Theater

A Revived Tale of Shtetl-Dwellers and Their Rich American Cousins Is Gleeful Still

by

If American theater people know Joseph Rumshinsky (1881–1956) at all, it’s because his last name appears on the list of fifty Russian and East European composers in the Ira Gershwin–Kurt Weill patter song “Tchaikovsky,” which made Danny Kaye a star when he rattled it off at top speed in the 1941 Broadway musical Lady in the Dark. Ira had a special reason for including Rumshinsky on the list: The great Yiddish musical-theater tunesmith, one of the genre’s “big four” in the heyday of the Lower East Side’s immigrant Jewish culture, often played pinochle with Ira and George Gershwin’s father, who once operated a shvitz-bud, or steambath, in the area, at which Ira himself was briefly employed.

Rumshinsky, however, deserves far more than a passing mention in a song by somebody else, a fact emphatically demonstrated by the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene’s revival of his 1923 musical Die Goldene Kale (“The Golden Bride”), a tale of shtetl-dwellers and their rich American cousins, which delighted audiences and reviewers so much last year, at Battery Park’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, that it has now been brought back by popular demand.

And “popular demand” is exactly the right phrase. Though often artful, Rumshinsky’s operetta, which boasts a libretto by Frieda Freiman and lyrics by Louis Gilrod, has no high-art ambitions and shouldn’t be misconstrued as having any. Its claim to stature is that it offered audiences a better-crafted and more cohesive trip through the familiar tropes of the vaudeville sketch and the facile tunes of Tin Pan Alley. Like his English-language Broadway counterparts, Rumshinsky skillfully built his ear-catching melodies into the extended numbers of comic opera.

The Golden Bride‘s roots lie audibly in the tradition of Offenbach–Johann Strauss–Lehár operetta, but with a polyglot admixture that’s characteristic of Yiddish culture: some overtones of klezmer, hints of Russian song, Spanish dance tunes, echoes of dainty English operetta, and, of course, American ragtime, showtunes, and jazz. Rumshinsky’s heartily expansive, ess-ess-mein-kindt approach has room for everything. This is true of operetta generally — an art form that, from the mid–nineteenth century onward, was largely shaped by assimilated Jews, from Offenbach and his chief librettists onward.

The intrusion of American plot motifs and their accompanying syncopated music — a central element in The Golden Bride — was already standard in European operetta, exemplified in works like Leo Fall’s The Dollar Princess and Emmerich Kálmán’s The Duchess of Chicago. In this respect, operetta itself was already a composite form. What Rumshinsky and his Lower East Side colleagues added to the mix was the specific theme of assimilation. The public that flocked to Second Avenue’s many Yiddish theaters watched their story being played out onstage while they were living it.

The old-country shtetl in which The Golden Bride‘s first act takes place is a cheerful, operetta-peasant homeland — no money, but also no pogroms, no Cossacks, no hostile goyim next door or government edicts forbidding Jews to do this or that. Still, everybody envies the freedom and prosperity of their rich former neighbors who’ve emigrated and made good in the U.S., and the show starts with the news that one such has returned, with the innkeeper (Bruce Rebold) and his wife (Lisa Fishman) describing how rich the man is while the chorus contrapuntally exclaims “oy, oy” to every “er hot” (“he has”).

The rich returnee, Benjamin (Bob Ader), has come back to inform his niece, Goldele (sweet-voiced, sweet-faced Rachel Policar), left in the innkeeper’s care when her father emigrated, that she has become a millionaire heiress — the titular “golden bride.” Benjamin wants her to marry his son, Jerome (a droll, lively performance by Glenn Seven Allen). But Goldele has eyes only for the innkeeper’s son, Misha (the powerhouse tenor Cameron Johnson), who’s away at school, while Jerome, a prototypical Broadway “sport” who delights the locals with tales of elevators and subways, prefers the innkeeper’s lively daughter, Khanele (vivacious Rachel Zatcoff) — although he’s so Americanized that he can’t even form the “kh” sound that starts her name.

Naturally, every Tom, Dick, and Harry — er, make that every Berke, Yankel, and Motke — in the shtetl would like to take Jerome’s place as the lucky bridegroom. Goldele gives them all, including Misha, a task: You can have my hand in marriage if you find my long-lost mother, who went in search of my father when I was still a child. This being a 1923 musical, it barely constitutes a spoiler to tell you that the masked stranger who turns up at a last-scene masquerade ball, with the right maternal candidate in tow, is the suitor Goldele wanted all along — and that the mother in question proves her authenticity by singing a reprise of the lullaby we’ve heard the nostalgic Goldele warble earlier. The plot resolutions of such shows were intended to provide nakhes (joy), not surprise.

That there are surprises as well comes mainly from the willingness of American Jews — like every other immigrant group — to laugh at their own struggle to assimilate. The reactions, in Act Two, of the newly arrived shtetl folk to Benjamin’s servant-infested New York mansion constitute a small forest of double takes, with a big laugh coming when the old-country shadkhan, or marriage broker (Adam B. Shapiro), turns up in the black-and-white check suit of a Tammany Hall ward heeler. He does a number with Benjamin’s parlormaids — in what Twenties musical does the comedian not do a number with a chorus of pretty girls? — offering to find them all suitable husbands.

Surprising, too, is the relatively relaxed attitude toward post-Revolution Russia. Though the shtetl inhabitants all apparently want out, their complaint is poverty, not Soviet bureaucracy or KGB harassment. Misha, arriving in the U.S., even sings a big aria of greetings from “the new Russia.” Here, The Golden Bride opens a tiny window onto the brief time when it was still possible to believe the Soviet Revolution offered hope; Stalin’s anti-Semitic persecutions and the horror of the gulags were still to come. Like all the show’s other characters, Misha elects to stay in America, but the alternative his song asserts shouldn’t go unnoticed.

In another seven years, the Depression would make the children of The Golden Bride‘s original audiences find America far less golden, and Europe (Russia included) an increasing nightmare. Later Yiddish musicals would have titles like Shver tsu Zayn a Yid (“Hard to Be a Jew”) and Rumshinsky’s own Oy, Is Dus a Lebn! (“Oh, What a Life!”). But while The Golden Bride is up on its fast-stepping, endearingly feckless feet, you can still get a little taste of the delight that must have filled Kessler’s Second Avenue Theater back in 1923.

The Golden Bride

Directed by Bryna Wasserman and Motl Didner

Museum of Jewish Heritage

36 Battery Place

866-811-4100, nytf.org

Through August 28