A young woman grows up almost as an orphan in Russia — her mother has apparently misplaced her in her own search for a better life, and her father is gone for good. Tragic, of course.
And then her true love — the son of the innkeepers who have brought her up — goes off to university, and a rich uncle shows up, and she is besieged by suitors, one more outlandish than the next, and then she brings all of them to gold-paved America, and then they all compete for her hand at a masked ball (because of course that’s the way you party in America) by bringing her fake mothers, and they’re all silly, and it’s mistaken identity after mistaken identity after, you’ve got it, mistaken identity, and then her real mother shows up, and then her true love is unmasked in his true glory.
And they all sing and sing and sing.
It’s not tragic. Not at all. It’s funny.
What exactly is it? It’s “Di Goldene Kale.” The Golden Bride. An operetta, fizzy and tuneful and illogical and fun, looking at real issues, the search for home, the need to stay put and the need to move on, but never letting that get in the way. Not unreminiscent of, say, Franz Lehar or Jacques Offenbach or Gilbert and Sullivan — except for one thing.
It’s in Yiddish.
Zalmen Mlotek of Teaneck, the artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre — Folksbiene, in partnership with Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts, is presenting “Di Goldene Kale” as part of the 2015 Mason Gross Summer Series. The one-time-only production, set for Wednesday, August 5, is a concert reading, with minimal staging and costumes.
The show was a huge hit when it first opened, 92 years ago, at Kessler’s Second Avenue Theatre on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, but it had been forgotten for years. It was unearthed about 25 years ago, but it has taken another few decades for its dust to be blown off and its shine allowed to emerge.
Both this operetta and others like it — and more broadly, other works of Jewish theater, including straight plays — “resonated so much with thousands of people,” Mr. Mlotek said. And although now we tend to associate Yiddish with older people, the audience then was far younger — it was a regular theater audience.
“We are looking at an important example of how popular the Yiddish theater was in its time,” Mr. Mlotek said. “We are looking at it not only as entertainment, but when you put it in the perspective of history, it is a sociological statement, in terms of the dialogue and the themes.
“But also the music is so rich, such an amalgam of so many influences.
“The audience will have to imagine sets and costumes, but they can get a sense of the real draw people felt to go to Second Avenue to escape into the theater. After working an 18- to 20-hour day in a sweatshop, a seamstress might be able to save up her pennies so she could go to the Yiddish theater, and be transformed somewhere else.
“Our mission is to bring this world to a new audience, so they can hear this glorious literature.”
Because Mr. Mlotek’s roots are deep within Yiddish theater — his parents, Chana and Joseph, were vitally important to the rediscovery and renewal of Yiddish culture, particularly its music — “I happened to know some of the tunes,” he said. “Some of them were hits, and many of them were in my consciousness all my life.” But it wasn’t until Michael Ochs, who was the head of the Loeb Music Library at Harvard then, discovered the manuscript, that the long chain of work and discovery that eventually led to the performance began.
Dr. Ochs, born in Germany in 1937, “was lucky since my very early childhood,” he said. “My family and I got out a few days before the invasion of Poland in 1939.” They came to New York, where “we spoke German at home,” he said. “Yiddish was considered beneath contempt, and the people who spoke it even worse.”
(“I’ve been married to a Litvak for 55 years, so I’m no longer a yekke,” he added quickly.)
Dr. Ochs first found the manuscript for “Di Goldene Kale” about a quarter century ago, as an exhibit for a meeting of the Society for American Music. “I didn’t know anything about it, and I forgot about it,” he said. But then, after he retired from his second career, as music editor at Norton (“I had the office next to the editor of the ‘Norton Anthology of English Literature,’” he said, marveling at it still, all these years later), he was working on a project that made him remember “Die Goldene Kale,” found it, and was drawn into it. About five years ago, it was accepted as part of a series from the University of Michigan, “Music in American Life.”
As he followed research leads, Dr. Ochs met Chana Mlotek; through her he met her son, Zalmen.
Dr. Ochs figured out that the manuscript was from a 1929 performance, not from the 1923 premiere. It was part of a huge and elaborate circuit. “This operetta opened in a 2,000-seat theater in New York, and it ran for 18 weeks. Then it traveled all over, to all the usual places — Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Omaha [!]. And then Buenos Aires — New York troupes would go down to Argentina in the summer, when it was winter there. It was performed in Manchester, England, and probably in eastern Europe as well.
Mr. Mlotek first performed the piece in New York. It was a concert performance; at the piano, he provided the only musical accompaniment. “Four people in the audience were from Rutgers,” One of them was the dean of the school of arts, George Staufer, who is not Jewish but is very interested in Jewish music. “The very next day they contacted the Folksbiene and said they wanted to put it on,” Dr. Ochs said.
“Di Goldene Kale” was written by Joseph Rumshinsky, a prolific Jewish composer who “made it his mission to raise the level of the Yiddish theater,” which had begun as a popular entertainment form, more music hall, less high art. He succeeded in that goal, Dr. Ochs said, experimenting with such changes as introducing dance to his operettas. “There is a lot of dancing in ‘Di Goldene Kale,’” he added.
The libretto, he added, was by a woman, Frieda Frieman, who is known to have written a few others, although her husband, Louis Frieman, generally is assigned the credit for it. The story seems to have been that Louis Frieman tried to pitch it to Rumshinsky, who was impatient at first although he was bowled over by it soon enough. But it was hard enough getting the composer to listen to a young stranger’s pitch; had he added that the libretto “‘was by my wife,’ could he have gotten Rumshinsky to listen to it?” Dr. Ochs said. “I doubt it.” But he is delighted to have uncovered her secret, and now, all these years later, to attach her name to it. (Louis Gilrod, a professional lyricist, wrote the lyrics.)
Dr. Ochs, a gifted speaker whose very real delight in “Di Goldene Kale” is clear whenever he discuss it, will talk about the operetta before the performance. And then the performance, accompanied by a 20-piece orchestra, sung by a full cast led by the Folksbiene’s Dani Marcus, and who range in age from about 25 to about 45, will begin. And if you don’t know Yiddish, don’t worry — there will be subtitles.
With any luck — and of course with enough money — “Di Goldene Kale” will be performed again. But for now, there is just this one chance to see it, hear it, and glory in it.
The performance is Wednesday, August 5, at 6 p.m. at Rutgers. Details here.