‘The Sorceress’

‘The Sorceress’

The Folksbiene presents the early Yiddish operetta that has just about everything — and also it’s fun

Zalmen Mlotek of Teaneck is the musical director of “The Sorceress” and the heart of the Folksbiene. (Marc Franklin)
Zalmen Mlotek of Teaneck is the musical director of “The Sorceress” and the heart of the Folksbiene. (Marc Franklin)

There are four levels in understanding Jewish texts, we are taught; you start with the literal, peshat, and end with the revelatory, the sod.

That’s not usually the way we understand musicals, particularly not light 19th-century operettas. But maybe, when we look at “The Sorceress,” the Folksbiene’s new production at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in southernmost Manhattan, we can see many layers, from the surface-level charming fairy tale to the deep history of the Jewish people.

And of course, as “The Sorceress’s” musical director, Zalmen Mlotek of Teaneck, and its director, Motl Didner, make clear, it’s also just plain fun.

So what is “The Sorceress”?

Among everything else it is, Mr. Mlotek said, it is the predecessor of the Folksbiene’s huge — and hugely unexpected — hit, “Fidler afn Dakh,” “Fiddler on the Roof” in Yiddish, which will have played for a year and a half, first at the museum and then on Broadway, before it goes on both a North American and an international tour. “It’s 95 percent certain that it will play for three weeks in China,” Mr. Mlotek said, and it’s close to 100 percent certain that it will play for six weeks in Sydney and another six in Melbourne, because tickets to those Australian performances already are being sold. “We’re going there for auditions in February,” Mr. Mlotek said. “Who’da thunk it?”

He’s preparing for a 30-city North American tour, “with as many of the cast now who can and want to do it. It is a bittersweet moment for ‘Fiddler,’ but it’s the beginning of another chapter.”

So the museum’s stage now will be filled with “The Sorceress,” like “Fiddler” played in Yiddish and presented with English subtitles. Mr. Mlotek is thrilled to be “presenting the very first Yiddish operetta, that first came to America in 1882. We will be seeing it on stage for the first time in many years” — note that by “we,” here Mr. Mlotek means “anyone alive right now” — “and Motl Didner, our director, has conceived a real snapshot of that Yiddish operetta tradition. We have a wonderful cast, and we are going into our final week of technical rehearsals.

“Everything goes very quickly in nonprofit theater,” he added ruefully. “That’s because we have to pay for each week,” but only can offset that with ticket sales when the production is ready to sell those tickets.

The success of “Fiddler” has raised both expectations and the stakes for this new production. “We had more than 2,500 inquiries from actors for 26 roles in ‘Fiddler,’” Mr. Mlotek said. “We saw 700 of them in auditions. For ‘Sorceress,’ we had several hundred people auditioning, and it isn’t ‘Fiddler.’” Outside of Yiddish theater professionals and enthusiasts, in other words, virtually no one had heard of it. “The interest in our company has grown.”

Mr. Mlotek is one of the most prominent Yiddish theater professionals and enthusiasts, of course, so he did know about “Sorceress” for most of his life. “I grew up knowing about it,” he said. He has great yichus; his parents, Joseph and Eleanor, were Yiddish musicologists whose work was instrumental in keeping much of the music alive.

Mikhl Yashinsky takes time from “Fiddler” to play the Sorceress herself; there’s a long history of cross-dressing for this role. (Victor Nechay Properpix Photography)

“Even my maternal grandfather, Leo Gordon, who was a haberdasher by profession, was an amateur singer and thespian,” he said. “He would act out the scenes from the operetta, so I kind of grew up with it.” Later, with the Folksbiene, “we did a concert reading of it, and then we did an enhanced concert reading, and then we decided to go with a full-fledged production, a fantasy tale about how good triumphs over evil.

