubritsky, Annie Thomashefsky, Sabina Lakser and other important actors and actresses.

I looked for content for an operetta. In that time there was published in the "Morning Journal" a series of Hasidic stories by Itzhak Abn. I used to read them with great interest. They evoked in me a feeling of Hasidic melodies. I began to think of a modern, Hasidic operetta.

On a summer night I met Gershom Bader, the journalist and playwright. I decided that he's the only one who can write a Hasidic operetta. I asked him if he had a play that I could read, and he answered me with a broad, Lithuanian "yeah," (He imitated me like this because I am a Litwack). We made an agreement with me at home on Saturday at 11 in the morning, and exactly at 11 in the morning Gershom Bader entered with two small books in his hands and said to me that he had two dramas. I answered that I don't need any of them, and I said that I know what I want from him, that he should tell me Hasidic stories, and it does not matter if they are true or imagined.

He told me four or five stories, and he had already wanted to leave, saying: Mr. Rumshinsky, I do not want to urge you anymore, even though I urge ... Meanwhile, a mistake was made and something more was said, and I said: "Mr. Bader, you are nevertheless a source of Hasidic stories, and I implore you to tell them to me. Gershom Bader thought and began: "It was an old, Hasidic dynasty, a rabbinic family of many generations, which had lead an entire Jewish kingdom. The old rabbi passed away, and he left a son of thirteen or fourteen years, who wanted to play with boys in marbles, and in buttons, but according to custom -- he needed to take over the rabbi's throne, the rabbi's chair."

I am certain that Gershom Bader did not mean that, but I immediately remembered Tsar Feodor, Ivan Grozny's son, praying for his father's death "Nye chotshu bit tsariom" ("I don't want there to be any czar"), and I immediately placed Ludwig Satz as the youth, the little rabbi who says: "I don't want there to be any czar!"

Satz then was very skinny, and although already a great artist, still young enough for such a role, and Regina Prager as the rabbi's wife, who .....

I said to Gershom Bader: "I don't want to look for any other play, I want to write music to your play. Here we shook hands, I went home and wrote without the play."

We made up to meet on the second Saturday, at the same time. Gershom Bader arrived, as usual, on time with a pack of written papers under his arms. He began to read:

-- This first scene is in a cemetery, and Hasids are making a L'chaim and dancing aground a rabbi's grave ...

I protested against such a start, although it is a fact that at this time of the year the Hasids come together and rejoice at the rabbi's grave. "The stage, however, does not want to know from such a thing," I said to him, "It is a cheerful operetta, and it can't begin with a cemetery. But this is a trifle, it is just a scene." But the more Gershom Bader read, I saw all the more possibilities for Hasidic holiday music: Gershom Bader was told how the new rabbi would be introduced. When he heard the melody, he said, let us call the play, "The Rabbi's Melody." There lay something of a strange magic in the operetta, "The Rabbi's Melody."

It has already been some thirty years since they first played "The Rabbi's Melody," and when we play it nowadays, we still feel the same warmth, enthusiasm, the same Hasidic fire.

They began the season [probably 1919-20] with Z. Libin's play, "Dem shnayder's tekhter (The Tailor's Daughters)." When they first read the play, Libin only had one act, a very realistic, fine act. However, he wrote the remaining acts with the regisseur (stage director) and star and advice-giver Samuel Goldinburg, and it became a mish-mosh, a piece of nonsense, that from Libin's play, nothing good was made of Libin's types. It was already destined to be a great failure the first night.

I worked with Gershom Bader on "Rabbi's Melody," on the side, like it was contraband. Only Edelstein knew.

After the first night of the production of "Tailor's Daughters," we said to Edelstein: Today is Rosh Hashanah. On Sukkos "The Rabbi's Melody" will be given, if I don't make it to the "bude" (theatre).

They held rehearsals, day and night. On the first day of Sukkos, they staged "The Rabbi's Melody," immediately before a packed house. It lasted some thirty weeks, and for ten weeks across the province.

The "Rabbi's Melody" remains a classic in the Yiddish theatre repertoire with its songs and romances, just like Abraham Goldfaden's "Shulamis" and "Bar Kokhba."





 

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