How would you feel about spending a night going through someone else's family albums? It depends on the family, of course. In the case of conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, grandmother and grandfather are the legendary stars Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, and the extended family history amounts to a look at the glory years of the American Yiddish theater.
Tilson Thomas and The Thomashefsky Project will salute this history on April 16 and 17 with The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater, a performance in Zankel Hall that is part of the conductor's Perspectives concerts this season.
Boris Thomashefsky made his first stage appearance as a boy soprano in 1882, the first year of the mass immigration of Yiddish-speaking Jews from Eastern Europe. It was the very first American performance of Yiddish theater, which, at the time, was a brand-new genre in Europe as well. In fact, Boris, newly arrived in America, performed in Yiddish theater before he'd ever had a chance to see it! But the form exploded here, and by the early 20th century, there were 14 theaters devoted to Yiddish plays in the New York metropolitan area alone, with others in cities across the continent. There were also touring companies, cabarets, music halls, and amateur groups, as well as sheet music, phonograph records, and, eventually, a tiny film industry‹all commented on by a lively Yiddish press, and sometimes by the English-language press as well.
The Yiddish public adored its theater. In America, especially, Yiddish theater was more than art. For people shaken by immigration, whose cultural and religious institutions had been weakened and their traditional social networks cut, theater in their native language acquired a central place at the heart of their community. This was intensified by plays mirroring the problems of modern immigrant life.
The audiences also adored their stars. Although playwrights contributed repertory that ranged from intellectual drama to low comedy, this was above all a theater of powerful actors. And fans were fascinated by performers' lives, onstage and off. They devoured gossip columns and stars' memoirs; Boris published two autobiographies, one serialized, and Bessie published three. In tribute to their glamour, one faithful theatergoer presented the couple with a silken hanging she'd painstakingly embroidered in gilt thread; enclosed within laurel wreaths were the names of all their most beloved roles.
Boris was handsome in the florid style of the period. When girls turned up their noses at eligible suitors, the jeer was, "What are you waiting for‹ Thomashefsky for a husband?" When costume operettas were the rage, and he played swashbuckling Prince Alexander in doublet and clinging silken tights, Yiddish editorials scolded that his calves were destroying the modesty of Jewish womanhood. Fans were especially enchanted by his voice (he descended from at least eight generations of synagogue cantors) and his musicianship.
Bessie started as a stage-struck immigrant child but bloomed into a diva. Photographs show her in queenly poses, crowned with gleaming dark hair, looking soulfully past the camera. She had a "smoky" singing voice, recalls Tilson Thomas, and she "knew how to use it." One of her personae was spunky, city wise, and wisecracking (think Fannie Brice). She played swaggering "pants" roles, as did Sarah Bernhardt during the same period. Bessie was also a realistic dramatic actress. When she and Boris later separated, she reinvented herself, managing her own Lower East Side troupe and even playing some of his favorite roles.
As a boy in North Hollywood, Tilson Thomas adored his grandmother's flamboyant yet down-to-earth personality, her generosity, and her youthful zest for life. Boris had already died, but Tilson Thomas heard many Yiddish theater songs and stories from Bessie and her friends, and from her son, the conductor's father, who was himself a considerable theatrical personage. Still, a grown-up acquires new perspectives on what he took for granted as a child. Eventually, says Tilson Thomas, he understood so much more clearly what they were trying to do and discovered that "it was the very essence of what I'm doing now."
"Their attitudes toward new and innovative things, their openness toward exploring the avant-garde as well as making the classics more accessible to a new audience, are very important themes that have continued in my own life and career," he told the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California. Take for example the range of roles they embraced. Boris's most famous parts included the romantic hero Prince Alexander, a soul-searching yeshiva scholar (in an adaptation of Hamlet), and a humorously plainspoken greenhorn delivering blocks of ice. Similarly, Bessie starred with huge success as a clumsy servant girl, a fiery suffragette, a biblical princess, and the seductive Salome. Together, they presented plays about Sherlock Holmes and Hitler, problem plays by Ibsen, and folk operettas by Avram Goldfadn, the father of the Yiddish theater. Boris also produced Wagner's Parsifal‹with costumes he shlepped downtown from the Metropolitan Opera House!
Beyond this eclecticism, Tilson Thomas's grandparents showed him "what a performance can be, where it can lead people." In fact, he reflects, his concept of conducting is very much his grandparents' legacy. "I try to create a subtext like an actor, to enter the persona of each composer," he says. He goes on to remember how Bessie once struggled to explain how she created a role. "All she could say was, 'I looked .... I saw .... I imagined,' recalls the conductor. "That's all she could say. Because with her, it was a colossal instinct‹it was being in the creation. And for me, what I do means encouraging and guiding other people to be alive in the creation. 'Play it like you're improvising, like it was never written down,' I tell musicians. 'It's as much about you as about Tchaikovsky.'"
The Thomashefsky Project was created in 1998. Its Executive Director, Linda Steinberg, enthusiastically describes the memorabilia‹including props, playbills, posters, and Bessie's own snazzy top hat and tails‹that Tilson Thomas inherited from his grandparents. The Project also has collected copies of hundreds of scripts and many scores; the latter are often in fragmented playing versions, but Tilson Thomas himself is piecing them together for this month's Perspectives concert using his memory‹and his ear‹to re-create their original flavor.
All the same, till now, there was no way for the rest of us to glimpse the Thomashefskys in performance except for one feature film, Bar-Mitzvah, which is in the archives of the National Center for Jewish Film, and several brief recordings in the sound archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
This show of music and remembrances will bring both Thomashefskys to life at last, onstage, where they belong, and as authentically as possible. It is meant to introduce The Thomashefsky Project to the wider public, with an eye to future traveling exhibits and productions. It is also a very personal celebration of Tilson Thomas's 60th birthday and of his tenth year with the San Francisco Symphony‹a real family occasion.
Yiddish theater reached its climax by the middle of the 20th century. There remain only a few resident companies scattered across the globe in Bucharest, Warsaw, Tel Aviv, Montreal, and in New York, where the Folksbiene continues to be the longest running Yiddish theater anywhere. There are still circles, in other words, where people will say, "Michael Tilson Thomas‹you know who that is? That's the Thomashefkys' grandson!"
Nahma Sandrow is the author of Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater and of Kuni-Leml, the award-winning musical based on the classic Yiddish operetta.