Greatest Songs of the American Yiddish Theater Vol. 3
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GREAT SONGS OF THE YIDDISH STAGE, VOL. 3
About American Yiddish Theatrical Songs
The selections here derive from the medium of popular Yiddish theatrical song that, beginning in the 1880s, flourished for more than six decades as mass-oriented entertainment among large segments of eastern European Yiddish-speaking immigrant generations and their immediate American-born offspring. Although this aggregate medium came to embrace Yiddish film and radio as well as Jewish recordings, all of which generated on their own a large repertoire of popular Yiddish songs originally independent of live stage productions, nearly all the songs considered here have their genesis in live formats of two principal types, notwithstanding the popularity of subsequent recordings and broadcasts.
One medium considered here is the American Yiddish Musical Theater, now more commonly known generically as Second Avenue, so named after the lower Manhattan district (today geographically identifiable as the East Village) where it made its debut and gained its first audiences, and where its most important and prestigious theaters stood at the zenith of that cultural phenomenon. Satellite theaters and companies—eventually often no less important—radiated and flourished as well during that era in other boroughs of New York City and across North America in cities with significant Yiddish-speaking populations, such as Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Montreal. New York–based troupes toured as well, bringing Yiddish theater to many additional communities.
Songs in this category are from full-length theatrical productions based on plays or dramatic scenarios that were variously called operettas, musical comedies, romantic musicals, melodramas, musical shows, or simply musicals. These are to be distinguished from several other more literary Yiddish theatrical forms with less sustained and less widely appreciated, but nonetheless culturally significant life in America: serious Yiddish drama, Yiddish art theater, and Yiddish political theater (ARTEF).
The other live format was Yiddish Vaudeville, played in music halls and variety houses, whose introduction preceded indigenous full-scale Yiddish theater in America. Vaudeville ranged from individual songs, dance routines, and comic monologues to skits, revues, and even one-act sketches and playlets.
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The American Yiddish musical theater was a powerful product of the immigrant experience, and it became a highly successful import to Europe, England, South Africa, and South America. During its peak years, many of its leading stage personalities were virtual folk heroes among certain segments of American Jewish society.
The musical forms, conventions, and styles of Second Avenue, especially as it advanced toward its mature stage, grew out of and relied heavily on Viennese and other Central European light operetta traditions. But its composite musical parameter was also built on the foundations of modern European Yiddish musical theater as initiated formally in Romania in 1876 by Abraham Goldfaden (1840–1908), a multitalented, learned Haskala (Jewish Enlightenment in eastern Europe) beneficiary and adherent. Goldfaden's plays—especially his operettas, which drew upon a variety of secular folk, operatic, and Jewish liturgical musical sources as well as his own originality—were performed by his own troupes and others not only in Romania but in cities throughout the Czarist and Hapsburg empires. Sometimes they were staged in cleverly camouflaged defiance of the 1883 ban on Yiddish theater in the Czarist Empire, which continued sporadically thereafter. And an imported production in New York of one of his operettas in 1882 is generally accepted as the first full-length Yiddish musical staging in America, which spawned and set the tone for the future of Second Avenue.
In its early years the music of Second Avenue came on its own to be informed by some of the extrinsic gloss of perceived Jewish, Ukrainian, Russian, Gypsy, Romanian, and other folk motifs and tune styles that resonated well in popular imagination—as well as by references to traditional cantorial modes and synagogue influences, especially where those elements related to specific characters, plots, or situations. But commercially driven songwriters rarely attempted to mine the bedrock of authentic European Jewish folksong (nor would they have known how), turning at most to bits of its topsoil. They were, however, quick to reflect and incorporate idioms, contemporaneously fashionable dance rhythms, and current melodic styles of the day from uptown American popular and theatrical music. Yet the modal adaptation of those in-vogue features, together with familiar residual strains of the imagined Old World, often combined to yield an emblematic type of fusion whose ultimate product was no less than a worthy legacy of wonderful songs.
About the Orchestrations
Few complete or authoritative orchestrations of songs or the shows from which they were extracted have survived; and in many cases full orchestrations, with an actual partitura, were never made in the first place. Many were created after the fact for live radio broadcasts or makeshift 78-rpm recordings, both with limited orchestral forces and usually, by the second decade of the 20th century, for far smaller ensembles than the actual full pit orchestras in the theaters. By about 1920 at the latest, a minimum of twenty-four musicians was the accepted orchestral standard for properly financed productions. Still, conductors often worked from sketches or charts, a not uncommon practice in the theater world, and those sketches also relied on a significant measure of improvisation. After meticulous research concerning orchestra size, typical instrumentation, and orchestral styles and idioms consistent with the original productions, the Milken Archive turned to leading reconstruction orchestrators, commissioning new, historically considered orchestrations expressly for this project. The polished professional renditions here reflect the known desiderata of the best Second Avenue composers and producers, even if their intentions were not always fulfilled completely. It is a mistaken presumption to link the authenticity of orchestral quality or sound to the more crude accompaniments on contemporaneous but inferior recordings, which were made hastily, with minimal financial investment, and for a different purpose. Most of the major shows, especially after about 1918, were orchestrated not by unskilled scribblers, but by the composers themselves—who often had solid classical training and experience—or by accomplished professional orchestrators. Nor by the 1920s were the orchestra pits populated by unschooled street or folk musicians, but often by some of the best players in the business—including conservatory-trained musicians who played in uptown theaters and concert halls on other nights.
Vaudeville houses could feature not only popular voice types and crooning deliveries, but also salty and, where appropriate, even boisterous timbres. In the early decades of theater, too, productions had frequently to rely on untrained singers. But apart from the specifically comic and other character roles that generated signature vocal personalities of their own,