A shlemiel is defined, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, as a “habitual bungler, a dolt.” In the hands of the creators of the rousing klezmer musical, “Shlemiel the First,” which is being revived this month by the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre, we are all shlemiels in our fumbling attempts at knowledge of each other and ourselves. The tuneful, exuberant show began performances this week at the Skirball Center of NYU.
Adapted by Robert Brustein, then artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre, from a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, “Shlemiel the First” was co-created in the early 1990s by lyricist Arnold Weinstein and musician Hankus Netsky of the Klezmer Conservatory Band. It premiered in 1994 at the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T) at Harvard, which Brustein had taken over, where it was directed by the postmodern choreographer David Gordon.
“Shlemiel the First” then played at Lincoln Center’s Serious Fun Festival, and at theaters in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Over the next several years, different versions were presented by the Pegasus Players in Chicago and by Theater J in Washington D.C. The current incarnation, a revival of the original David Gordon production, was presented last year at Montclair State University in New Jersey; it is co-produced by the Peak Performances cultural series at Montclair, the Folksbiene, the Skirball, and Theatre for a New Audience.
In “Shlemiel the First,” Shlemiel, a humble synagogue beadle (Michael Iannucci, who played Motel the Tailor in Theodore Bikel’s recent national tour of “Fiddler on the Roof”), embarks on a journey out of his shtetl to spread the dubious “wisdom” of the Wise Men of Chelm, who fantasize that by burnishing the reputation of their town they will attract sufficient investment to solve a pressing shortage of sour cream. A rapscallion turns the shlemiel’s shoes around while he sleeps, causing him to return to his own shtetl, which he believes be a second Chelm. Denying the protestations of his family that he is the same person who left, the shlemiel ends up committing “adultery” with his own wife (Amy Warren, who made her Broadway debut in “August: Osage County”).
In an interview, Gordon told The Jewish Week that he realized when he first started working on the musical 17 years ago that “this isn’t a Jewish musical; it’s a postmodern farce about Jews.” He compared the protagonist to Voltaire’s innocent hero, Candide, in that the schlemiel “finds out things about himself that he didn’t know he knew.” The universality of the piece comes, Gordon added, from the way in which the married couple has to plumb the depths of their relationship. “I’ve been married for 50 years,” he reflected, “and every decade one reassesses and falls back in love again.”
Gordon’s avant-garde choreography is, the creative team agrees, a key to the production’s success. The director keeps the performers, musicians and even the elements of the set in motion through the use of cloths that are pulled across the stage. And in a marvelous moment of stagecraft, the Wise Men transform into their own wives. “Gordon looks at movement in the most integrated way,” Zalmen Mlotek, who arranged the music, said. “I’m such a chasid of his. He knows how to make a scene come alive. We see onstage the journey that the shlemiel is taking, and which makes him believe that his Chelm is actually another Chelm.”
Critic John Lahr, who has championed the musical since its inception, celebrated the return of “Shlemiel” in this week’s New Yorker, swooning that its “artfulness and eloquence” make it “better by far than anything currently on Broadway.”
Brustein contrasted “Shlemiel” to “Fiddler on the Roof,” calling his musical a send-up of rabbis and other Jewish “authorities” who profess superior knowledge and wisdom. Unlike the sentimental “Fiddler,” he said, “Shlemiel” is shot through with irony. “The whole point of the piece is Socratic,” he explained. “The wise man is the man who knows nothing. They’re only wise when they know that they are dumb.”
The celebrated academic, who once appeared in a bilingual Yiddish-English version of “The Jolson Story,” found particular inspiration for “Shlemiel” in the work of Yiddish vaudeville star Aaron Lebedev, whose signature song “Rumania, Rumania” is woven into the show. Brustein acknowledged that audiences have a complex response to works about the shtetl, a response that incorporates “both nostalgia and fear” — nostalgia because of the inevitable romantization of the Eastern European Jewish past and fear because of how the life of the shtetl was eviscerated in the Holocaust.
Bryna Wasserman, the former head of the Segal Centre for Performing Arts in Montreal who recently became executive director of the Folksbiene, said that “Shlemiel” is part of an effort by the Folksbiene to “modernize” in order to expand its reach beyond the Yiddish speaking audience. She quoted Aleichem’s famous request in his will that one of his “very merry stories” be read aloud each year on his birthday, in “whatever language is most intelligible” to the audience.
Wasserman’s sentiments were echoed by Jeffrey Horowitz, artistic director of Theatre for a New Audience (TFANA). While TFANA is known principally for its contemporary productions of Shakespeare, Horowitz told The Jewish Week that he has an “abiding interest in plays that treat Jewish characters.” TFANA’s 2007 season, in which F. Murray Abraham starred in both “The Merchant of Venice” and “The Jew of Malta,” also included a production of “Oliver Twist” (featuring the Jewish pickpocket, Fagin).
Horowitz finds “Shlemiel” to be what he calls a “wonderfully rare combination of surrealism, sophistication, and populism.” He praised “Shlemiel” for exemplifying the idea that “it’s not that the world changes, but how you see it changes as you go through life.”
“Shlemiel the First” plays at NYU’s Jack H. Skirball Center for the Performing Arts (566 LaGuardia Pl., just south of Washington Square Park) through Dec. 31. Performances are Tuesdays-Saturdays at 7 p.m., and Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m. There is also a performance this Sunday, Dec. 18, at 3 p.m. For tickets, $45-$55, call the box office at (212) 352-3101 or visit nyuskirball.org.