In real life, a ranch in “Oklahoma!” wouldn’t resound in song. But a Yiddish theater in 1906 Warsaw surely would.
That’s an obvious difference between a stage musical and a play-with-music, says Eric Rosen, the director of “Indecent,” which begins previews Friday at Arena Stage. In a musical, he says, “characters are moved to sing by a heightened emotion,” while in a play-with-music, characters sing as a matter of course, as part of their job description — whether they are the fairies and traveling players who populate Shakespeare’s comedies or the Jewish vaudevillians who inhabit “Indecent,” Paula Vogel’s 2017 Tony Award-nominated play.
That’s where “Indecent” starts. As a struggling theatrical troupe sings the socialist anthem “Ale Brider” in Yiddish, the song sets the time and place. Sholem Asch, the real-life writer who would eventually become one of the foremost Yiddish novelists of the 20th century, is trying to recruit actors and backers for his new play, “God of Vengeance.” The play concerns Jewish brothel owner Yekel, who uses his profits to arrange a marriage for his virginal daughter Rifkele to a young rabbi, only to be thwarted when his daughter falls in love with one of the prostitutes.
Vogel’s script gives us excerpts of Asch’s controversial play, and focuses on the struggle to perform it on both sides of the Atlantic.
“Our cast is a troupe of actors performing a play about a troupe of actors performing a play,” says Rosen. “We try to let the audience know where we are at any moment, and we use everything from surtitles to costume changes, but especially music. The people on stage may be Asch’s characters, then suddenly they become the actors portraying Asch’s characters. They line up for their final bow in Bratislava, then turn to the left as the sign for Ellis Island lights up, and the audience knows the curtain-call line has become a queue of immigrants. In 90 seconds, music enables us to travel across the ocean and time.”
To tell the story of the Yiddish theater as it traveled across the Atlantic, one almost has to include klezmer music, the sound of the shtetl. Klezmer drew from the folk music of the Balkans and Eastern Europe, but it also incorporated jazz as it moved into the cities of Western Europe and North America. Nothing demonstrates the transformation better than one of the show’s songs, “Bei Mir Bistu Shein,” which became a big American hit for the Andrew Sisters and Benny Goodman.
“Klezmer is like jazz,” says Alexander Sovronsky, the music director for “Indecent.” “It can work with a big band or a single saxophone or violin. There are a lot of minor keys, a sense of carrying weight, but also a sense of lift, of forward motion. That’s very helpful to this play, which is, after all, about a group of people who fell in love with a story and wanted to tell it to the whole world.”
The original productions of “Indecent,” at Yale Rep in 2015 and on Broadway in 2017, used arrangements and new music by Lisa Gutkin, fiddler for the noted band the Klezmatics, and Aaron Halva, an experienced regional-theater composer. Vogel, a 1998 Pulitzer winner for “How I Learned To Drive,” now insists that all productions of “Indecent” use the arrangements and music of Gutkin and Halva.
But before she locked in that contract language, the Rosen-led consortium of Arena Stage, Kansas City Repertory and Baltimore Center Stage had already licensed the rights to “Indecent” and had begun developing their own music with Sovronsky. As a result, this three-theater co-production will be the only version of “Indecent” to ever use different music.
“It was an accident of timing,” Rosen says.
Sovronsky has arranged the five songs that Vogel used for her drama about Asch’s 1906 script, and he composed all the incidental music. Sovronsky appears on stage as the violinist and is joined by two other musicians. They are always on stage and often interact with the speaking actors.
“The way Paula uses music in the script is similar to the way Shakespeare used music,” says Sovronsky. “They’re both drawing from popular music of the period. We use famous klezmer and Broadway songs the audience may already know. It’s like singing along to a Lady Gaga or Taylor Swift song today.”
Sholem Asch has an unusual connection to Washington: His son Moses “Moe” Asch was the founder of Folkways Records, the label that introduced some of the greatest recordings by Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly and Pete Seeger. After Asch died, Folkways was purchased by the Smithsonian Institution and is still run as an active label here in Washington.
“Sholem was dubious about his son’s career as a radio repairman and engineer,” says Jeff Place, a senior archivist for Smithsonian Folkways. “But he took Moe on a trip to Princeton to see Sholem’s friend Albert Einstein, because the scientist needed an engineer for a radio spot that would be broadcast in Europe to encourage Jews to leave while they still could. Later, over dinner, Einstein asked Moe what he wanted to do, and Moe said, ‘I want to create an encyclopedia of the sounds of the world,’ which is pretty much what Folkways became — and still is. Einstein said, ‘That’s a brilliant idea.’ Sholem was a lot more supportive after that.”
Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. 202-488-3300. arenastage.org.
Dates: Nov. 23-Dec. 30.