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‘Yiddle With a Fiddle’ Makes Music During a Grim Period of History

<i> Arkatov writes regularly about theater for Calendar. </i>

All comparisons to “Yentl,” says Isaiah Sheffer, are strictly coincidental.

“It’s not any more connected to ‘Yentl’ than ‘As You Like It,’ ” declared Sheffer, who wrote the book and lyrics for “Yiddle With a Fiddle” (opening tonight at the Westwood Playhouse), the musical tale of a young woman’s dressing up and trying to pass herself off as a boy. In this case, Yiddle is an impoverished, unemployed Polish girl who sets off with her father as a traveling musician, concealing her gender for safety on the road.

In an unusual turn, the musical has been adapted from a movie: Joseph Green’s 1936 Polish film “Yidl Mit’n Fiddle , " with a young Molly Picon as Yiddle and a musical score (with just three songs) by the late Abraham Ellstein, a standard-bearer of the Yiddish musical theater. When the idea surfaced a year ago to reassemble the piece as a new English-language vehicle, the producers looked again to Ellstein’s work to fill it out.

“What they didn’t know was that I had been a close friend of Ellstein’s,” said Sheffer, who had worked with the composer many years before. After negotiating with Ellstein’s widow for the rights to his musical oeuvre, Sheffer and musical director-arranger Lanny Meyers pored over Ellstein’s compositions, eventually settling on 17 songs--all of which had been written for other shows.

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What followed was a period of musical cut-and-paste. “I’d say, ‘Here I need a trio for three women,’ then I’d white out the old lyrics--some were in Yiddish or French--and write in new lyrics,” Sheffer said. “It was really a joyful undertaking. What we were trying to do was not a revival of a Yiddish piece--which it never was--but what Tommy Tune did with ‘My One and Only’: stitch together some old, well-known and not-so-well-known tunes.”

Yiddle’s romantic and comic adventures notwithstanding, said Sheffer, “The soul of the show is Ellstein’s great melodies. There are a couple of ballads, tangos, Gypsy numbers, jazz tunes, some authentic Yiddish music--although that’s really the exception. One of the best-known Yiddish songs, ‘Stay Home With Me,’ was originally a sad ballad to a waltz tune.” Now, Sheffer said, it’s a comic ballet.

The 13-actor, three-musician show bowed last November at New York’s 1,400-seat Town Hall, where it became an instant hit, winning raves for Emily Loesser’s Yiddle. “She has music in her genes,” Sheffer said of the actress, the daughter of composer Frank Loesser (“Guys and Dolls,” “The Most Happy Fella,” “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”) “When Emily walked into our lives, it became a starring role.”

Although the show’s subject matter is light and its tone generally upbeat, the setting reflects a grim period in world history. “At one point,” said Sheffer, “when Yiddle’s upset about losing a guy, an older woman says, ‘Times are bad, but they’re sure to get better.’ Of course, in 1936 Poland, that’s all about to be blown away. It lends another level to the show: a time and place and way of life that are not long for this world.”

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Another string to Sheffer’s bow is his National Public Radio program, “Selected Shorts: A Celebration of the Short Story,” which airs locally on KCRW-FM. “We do it live 10 evenings in the spring at Symphony Space,” he said, referring to his 13-year-old nonprofit theater company in New York. “Then it’s distributed around the country. We’ve found that one of the stations that likes it most is KCRW.”

Largely based on his work with “The Grand Tour” (another “traveling” piece) Ran Avni, the artistic director of New York’s Jewish Repertory Theatre, was hired to stage “Yiddle.” “I knew about the movie, but I hadn’t seen it,” Avni said. “I did know one well-known tune from it--the title song--that my father used to sing around the house.” When he finally saw the film, Avni said, “I knew it was a gold mine. I wished I’d thought of it for my own theater.”

“Yiddle With a Fiddle” opens tonight at the Westwood Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., and plays at 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 5 and 9 p.m. Saturdays and 7 p.m. Sundays, with matinees at 2 p.m. Wednesday and 3 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 10. Tickets are $24 to $30. (213) 208-5454 or (213) 410-1062.


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