Tag Archives: Yiddish theater

‘War Paint’ and ‘Indecent’: Two views of New York City history on Broadway

History has always been a critical component of theater, especially in musicals, where period sets and costumes assist in creating other worlds on stage quite unlike our normal one. But last year, with Hamilton: The Musical, the stage phenomenon which won the Tony Award for Best Musical (and a million other awards), history became a rock star.

Or rather, historical figures, even those with seemingly little contemporary vigor, had the ability to inspire a new generation, if reinterpreted by the right talents.

The musical categories for the 71st Annual Tony Awards, announced on Tuesday, are a bit more competitive this year than last, when Hamilton took home eleven awards.  The Best Musical category is an especially diverse cross-section of subjects in terms of time and place — one contemporary tale (Dear Evan Hansen), one from recent history (Come From Away, set right after September 11, 2001), a European historical fable (Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, based on Tolstoy) and, of course, a musical that is literally about not having any history (Groundhog Day, based on the movie).

Joan Marcus/Polk & Co

The new musical War Paint is this year’s musical representative of New York City history, replaying the story of Fifth Avenue’s most famous retail rivalry between cosmetics icons Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein. While War Paint didn’t make the Best Musical cut, its two main stars (Christine Ebersole as Arden, Patti Lupone as Rubinstein) are competing for Best Performance By An Actress In A Musical. Just as Arden and Rubinstein themselves would have wanted!

Arden, arriving from Canada, and Rubinstein, from Poland by way of Australia, set up their companies in New York in the 1910s. But the musical, with book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie, actually starts in the 1930s with their careers firmly established on Fifth Avenue, their competing salons bustling with society women.

Why skip past their origin stories? War Paint is more of a showcase than a show, designed to do something very rare, providing an opportunity for two great female musical stars to take the stage at the same time.  (Quick: Name another musical with two female leads where they are not playing witches.)  Because, practically speaking, you want established stars in your musical, the story must start with Arden and Rubinstein already at the top of their game.

Joan Marcus/Polk and Co

The musical escorts the pair through the mid-century — past the changing roles of women in World War II, past the television revolution — as their once-chic brand names struggle to change with the times. On occasion the story pauses to infuse the grand, sweeping narrative with small biographical details.

If you heard our recent podcast on the subject, you’ll know that Arden and Rubinstein never actually met (at least, as the legend goes). This too works to the musical’s benefit, giving each star separate storylines that veer into each other just enough, never letting one upstage the other.

Lupone and Ebersole are tremendous. How could they not be? Lupone playfully transitions Rubinstein from a slinking figure of sophisticated grace to an irascible curmudgeon whose body language aches with history (and several dozen pounds of jewelry). Ebersole, with superbly fading cheer, slowly transformed Arden’s legendary confidence to wistfulness and then — in a fantasy coda where the two women actually do meet — into a graceful humility.

If you want to hear more about the story of Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, listen to our podcast The Beauty Bosses of Fifth Avenue. Most of our show takes place before the events of the musical, so consider it a prequel of sorts.

There’s also a bit of New York City history in contention for the Tony Award for Best Play. Joining Oslo, Sweat and A Doll’s House, Part 2 in the category is an intriguing and unconventional transfer from the Off-Broadway stage — Indecent written by Paula Vogel.

Carol Rosegg/Indedent

This very musical play recounts the drama surrounding the 1923 Broadway production of God of Vengeance, a controversial Yiddish play that had been well received in downtown New York theaters, but scandalized audiences when it moved uptown. Its cast and crew were charged with obscenity — the show features lesbian protagonists — and its playwright Sholem Asch ostracized. (He spends his time cloistered in Staten Island.)

This artful production feels like a graphic novel brought to life, with projected text hovering over a barren stage and its players sometimes disintegrating into dust. (It’s a weird and spooky stage trick.) Despite feeling very abstract and removed from circumstances at times, Indecent makes a point to root God of Vengeance within Broadway history, vibrantly repeating a couple offending scenes from the play.

Below: A letter from the playwright which ran in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on March 11, 1923


Hopefully the point isn’t lost on its audience; the original production was shut down on a similar stage at the old Apollo Theater (at 223 West 42nd Street), just a few blocks south of the Cort Theatre, Indecent‘s present home.  The cast, brilliantly directed by Rebecca Taichman (who scored a Tony nomination for Best Director), flaunts those very moments from Vengeance that proper society once thought offensive.

If you’re in the mood to hear more about scandalous Broadway shows from the 1920s, listen to our podcast Diamond Girl: Mae West — Sex on Broadway. West and the cast of Sex was arrested just a few years after God of Vengeance on similar charges.





