Restored Hit Yiddish Musical Makes a Comeback

December 14, 2015Aron Hirt-Manheimer

Before attending the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbeine’s new production of the Di Goldene Kale (The Golden Bride), I expected to see an ensemble of old-timers on stage. Who else, I thought, can speak Yiddish and act?

To my surprise, the 20-member cast of this delightful operetta, which had its first premier at the Second Avenue Theater in 1923, consisted primarily of very talented and accomplished millennials.  All but three were performing in Yiddish for the first time, and opera singer Rachel Policar, who played Goldele, received only three weeks of Yiddish training before the show opened on December 2 at the Museum of the Jewish Heritage in New York.

To understand how these young artists found their way to the Yiddish stage, I caught up with one of the show’s stars, Adam B. Shapiro, an award-winning cabaret singer whose acting credits include The Normal Heart (HBO) and The Cobbler.

The show runs through August 28, with both English and Russian subtitles. What role did your early Jewish experiences play in your performing career?  

Adam B. Shapiro: I’ve always associated music and storytelling with Judaism. Our family belonged to Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation, where I sang in the youth choir. Cantor Janice Roger taught me my first songs, and Rabbi Jonathan Stein told stories in a very entertaining, and exciting way.

When I was 9, my parents sent me to Broadway camp at the local Jewish community center, where I discovered musical theater and got to play Motel the tailor in Fiddler on the Roof.  

You’re a large man who moves very gracefully. Watching you perform in The Golden Bride reminded me of Zero Mostel as Max Bialystock in The Producers; he also played Fiddler on the Roof’s Tevye on Broadway. Was he an influence?

I loved his spirit, agility, and sense of humor as he moved around the stage. As a husky kid, seeing him perform made me feel that we don’t all have to look like dancers. You could have that kind of physique and still be able to do a big production number.

How did a Reform Jew from the Midwest become a go-to actor for Yiddish speaking roles?

At Ball State University in Muncie, IN, I was the first Jew a lot of people had ever met, and that made me unique – so I started seeing myself in that light. When I moved to New York City after college, I still had that mentality, so in 2005, when I saw an audition notice for Jewsical – The Chosen Musical, I said, “That’s My Show.” Though wildly unrealistic, I got cast. I learned how to speak “Yinglish” for that show.

Soon you went from learning Yinglish to learning Yiddish. How did that happen?

In 2008, after going through a callback process for a Broadway show and finding out I had not booked it, I was at loose ends. Just then, the National Jewish Theatre Folksbiene was auditioning for a new show.  I read the requirements and thought, I could play that part, so I auditioned but didn’t get a callback.

Four months later, they called me to audition for another show – Gimpel Tam – based on an Isaac Bashevis Singer story. When they cast me as Gimpel, I was both thrilled and horrified because I had to do it in Yiddish. They sent me to classes in the Workmen’s Circle building, and I was coached by Motl Didner, Foklsbiene’s associate artistic director.  

On opening night, I felt prouder than ever – for figuring out how to do this and for being part of an art form that’s been around for more than a century, incorporating my culture and my heritage. It was the last thing my grandmother got to see me do before she passed away.

Yiddish has really paid off for you. In The Cobbler, a movie starring Adam Sandler, you played a Yiddish speaker in the opening scene.

Who knew that being able to work in Yiddish was something I could capitalize on in Hollywood? More recently, it also got me a role in Death of a Salesman with New Yiddish Rep. It is somewhat surreal that Yiddish theater has become so much a part of my life and career.

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