While working in a cigar factory on the Lower East Side in the early 1880s, a 14-year-old former choir boy from Odessa named Boris Thomashevsky heard one of his co-workers warbling airs from a Yiddish play called “The Sorceress” (Di Kishefmakherin) by Avrom Goldfaden; the man had heard the songs in his native London, as two of his brothers had performed them in a local production. Thomashefsky, who was to go on to be the most famous Yiddish actor of his generation, was not the only one who could not get those melodies out of his head.
Thomashevsky prevailed upon the owner of a successful beer saloon to send eight ship’s tickets to London, and the cast of the show came to New York, whereupon, on Aug. 12, 1882, they made history by performing “The Sorceress”; it became the first professional Yiddish production ever staged here, and marked Thomashevsky’s own debut. (There are conflicting reports about whether he acted in the show or actually directed it at such a young age.) Next week, the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene presents a concert version of the show at the Museum for Jewish Heritage, the first performance of the full work here in more than 80 years. Directed by Motl Didner, the play will be performed in Yiddish with English and Russian supertitles by a cast of 17 backed by a 10-piece orchestra.
“The Sorceress” follows upon the success of 2015’s “The Golden Bride” (Di Goldene Kale), the Folksbiene’s glittering, critically acclaimed production of Joseph Rumshinsky’s Jazz Age show that jumpstarted the Folksbiene’s project of restoring glorious lost musical works from the Yiddish theater.
But while “The Sorceress,” like “The Golden Bride,” is also an operetta, it hails from the early immigrant Jewish period, before the ragtime and Tin Pan Alley era. Goldfaden, a Romanian Jew who is considered the “father” of Yiddish theater, borrowed many of the tunes from Viennese operettas of the time, and he took his theme from Romanian folklore, in which fortune tellers played a prominent role. In attempting to wrench uneducated Jews away from their belief in magic, including the kinds of amulets, potions and spells that the Roma people (“gypsies”) and others employed, Goldfaden created a host of memorable characters.
When the curtain goes up on “The Sorceress,” the heroine, Mirele (Stephanie Lynne Mason), who hails from a prosperous Romanian Jewish family, is celebrating her 17th birthday with her family and fiancé, Markus (Pat Constant). But all is not well; in the middle of the party, the police constable shows up and arrests her father for an unnamed crime. As it turns out, Mirele’s wicked stepmother is colluding with a witch (Michael Yashinsky) to get rid of both the father and daughter and appropriate the family fortune. When Mirele, who has become a Cinderella-style servant in her own home, disappears during a trip to the market and is sold to a Turkish organ-grinder, her fiancé sets off on a round-the-world trip to find her and bring her home. Steve Sterner plays Hotzmakh, a Jewish peddler who provides comic relief.
The role of is famous for the disappearance of the actress, one Madame Kranzfeld, who had been hired to premiere the role in 1882; it appears that she and her husband were bribed by a group of uptown German Jews, who were opposed to Yiddish theater for its purportedly corrupting influence. (The husband was offered a soda water concession in the theater lobby for his part in the scheme.) In an interview, Mason noted that her character experiences “loss, suffering and pain,” but ultimately “finds resilience and pushing through.”
Although she is not Jewish herself, Mason has appeared in many Jewish-themed shows, including the most recent Broadway production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” in which she understudied the roles of the principal daughters, and this past summer’s Folksbiene production “Amerike-The Golden Land.” Mason, who comes from an Italian Catholic family (although she believes that she has a distant Jewish ancestor), said that she doesn’t mind performing in a show that opens on Christmas Day. “I’ll spend Christmas with some of the greatest people I’ve ever worked with,” she reflected. “And Jewish culture is so attractive for its sense of family, lack of judgment, beautiful traditions and love of God.”
While the villainess, who is called Bobe Yachne (a play on Baba Yaga, the mythical witch in Slavic culture), may ensnare her victims by what looks like black magic, Yashinsky pointed out that she is open about the fact that “her magic consists in exploiting the superstitious beliefs of others in order to outsmart and profit by them.” She is thus very much, like Goldfaden, a creature of the Enlightenment who understands the need for rationality rather than folk belief.Making his Folksbiene debut in the title role is Michael Yashinsky, who is a fellow at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass. Yashinsky has directed operas in his native Detroit (including a production of “Brundibar,” the children’s opera from Theresienstadt, in which his grandmother, Elizabeth Elkin Weiss, who was a well-known stage and radio actress, appeared). Yashinsky pointed out that the witch in the play has traditionally been performed by a man; Maurice Schwartz played her in a Yiddish Art Theatre production in the 1920s.
“These are people who are stuck in the past, and Goldfaden wanted us to witness their downfall,” Yashinsky explained.
Didner, the Folksbiene’s associate artistic director, worked on the libretto in addition to directing the show. He called “The Sorceress” a mix of fairy tales like “Cinderella” and “Snow White,” but one that, like their early versions and Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” goes into “some dark places.” The Folksbiene’s experience with “The Golden Bride,” he said, “taught us that we can tackle these big pieces with full orchestras.” But unlike its experience with “The Golden Bride,” which theater scholar Michael Ochs brought to the Folksbiene with a restored orchestration, reviving “The Sorceress” took a lot of digging in archives.
‘Delightful, charming and historic.’
After World War II, the YIVO collection at the Center for Jewish History in New York received a trove of Yiddish theater manuscripts that had been secreted behind walls, in milk cans and in church basements in order to keep them out of the hands of the Nazis; the Third Reich had demanded that a portion of important Yiddish papers be handed over for their planned Museum of an Extinct Race and the rest be destroyed. Among these, miraculously, were yellowed, crumbling, water-stained versions of music from productions of “The Sorceress” in Kiev and Odessa in the first decade of the 20th century, which the Folksbiene’s artistic director, Zalmen Mlotek, working with klezmer clarinetist Zisl Slepovitch, were able to use to resurrect the score.
“There’s a real appetite for this sort of material,” Didner said. The Folksbiene took the show to a theater festival at the State Jewish Festival in Romania. “Bringing it back home was quite special,” he said. “It’s an unusual piece, even for its period — it’s not about pogroms, or sweatshops and assimilation on the Lower East Side, nor does it have a biblical theme. It exists outside these typical tropes. It was written for an audience that was living before the time of great disruption. It’s delightful, charming and historic.”
“The Sorceress” plays for five performances only, beginning on Christmas Day and running through New Year’s Day at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Place. The schedule varies. For tickets, $25, and information, visit nytf.org or call OvationTix at (866) 811-4111.