It was the first time in U.S. history that the cast and producers of a play were hauled down to police headquarters and convicted on obscenity charges.
Sholem Asch's radical 1907 melodrama, "God of Vengeance," tells of a brothel owner who commissions a Torah to keep his daughter pure, only to lose her to a lesbian lover and a rival pimp. The Broadway production was forced to close down in 1923, but Asch's shocker, with strikingly contemporary themes of gay love and religious hypocrisy, has enjoyed revivals of late.
Pulitzer Prize-winner Donald Margulies adapted a version for the Long Wharf Theater of New Haven, set in his grandparents' Lower East Side neighborhood circa 1923. Manhattan's Jewish Repertory Theater staged a version, and so did the downtown New York company Todo con Nada -- set amid the mirrors and scarlet go-go platform of an Eighth Avenue peepshow.
Now a "Vengeance" musical, "The Bride and the Brothel," is coming to Los Angeles, adapted by theater director Madelaine Leavitt and her screenwriter husband, Charles ("The Mighty"), with music and lyrics by Israeli composer Hanna Levy.
Santa Monica resident Leavitt was smitten by "Vengeance" when she chanced upon a translation of the Yiddish-language play in Pakn Treger magazine on her mother-in-law's coffee table four years ago. "I was shocked that the lesbian scenes were so contemporary," she recalled. "I immediately thought, 'One day I am going to direct this play.'" In "Vengeance," she saw a morality tale about how Jews treat their own who live outside the mainstream. She envisioned a musical adaptation to help contemporize Asch's old-fashioned language. She imagined an upstairs-downstairs-style set with earthy tones in the pimp's home and fleshy beige-and-crimson hues in the brothel below. As she began her research, she concurred with Long Wharf director Gordon Edelstein, who told Pakn Treger that Asch "was a bad boy ... writing a play about lesbian prostitutes at the turn of the century. You know he was trying to piss people off."
While "God of Vengeance" was produced in myriad countries and on the New York Yiddish stage in the early 20th century, it provoked scandal only after moving to Broadway, mostly because of Jewish viewers who complained it was anti-Semitic. The loudest critic was Rabbi Joseph Silverman of Manhattan's Temple Emanu-El, who insisted Asch had libeled the Jewish religion. While the non-Jewish dramatist Eugene O'Neill defended "Vengeance," Asch's old mentor, the Yiddish author I.L. Peretz, declaimed, "Burn it, Asch, burn it."
Many decades later, composer-lyricist Levy had similar concerns. "It took me a year to make up my mind about whether to do the play," confided Levy, who directed the music at the Yitzhak Rabin memorial at New York's Madison Square Garden. "I wasn't sure it showed the Jewish people in the greatest light. And there was the issue of the two women and the way the Torah is treated as a magical icon."
The composer, like many Israelis, also had residual feelings about Yiddish as the culture of the Diaspora. But eventually, she was won over by the play's themes, which, she believes, echo the current secular-religious conflicts in Israel.
By 1999, she was scribbling klezmer-inspired songs on envelopes and telephone bills, researching biblical references to the "God of Vengeance" and singing bits of verse to Leavitt over the telephone from her Manhattan apartment or Israeli country house.
The goal, she said, was to create songs that seamlessly merged with Asch's edited, original text. "I wanted to show the humanity of people whose actions we do not approve of morally," she added.
"The Bride and The Brothel" runs Jan. 26-March 4 at the Gascon Center Theater, 8737 Washington Blvd., Culver City. For tickets: (310) 289-2999.