“The story is a simple one. Our heroine’s mother has died, and her stepmother and the town witch conjure up a plan to abduct her, so that the stepmother could have a happy life with the father. It’s like Cinderella. So she is abducted and sold into slavery in Istanbul, and then she is rescued.

“And of course, in the end, the witch ends up being set on fire, in an accident, by a local worker who is planning to burn everyone else up.” Whoops! That accident is part of the story, and of the moral. “He who digs a grave for someone else ends up in it himself,” Mr. Mlotek said.

It is a fairy tale that can be enjoyed on its own — the peshat — but benefits greatly from context. “In a way, it is sort of more the equivalent of ‘Into the Woods,’” Mr. Didner said. Steven Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1986 musical “Into the Woods” is a complex, fascinating, melodic, witty, and sometimes frightening look into well-known fairy tales; it’s more sophisticated than “The Sorceress,” Mr. Didner agreed, because it has more than 100 years of the development of the art form behind it, but one is a clear and logical outgrowth of the other.

Like “Into the Woods,” “The Sorceress” has “the familiar fairy tale elements of the virtuous heroine, the wicked stepmother, and the witch.” It also, “under the surface, is quite a potent metaphor for the state of the Jewish people,” Mr. Didner said. “Our heroine, Mirele, is tormented in a number of ways. There are libelous accusations against her father, which get him thrown in jail, and then she is sold into slavery. All of this is for the nefarious purposes of the stepmother and the witch, who wish to get control of the family’s wealth.” Does this sound at all familiar?

“What, in the end, makes this a uniquely Jewish fairy tale? If you think about Hansel and Gretel, or Little Red Riding Hood, or Sleeping Beauty, you realize that in those stories, the heroes kill the villains. In this case, though” — in “The Sorceress” — “the villains and their evil bring about their own ends. It is the story of Haman. It is the story of Pharaoh. It is the story of Germany. Remember that in 1939, 1940, 1941, 1942, Germany is celebrating victory after victory. In 1945, it is the German cities that lie in rubble and ash.”

The famous and successful Yiddish playwright Avram Goldfaden, who often is thought to be the father of Yiddish theater, wrote “The Sorceress” in 1878. “Remember that was during the time of the Russo-Turkish War,” Mr. Didner said. (I can hear readers protesting that they cannot remember something they’ve never heard of. You’re right, readers, and I was one of you, so read on, and — at least very elementarily — learn.)

That was a war that Russia and its allies fought against the Ottoman Empire, which ruled much of the Balkans and the Caucuses; the Russians won, and that reshaped the area, allowed the Austro-Hungarian Empire some new strength there, had the Crimea bounce from side to side as we know it will continue to do, wrenched many of the Balkan states from Ottoman to Russian control, and most relevantly for “The Sorceress,” changed the overlords governing Romania, and setting the map for the pogroms and then eventually the Holocaust.

“Romania had been a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, and Romania made a deal with Russia that if Russia would get rid of the Ottomans and give them their independence, they would trade away the province that then was known as Bessarabia, and now is called Moldavia,” and that’s what happened, Mr. Didner said.

Dara Wishingrad is the set designer; this is an example of her work. (Folksbiene)

Neither the Ottomans nor the Russians were particularly good for the Jews, but in different ways. Many of them lived in Bessarabia, and the change “affected the Jewish population greatly,” Mr. Didner said. “When they were part of Romania, the Jewish community was doing much better than it was under the Russians. They were more independent, more financially well off. They had more independence. They were more middle class. But a huge swath of territory where hundreds of thousands of Jews lived suddenly came under czarist control, and we know what that did for them. It put them in the path of the pogroms, and exposed them to much worse treatment than they’d had before.”

So does this mean that the Ottomans had been much better for them than the Russians were? Um, no. Not really. “When you look at this play, you see lots of parallels to things we see today; human trafficking and family separation as tools of oppression. The father is sent to prison, and Mirele is sold as a slave to the Ottomans.

