New York’s Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway

Kevin Clarke
Operetta Research Center
11 October, 2016

Considering that most new books dealing with Broadway history in coffee table format simply recycle what has already been written about by others many times over, only adding the latest hits as an update without any serious new insights or discussions of the entertainment industry in general, it was a wise choice of the Museum of the City of New York to put the focus of its recent exhibition on something else: New York’s Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway. The opulent show, curated by Edna Nahshon, professor of theater at the Jewish Theological Seminary, ran till August 2016 and won great critical acclaim. Should you have missed the exhibition, you can enjoy the equally opulent catalogue that went with it.

Cover for the catalogue "New York’s Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway."

Cover for the catalogue “New York’s Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway.”

We, here at the Operetta Research Center, recently reported on Yiddish Operetta in the context of The Golden Bride revival in New York, and we mentioned the particular “Jewish” contribution to operetta that is being explored in the exhibition Stars of David. The Sound of the 20th Century at the Jüdisches Museum Wien. There are two explicit operetta essays (in English and German) in the Vienna catalogue, next to many more Broadway essays by Stephen Cole, among others. (He runs the fascinating Facebook group “Forgotten Musical,” I highly recommend you sign up for that if you want a daily dose of colorful information on historic shows.)

Poster for “The Rabbi’s Temptation” at Manhattan Theatre.

Poster for the “Hassidic” operetta “The Rabbi’s Temptation” at Manhattan Theatre, 1932. The show by Sholom Secunda and Sholem Steinberg was first produced in 1924/25.

Like their Viennese colleagues, The Museum of the City of New York also tries to show how Broadway and Hollywood owe their existence to their roots in Yiddish theater. According to The Jewish Light, “the lush companion book” for the exhibit is “a comprehensive guide to this historic compilation of memorabilia of New York’s legendary Yiddish theater scene,” written with “scholarly attention to detail” and “as entertaining as New York’s once-thriving Yiddish theater” itself. Need we say more?

Molly Picon in the Yiddish film "The Jolly Orphan," 1929.  From “New York’s Yiddish Theater:  From the Bowery to Broadway.”

Molly Picon in the Yiddish film “The Jolly Orphan,” 1929. From “New York’s Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway.”

Robert A. Cohn, former chief-editor of the Light, writes: “The book is lavishly illustrated with vintage photos, play bills, posters and photographic profiles of Yiddish theater stars throughout it 324 pages. Any serious student or fan of American theater and Jewish culture should have a copy of this significant book.”

Grand Theater advertising Jacob P. Adler in "The Jewish King Lear," c. 1905. (Photo: Byron Company/Museum of the City of New York, J. Clarence Davies Collection)

Grand Theater advertising Jacob P. Adler in “The Jewish King Lear,” c. 1905. (Photo: Byron Company/Museum of the City of New York, J. Clarence Davies Collection)

The New York Times phrased it like this: “A definite if wobbly line connects the Yiddish theater of 19th-century Eastern Europe and the Lower East Side to the giants of modern American entertainment. It traces a long road from the ghettos and shtetls to Broadway and Hollywood and the likes of Marlon Brando and Barbra Streisand. That connection is a major theme of [the exhibition]. With 250 posters, playbills, photographs, film clips, set designs, costumes and other artifacts, it shows how what began as traveling troupes performing for poor Jewish audiences in Europe turned into a major New York entertainment center that provided a vital escape for the Lower East Side’s sweatshop workers and pushcart peddlers at the start of the 20th century.”

Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice in "Funny Girl," 1968. (Photo: Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Frank Goodman)

Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl,” 1968. (Photo: Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Frank Goodman)

Form a European operetta perspective all of this could turn interesting as soon as Barrie Kosky fulfills his promise to perform Yiddish Theater at the Komische Oper Berlin. He announced his intention of doing so some time ago, but he has not yet stated whether he would opt for a Yiddish opera, or an operetta, or something entirely different.

Jacob P. Adler (far right) as Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice." Photo: Byron Company/Museum of the City of New York.

Jacob P. Adler (far right) as Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice.” Photo: Byron Company/Museum of the City of New York.

Obviously, the choice of possible titles to pick from is enormous. And dealing with any one of these titles would be a fascinating addition to the newly sparked interest in Adolf Philipp and his “German-American Theater” that was, in style and content, close to Yiddish Theater in New York. That, too, awaits rediscovery and possibly an exhibition, either in Germany or in America. (To learn more about Adolf Philipp, click here for Kurt Gänzl’s essay.)

Sheet music cover for Adolf Philipp's "Pawn Broker von der East Side." From: John Koegel: "Music in German Immigrant Theater; New York City 1840-1940."

Sheet music cover for Adolf Philipp’s “Pawn Broker von der East Side.” From: John Koegel: “Music in German Immigrant Theater; New York City 1840-1940.”

But to return to From the Bowery to Broadway. Perhaps The Wall Street Journal sums it up best when they write, “You don’t have to be Jewish to bask in the nostalgia” presented in this book. We couldn’t agree more and ordered our copy today.

To read Richard C. Norton’s review of the book for the Operetta Research Center, examining the operetta aspects dealt with in the various chapters, click here.

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