August 13, 2000
Put Through the Mill, Yet Gilbert and Sullivan Still
The adaptability, elasticity even, of Gilbert and Sullivan is in evidence in Manhattan these days as two groups present nontraditional versions of "H.M.S. Pinafore" and "The Pirates of Penzance." The good ship Pinafore looks familiar enough, with its big nautical steering wheel at center stage, but why is it flying the Israeli flag? The tunes are Arthur Sullivan's good old tunes, but what's with the lyrics? "Ikh bin der keynig fun dem yam." What happened to "I am the monarch of the sea"? The dialogue is in English (mostly) and some of it is right out of W. S. Gilbert's original libretto (some of it).
Gilbert wrote that "love levels all ranks," but he didn't write: "After all, can't an Orthodox marry a Reform? And can't a Litvak marry a Galitzyaner?"
Only in the Gilbert and Sullivan Yiddish Light Opera Company's production of "Der Yiddisher Pinafore," currently anchored on Saturdays and Sundays at the New 14th Street Y, through Aug. 27.
When Gilbert and Sullivan opened their own New York production of "H.M.S. Pinafore" in 1879, Gilbert told the audience, "It has been our purpose to produce something that should be innocent but not imbecile." This would not seem to be a promising formula for show-business success these days, when so many entertainments manage to be imbecile without being innocent. Yet Gilbert and Sullivan have turned out to be astonishingly durable over the years, even emerging as the heroes of the recent popular film "Topsy-Turvy."
In "Der Yiddisher Pinafore," adapted by two founding members of the company, Al Grand and Bob Tartell, Little Buttercup, now Kleyne Putershisl (literally, Little Butterbowl), still comes aboard to peddle her wares to the sailors, but her sales pitch now rhymes "knishes" with "delicious." Ralph, the sailor-hero, is now Labe, but he is still a tenor, and he still loves Rokhl, originally Josephine, the daughter of Der Kapitan -- much to the annoyance of Shloyme der Shlemiel, formerly Dick Deadeye. Der Kapitan, too, is furious: he intends to marry his daughter to Der Admiral, and has already hired the caterers. Rokhl, of course, loves Labe, though how can she marry him? Isn't he a Gentile? But just at the point where, in Gilbert's script, the hero is proudly proclaimed "an Englishman," it is revealed that Labe is "a guter Yid" -- a good Jew. The lovers are united, and the show ends with a hearty "Mazel tov!"
The company, which has its headquarters in Merrick, on Long Island, has been in existence for two decades and has toured up and down the East Coast as well as to England and Canada, playing "Der Yiddisher Pinafore," "Der Yiddisher Mikado" and "Di Yam Gazlonim" ("The Pirates of Penzance"). The performers include professors and former opera singers. Dr. Tartell, a retired dentist who also produced "Pinafore," plays Der Kapitan. Al Barouch, a cantor, is the musical director; he plays Labe when he is not conducting.
Few members of the company are fluent in Yiddish. Some, including Georgia McGill, the director of the show, are not even Jewish. Why then perform in Yiddish? Not in order to reach an audience for whom Yiddish is a first language; for all practical purposes, such an audience no longer exists. But it seems that the very tenuousness of Yiddish's post-Holocaust survival makes people want to revive and propagate it.
Murray Nesbitt, who plays Der Admiral, told the Hadassah magazine: "Every time we do a show, I feel like I'm putting another nail in Hitler's coffin. That's the language he wanted to eradicate." Yet if the company hopes to preserve Yiddish, why do they perform Gilbert and Sullivan rather than Yiddish material?
First of all, because they love Gilbert and Sullivan. Furthermore, down-to-earth
Yiddishkeit stands out all the more vividly against such a genteel, Victorian
ever-so-English background. The company is asserting the right to bring proud Jewishness
into the very midst of Anglo-Saxon culture. "We are Diaspora Jews," Dr. Tartell
said. "And we've done what Jews have done through the centuries -- taken something
from their surrounding community and wed it with something from their heritage, and given
that to the world."
Julius Novick, a former theater critic, is working on a book about Jewish American