“So this is not to say that the play is pro-Ottoman in any sense. They had slavery until 1910, and women often were sexual slaves, and the slaves usually were Slavic women from Eastern Europe. So women at that time were genuinely afraid of being kidnapped and sold into slavery. That sounds fantastical to us, but it was the real thing.”

Although “The Sorceress” touches on these historical facts, “on the surface it is a fairy tale,” he said. “It is appropriate for young audiences,” because they will have no clue. In fact, if adult audiences want to ignore they subtext, they can. But if they want to, “Adults definitely will see the darker side of the story.”

There’s another interesting element of “The Sorceress.” “It’s peek into the world of 1870s Eastern European Jewish life,” Mr. Didner said. It is unself-consciously authentic. “And remember that it’s not set in the shtetl,” like “Fiddler,” “but among the Jewish bourgeoisie. The setting is middle class. What it shows, and I haven’t really seen this in other places, is the assimilation that was taking place in Europe.

“For example, the opening scene is a birthday party. At the time, Jews didn’t celebrate birthdays. That was an unusual thing. One of the characters, who represents the more traditional ways, doesn’t understand the concept of birthdays or birthday parties. It is a foreign thing to him,” but it is not at all foreign to the main characters, who live in the operetta’s present.

“The Sorceress” was wildly popular in Romania, and it came to New York in 1882, just a few years after it opened in Europe. Boris Thomashevky, the young man — really, the kid, he was 14 at the time — brought it here. (Thomashevsky was one of the Yiddish theater’s most glowing stars; he and his wife, Bessie, another Yiddish theater luminary, famously also were the grandparents of the great American conductor and composer Michael Tilson Thomas, who has devoted a gorgeous part of his website to them.)

Although the production has been reimagined — some of it had to be, because much of the orchestration and design, things that had to be written down, were lost — it is based on archival work to which Mr. Didner, Mr. Mlotek, and others devoted themselves.

One of its longtime traditions — which also is a longstanding theatrical tradition way outside the Jewish world as well as inside it — is that one of its leading parts, nominally a woman, is played by a man. The Sorceress herself actually under the costume (and not so secretly, either) is the Sorceress himself, as this bit of theatrical history is upheld.

But another layer of its history is in the Holocaust. “The Sorceress’s” orchestration was recreated based on information written on paper that would have been consumed in the flames of the Shoah had the Paper Brigade — made up of those brave scholars in the Vilna ghetto who pretended to be doing the Nazi-demanded destruction of their heritage but instead risked (and some of them lost) their lives to protect it — not saved it. So the Paper Brigade is directly responsible for much of what audiences in downtown Manhattan will see and hear in the next few months.

But there is yet another side to “The Sorceress.”

Isabelle Fields’ costumes mix period and fantasy, just as the production does.

As rich as it is in history, context, and irony, it also is great theater, Mr. Mlotek and Mr. Didner say. They love it as sound and spectacle, and they are sure that audiences will too.

“‘The Sorceress’ has gorgeous music,” Mr. Didner said. The action goes from Romania to Istanbul, and “it is filled with illusion and humor. It is a lot of fun.

“If you follow it on the surface level, if you miss the metaphor, it is enjoyable on that level, in the way that any fairy tale has a metaphoric level to it,” but there is pleasure in its straightforward narrative as well.

“And that comes into sharp focus when we reveal the moral of the story,” he continued. “He who digs a grave for another falls into it himself. And that is true with or without historical context. And we see it today as well.

“It is definitely a historical truth that today’ oppressors usually bring about their own downfall, and it is certainly something that comes up for the Jewish people again and again and again.

“And most important, it is fun.”

What: “The Sorceress,” by the National Yiddish Theater — Folksbiene

Where: Is at the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust at 36 Battery Place at the southern tip of Manhattan.

When: Previews are from December 1 to 5; the performances will run from December 8 to 29.

For tickets or information: Go to nytf.org or call (866) 811-4111.

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