Thomashefskys, Musical Portrait of Yiddish Stage, Airs on PBS March 29; Shuler Hensley and Judy Blazer Star

By Kenneth Jones
March 29, 2012

The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater, the concert stage show that celebrates the music of the American Yiddish theatre, airs March 29 on the PBS series "Great Performances."



Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas climbs into his family tree for the concert scheduled to appear at 8 PM on WNET Channel 13 in the New York City area. Check local listings for time in your area.

The show was recorded in April 2011 at the Frank Gehry-designed New World Center in Miami Beach, FL, featuring the New World Symphony. As it did when the concert played New York City, The Thomashefskys stars Judy Blazer (Goodspeed Musicals' upcoming Mame) as Bessie Thomashefsky and Tony Award winner Shuler Hensley (Oklahoma!, Young Frankenstein, Tarzan) as Boris Thomashefsky, the grandparents of Tilson Thomas.

The unique production includes archival film clips and theatrical staging.

The program — available on DVD and digitally on April 24 by New Video — also features Ronit Widmann-Levy and Eugene Brancoveanu and the New World Symphony. It is directed for television by Gary Halvorson.

The stage version of The Thomashefskys has been performed in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Miami, and at the Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts. Directed by Broadway veteran and five-time Tony Award nominee Patricia Birch (Grease, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures), who created the work with Tilson Thomas, The Thomashefskys features "music reconstructed from the original Yiddish theatre repertoire interwoven with projected images and dramatized stories from Bessie and Boris' lively memoirs."

It's all presented by Tilson Thomas "with personal affection and wry humor that brings his grandparents back to life and salutes their remarkable spirit and legacy," according to production notes. "Through the stories of Boris and Bessie, the audience is transported back in time and given a colorful glimpse into a vibrant, daring and wildly popular era of entertainment that planted the seeds for many actors, writers and musicians to come."

The material for the program, reconstructed by The Thomashefsky Project, presents audiences with "a musical sound that few have heard since the early 20th century."

Here are some historical notes provided by the production company:

"Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, immigrants from the Kiev province of the Ukraine, became two of Yiddish theatre's biggest stars, dominating center stage not only as performers but also as entrepreneurs who drew countless authors, composers, actors, musicians, producers and designers into their creative circle.

"Through musical comedy and drama, they created a repertoire of new works based on the experiences of immigrant Jews in America. This repertoire was first performed in the theatres of New York City's Lower East Side between 1892 and 1927 — including Thomashefsky's People's Theatre on the Bowery and Thomashefsky's National Theatre on Houston Street and Second Avenue — greatly influencing American popular culture. The Thomashefsky name even became an idiom of the day. If you were doing something dramatic or over-the-top, someone might say: 'Look at him, he's a real Thomashefsky!'

"Their plays also addressed social issues. Those produced by Bessie Thomashefsky when she became manager of People's Theatre in 1915 were often about Women's rights. Her wildly popular wise-cracking-in-the-know characters have had a lasting impact on generations of comediennes."

Tilson Thomas' personal recollections were drawn from the many hours spent with his grandmother Bessie (up until her death when he was 17), his father Ted Thomas, and Uncle Harry Thomashefsky.

Visit thomashefsky.org.