Beyond Hamilton: A flurry of new stage shows take on Robert Moses, Black Crook, Wild Party and more

A string of New York City history related shows is hitting the stage this summer and fall, bringing interesting new interpretations to well-known historical events or revitalizing forgotten old shows in curious ways.  I’ve had so many recommended to me in the past couple weeks that I thought I’d share the list for those of you who prefer to see a historical tale brought to life at less than Hamilton: the Musical prices.  In fact, you can grab tickets to all these shows for half the price of one Broadway show ticket:




You can find a glimpse of New York’s old Yiddish theater world currently playing at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, courtesy the National Yiddish Theater.

“With music by famed Yiddish composer Joseph Rumshinsky, libretto by Frieda Freiman and lyrics by Louis Gilrod, this long-running popular romantic comedy premiered in 1923 and was revived consistently and presented internationally through the 1940’s, but was lost to time following the Second World War. In 1984, Dr. Michael Ochs, former head of the music library at Harvard unearthed an original vocal score and manuscript for Di Goldene Kale and spent a number of years translating, researching and reconstructing this nearly-forgotten treasure.”

Ticket details here. The show runs through August 28.




The Fringe Festival, beginning this Friday and now in its 20th year, always offers up a buffet of productions that are earnest, captivating, hilarious, head-scratching and oftentimes strange.  Fans of our podcast on the murder of Stanford White may want to explore Dementia Americana, a depiction of the tragic events which led to the tragedy in 1906.

“Sex! Murder! Insanity! John Philip Sousa! All this and more in a darkly comic and appallingly relevant play that explores the upsetting and true events surrounding Evelyn Nesbit, Harry K Thaw, and the 1906 murder of famed architect Stanford White.”

Get your tickets here. The show runs August 14, 19, 21, 24, and 26.




From Deaths Head Theatrical — the folks who brought you seances at the Morris-Jamel Mansion (!) — comes a truly mysterious experience:

“The year is 1936, the country is in the throes of the Great Depression.  Times are hard and people are desperate.  Though illegal, secret traveling sideshows were ever popular distractions.  These exclusive gatherings would take place in secret locations all over the country, often in rented houses to avoid the eye of the police.  Professor Mysterium invites you to join him for an night you will never forget at a secret location in Manhattan.

The exclusive event will only welcome 50 patrons per night to the secret sideshow.  Tickets are $50 and include 2 drinks at the bar before and during the event.  Audience members are encouraged to come in 1930’s attire.  Doors open promptly at 7:30pm and the event begins at 8pm.”

TWO NIGHTS ONLY — August 21 and 22! Book your tickets now.





I’m shocked that the story of Mary A. Shanley, New York city police detective, has not been turned into a movie or a television show by now. (You can read my blog post from 2010 about her dramatic exploits.) A new off-Broadway play Dead Shot Mary seeks to rectify her egregious absence from pop culture.

DEAD SHOT MARY about the NYPD’s pioneering female detective runs Off Broadway, September 9 – October 15

 “A pioneer for women in law enforcement, Mary Shanley joined the NYPD in 1931, quickly becoming a Gotham all-star and tabloid sensation. During her 30-year career, she worked undercover to achieve a staggering 1000 career arrests, became the fourth woman in history to make detective 1st grade, and then nearly lost it all. Capturing her at a major crossroads of career, identity, and love — her most elusive culprit of all — DEAD SHOT MARY grapples with the legend of this trail blazer, a maverick, and a true New York original.”

The show debuts on September 9th and runs through October. Visit their website for more details or here to order tickets.



A boozy revival from B-Side Productions (the terrific Jasper Grant was our musical director at last year’s 54 Below event with The Ensemblist), luxuriating in a 1920s decadent Manhattan party. Based on a 1928 poem by Joseph Moncure Marsh with the line: “Queenie was a blonde and her age stood still/And she danced twice a day in vaudeville. ”

From September 6 to the 17. More information here.




The Black Crook, considered the very first Broadway musical, is a strange curiosity of the Gilded Age, a show from 1866 that seems hard to imagine today.   Back in 2007, I wrote the following description:  “Young Rodolphe is enslaved by a sorceror Hertzog, who must grant the Devil the soul of one innocent every New Years Eve. Rodolphe saves a white dove from peril which just happens to be a good witch in disguise — Stalacta, Fairy Queen of the Golden Realm — who rescues him and sends all the bad guys straight to Hell. Damn it, why hasnt this thing been revived?”

