Take my wife…please! Nahshon (Theater/Jewish Theological Seminary) charts a transformative artistic lineage from the shtetl to Broadway, the Borscht Belt, and beyond.
This companion volume to a new exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York introduces figures who deserve a broader place in American cultural history but who in many cases are all but unknown: Jacob Adler, for one, who commanded the Jewish theatrical stage from its years on the Bowery to the Jazz Age and who, had things turned out differently, might have introduced Tevye to the Broadway crowd a couple of generations before Theodore Bikel did. Sholem Aleichem didn’t have the hit he hoped for because, the author suggests, Jewish audiences in early-20th-century New York wanted something else: they were in a new world, after all, and “had left behind the world Sholem Aleichem stood for.” By such means does art evolve. Nahshon traces the origins of a specifically Jewish theater not to biblical antiquity, though Purim does figure in the story, but instead to a Romanian wine garden where, in 1876, a writer named Abraham Goldfaden joined forces with two folk singers for whom he “provided a skimpy storyline that offered narrative continuity to their musical numbers.” Both song and story grew more sophisticated, arriving in New York as a theater of nostalgia and sentimentality that branched in several directions, including vaudeville, from which stand-up comedy in turn evolved. Familiar names turn up, among them the likes of Rodney Dangerfield and Sophie Tucker, but mostly the text, wonderfully well-illustrated with handbills, portraits, advertisements, and the like, yields a constant discovery of new show people, such as matinee idol Boris Thomashefsky, whose name was famous not just in theatrical circles, but “was evoked just as frequently for being at the center of juicy scandals.”
A witty and absorbing demonstration of the interplay of minority and mainstream—with the minority culture here being of outsize influence over the larger culture of Broadway, Hollywood, and America.