News Column

Jewish music flavors a new production

May 18, 2013

YellowBrix

May 18--Maybe you don't know where klezmer music comes from. But you probably know where it went.

Think of the sinuous clarinet solo that pierces Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing," right through its swinging heart. Or think of another big hit of the same era, "And The Angels Sing." Ziggy Elman's trumpet is practically speaking in Yiddish.

In America, the clarinet became the signature instrument of klezmer, a musical style that Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe brought with them to New York's Lower East Side, to Chicago's Maxwell Street, to neighborhoods around the country where Jews celebrated weddings and other happy occasions; klezmer is typically dance music. The violin, bass and other instruments play important parts, too.

But all the instruments drew on the cantorial tradition of strictly vocal music. Even though klezmer music is secular, the "emisseh" klezmer sound can wrench the heart or give wings to the soul -- just like the human voice.

Henry Palkes thinks that quality is essential. "When you hear that expressive clarinet, or the violin line that tugs at your heart, it affects you because it changes your rhythm," said Palkes. A musician who has worked in every style from classical ("my first love") to country (touring with Merle Haggard) to musical theater (which earned him his Kevin Kline Awards for musical direction), he is musical director of "Shlemeil the First," the klezmer musical that just opened at the New Jewish Theatre.

"We all breathe in and out, in and out," Palkes said. "But music -- all music, not only klezmer -- can take us out of our comfort zone with a different rhythm. That's why we say music can take our breath away. In a sense, it really does.

"Klezmer came out of the shtetl and developed into the musical spring of Jewish life in America, with all its pain and joy."

For centuries, many of the best klezmer musicians were classically trained and widely respected. (Today, violinist Itzhak Perlman enjoys klezmer and has performed with such "klezmer revival" stars as Andy Statman, the Klezmatics and the Klezmer Conservatory Band.) They also were experts at improvisation, a technique that Palkes says extends into jazz.

Although klezmer had a big effect on American music, especially swing, it had little influence on musical theater. "This is show not 'Fiddler on the Roof,'" he cautioned. (Still, "Fiddler" composer Jerry Bock knew what he was doing when he tucked a little klezmer into "The Wedding Dance.") "It's not a big, epic musical. It's small, it's a neighborhood. You'll know all these people."

The people come from the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, a Nobel laureate in literature who began his long life in Poland and flourished in New York. Among his most popular works are his stories of Chelm, a fictional village of fools. The Jews of Chelm never can figure out anything. Yet life always seem to work out fine, in spite of them, and they pride themselves on their "wisdom."

Edward Coffield, associate artistic director of New Jewish and director of "Shlemiel the First," said that Singer himself wrote a play based on his Chelm stories. He sent it to Robert Brustein, the noted scholar, critic and playwright who founded both Harvard's American Repertory Theatre and Institute in Cambridge, Mass., and the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Conn.

The title character, Shlemiel (Terry Meddows), is a true fool. That's precisely why his equally foolish neighbors select him to be Chelm's ambassador to the wider world and spread its unique brand of wisdom. Brustein, who thought it would make a good musical, adapted Singer's work and arranged for an original score by lyricist Arnold Weinstein and composer Hankus Netsky.

That's right. Aside from some notable quotes and riffs (such as "Rumania, Rumania," one of the most famous tunes in the klezmer repertoire), "Shlemiel the First" features original songs, not klezmer-band standards.

Palkes thinks that's perfect for the modern audience. Whether theater-goers know klezmer or not, they'll recognize the structure of the show's numbers, which work just as they do in such familiar shows as "My Fair Lady" or "South Pacific." Songs introduce characters, signal big moments, and illuminate relationships: They have a theatrical purpose.

At the same time, the songs' klezmer inflection will carry us into the particular world of this show -- I. B. Singer's world. "Klezmer evokes Jewish folk culture," Coffield agreed. "It has abundant joy, but there's always that minor key.

"And there's always that minor chord in life. Klezmer makes things funnier, sadder -- richer. This music is complicated -- just like life."

'Shlemiel the First'

When --Through June 9. Performances at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Saturdays, at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. most Sundays, at 2 p.m. only June 9

Where --Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC's Arts and Education Building, 2 Millstone Campus Drive

How much --$35-$39

More info --314-442-3283; newjewishtheatre.org

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(c)2013 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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