Nine years later, it is indeed being revived! If you are a history AND a musical nut, I’m assuming your head just exploded right now.

“On September 12, 2016, The Black Crook will celebrate its 150th anniversary, marking 150 years of the American Musical. From the rubble of the Civil War, The Black Crook emerged taking an entire country by storm; an unprecedented commercial juggernaut that contributed, whether first musical or no, to a popular melting-pot entertainment that blended art both high and low. The Black Crook is an origin story for the spectacle that is America, and 150 years after the fact, it will be exhumed once again.

The show pulls a little bit of a Shuffle Along! trick, blending the original music with a “behind the scenes” about the show’s playwright Charles M. Barras. Performances begin September 19 at the Abrons Art Center in the Lower East Side, and runs through October 7th. More information here.




The Robert Moses rock musical is almost here. I’ll just let the show speak for itself. It begins in October. Details here.

Joyful mourning: The Lower East Side honors a forgotten star

An extraordinary photograph of Yiddish theater stars!  Front row: Jacob Adler, Sigmund Feinman, Sigmund Mogulesko, Rudolph Marx;  Back row: Mr. Krastoshinsky and David Kessler

For a passionate sub-set of New Yorkers, Mogulesko was everything.

The Romanian-born theater star Sigmund (also written as Zigmund or Zelig) Mogulesko came to America in 1886 already a star of Europe’s Yiddish theater scene. Intrepid performers like Mogulesko helped create the Yiddish theater circuit during this decade — and, by extension, vaudeville as well, since so many of its performers would start here.

When he opened the Rumanian Opera House (later, the National Jewish Theatre) on Second Avenue and Houston Street, Mogulesko wasn’t just opening a stage. It became a vital instrument of the community and a key destination in New York’s thriving ‘little Broadway’, opera stages and vaudeville houses along Houston Street and Second Avenue uniquely catering to the immigrants of the Lower East Side.

Mogulesko became America’s most popular Yiddish theater star by the 1900s, a singer and comedian with an uncanny ability to pluck the heart strings. His debut in Coquettish Ladies required a myriad of costume changes, from old to young, male to female. A Jewish historian wrote, “A born genius he was, and his personality was as marvelous as his art.” [source]

Below:  Mogulesko in Joseph Lateiner’s The Dybbuk (performed in Odessa in 1884) playing the character “Grandmother Eve”

At the same time, he was little known in other parts of New York. (He allegedly never learned to speak English.)  The more formal elements of the “legitimate” stage sometimes looked at the successes of the Lower East Side theater scene with bemusement and a little jealousy. “These alien citizens have a theater which they thoroughly comprehend and esteem,” said the New York Times in 1914. [source]

Mogulesko, at right, with his son Julius:

This accounts for the passion held by many for the performers of Yiddish stage, the embrace of an entertainment form that was undeniably theirs in language and custom.  And this also accounts for the great outpouring of grief when one of its most acclaimed stars — like Sigmund Mogulesko — passed away.

On February 4, 1914, the great actor died in his home at Stuyvesant Street, eliciting a response from the Lower East Side that, from the outside, must have appeared quite hysterical. (Below: From the New York Sun, February 7, 1914)

His memorial service at his theater on Houston and Second Avenue caused a spectacular riot of mourning.  Over 20,000 people arrived at the theater, fighting past 50 police officers swinging their clubs.  “The crowd tore the theatre doors from their hinges and shattered their glass panels.” [source]

A funeral procession lined the streets all along Second Avenue, from the Hebrew Actors Club (at 31 East 7th Street) to the theater.  The hearse transporting the actor’s body was engulfed “in the sea of those who hummed with queer breaks in their voices bits of the songs which had endeared the author to them.” [source]  Not since the explosion of the General Slocum steamship had the Lower East Side been filled with such intense grief.

Among those who spoke at his memorial service were Jacob Adler (father of method acting coach Stella Adler) and Boris Thomashefsky, a later inspiration for the Marx Brothers and Mel Brooks.  Sadness — and a certain kind of joy — permeated the service, his greatest roles and contributions to the local theater scene lauded.  It was now a vital industry of New York, one that would not have thrived as it did without him.

As Moguloesko’s coffin was taken from the church, drawn by eight black horses, and carried through the falling show, all of Delancey Street was lined with thousands of mourners, watching as the hearse, now obscured in a blizzard, headed onto the Williamsburg Bridge for its eventual destination — Washington Cemetery.

All photos (except the newspaper) from the Second Avenue Yiddish Theater Digital Archives.