"This isn't the kind of musical where it's 'OK, we're going to have a production number now,'" said Herb Isaacs, artistic director of the West Coast Jewish Theatre, about the upcoming world premiere of "American Klezmer." "Every song is integrated into the plot."
If "American Klezmer," whose book was co-written by Joanne Koch (pronounced "Cook") and Sarah Blacher Cohen, defies the common narrative flaw of many musicals, it adheres to the musical template by having a young ingenue, in this case a Russian Jewish immigrant named Leah (Teressa Byrne), who wants to sing -- a form of leisure not permitted women in the Old Country. As theatergoers have understood since the dawn of musicals like "A Star Is Born," by the end of Act III (Act II, in this case) Leah will be a star.
Although living in Russia and America circa 1910, Leah has a thoroughly modern sensibility, making her reminiscent not only of Millie from the eponymous musical, but also of Rosalind from "As You Like It." Like Rosalind, Leah is reluctant initially to wed. While Leah does not deck herself out in gender-bending attire like Shakespeare's famous heroine, she and her sister, Shulamis, follow Rosalind and boon companion Celia, a surrogate sister, by dressing in disguise and ending up with the right men by the play's conclusion. Along the way, they are both willing to make sacrifices, enter into marriages of convenience and even divorce, a rather radical notion in 1910.
Koch says she was influenced by sacrifices her mother and grandmother made, saying that for "a sister to consider putting aside her happiness for the benefit of another family member would be rare today."
Koch and Cohen, whose joint anthology of plays titled "Shared Stages: The Drama of Blacks and Jews" will be published by SUNY Press later this year, both grew up with "singing mothers, Yiddish mothers," said Koch, whose 14 produced plays include six musicals.
While neither composer Ilya Levinson nor lyricist Owen Kalt conceptualized the actual storyline of the musical, Levinson inspired Koch and Cohen when he played them his musical composition, "Klezmer Rhapsody."
"It captured the energy of Klezmer tradition but had melodic aspects to it," Koch said. "It was extremely varied."
From there, Koch and Cohen, who have collaborated on a number of plays including the musical "Sophie, Totie & Belle," began sketching out ideas for the story of a free spirit, who sneaks into steerage so she can sing in America where "women can be free."
Even if women did not gain suffrage until 1920, anything beats pogroms and a world without song.
"American Klezmer" runs now through Sunday, March 19, at the Egyptian Arena Theatre, 1625 N. Las Palmas Ave., Hollywood. (323) 860-6620.
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