Rooted in Yiddish theater
On a sunny Saturday morning in September, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas is padding around his house in stocking feet, dressed in blue jeans and a vibrant blue sweater, his complexion ruddy. He and his poodle have just returned in high spirits from the local farmers market. In his garage, a high school friend is poring over a collection of rocks. In the living room, Tilson Thomas points out an early 20th century poster of Bessie Thomashefsky that faces a costume worn by James Brown -- the mother of New York Yiddish theater more or less meeting the godfather of soul. An arts consultant is just leaving; he and Tilson Thomas have been discussing a Gilbert and Sullivan show for next year’s annual June festival of the San Francisco Symphony, Tilson Thomas’ orchestra since 1995.
These things (with the possible exception of the poodle and the produce) are related.
Let’s begin with the rocks. The collection, gathered by Tilson Thomas on hiking trips with his father, Ted Thomas, is a relic from his childhood in North Hollywood.
Bessie, the model for the zany, wisecracking Jewish comedian Fanny Brice, was Ted’s mother, and she spent her weekends when her grandson was growing up entertaining him with numbers and reminiscences from the old days.
It was she who pointed him toward a career in show business -- a career that now links him to James Brown (about whom he recently did a radio program), along with Gilbert and Sullivan and innumerable other forebears.
Indeed, Bessie’s husband, Boris Thomashefsky, was the first star of Yiddish theater in America. A flamboyant celebrity to New York Jews, Boris pranced around Manhattan with Diamond Jim Brady, carried a jewel-encrusted riding crop and rode in his Stanley Steamer through the crowded Lower East Side, tossing his top hat to his adoring fans. Thirty thousand of those fans lined those streets for his funeral in 1939, five years before Tilson Thomas was born.
Hence, “The Thomashefskys,” an evening-length entertainment that Tilson Thomas will present with the Los Angeles Philharmonic this week. The show -- re-creating a lost era through song, narration, film and theater -- was first produced at Carnegie Hall in 2005 and has been mounted with the San Francisco Symphony, the Chicago Symphony and the New World Symphony, Tilson Thomas’ training orchestra in Miami. Each locale had a different audience. New York was the out-of-town tryout. In Florida, some old-timers still think of Tilson Thomas as Thomashefsky’s grandson, and the kibitzers weren’t shy about shouting out what songs they thought should be included. In San Francisco, he’s simply MTT, the city’s stellar music director.
But in Los Angeles, Tilson Thomas is bringing it all back home. His heritage, he says, shaped who he is and how he responds to music. Close to Bessie and his father, he has needed a while to come to terms with the looming aura of a larger-than-life grandfather he never knew.
Ted Thomas, who changed his name from Theodore Thomashefsky to be his own man, rebelled against the grand life of his parents and refused to ever wear a suit and tie. Tilson Thomas says that his eccentric father, who made a living writing screenplays for westerns but also painted and played the piano, dressed only in a bright T-shirt, a plaid Pendleton shirt, jeans and Buster Brown Boy Scout shoes.
Boris and Bessie, immigrants from the Ukraine who met in New York, broke up in 1913, and “the sad story,” Tilson Thomas relates, “is that they sort of cast my father adrift, and from the time he was 13 or 14 he had to pretty much cope with the world on his own.”
“Bessie wanted to develop as an artist in her own right and finally get beyond the shadow of Boris and stake out a life for herself. And Boris was a compulsive sensualist and pursuing his own new projects and involved with his stardom.”
Still, neither Bessie nor Ted ever did get fully beyond that shadow. Ted wrote several drafts of a play, “Kaddish for a Giant,” about his famous father. When Tilson Thomas’ parents died in the ‘90s (his mother had taught high school in the San Fernando Valley), rescuing this project became Tilson Thomas’ mission. He started what he called the Thomashefsky Project to catalog and maintain his grandparents’ archive, which now occupies part of his San Francisco home.
“The first time I appreciated how extraordinary my grandfather was,” he recalls, “was when I was 12. I was back East and wanted to go to a matinee of ‘My Fair Lady,’ which had just opened. I was with a cousin of mine, who was a company manager for another show. There was a huge line of people around the block desperate to get a returned ticket.
“My cousin took me to the stage door and said, ‘Izzy, see this kid? Thomashefsky’s grandson.’ Two seconds later, we were in the third row, center of the theater. That impressed me!”
It was also only the first of the doors that the Thomashefskys opened for him. As a young conductor, Tilson Thomas was taken under Leonard Bernstein’s wing. “When I met Lenny and his circle,” he recalls, “it was very impressive to them that I was Thomashefsky’s grandson.”
Although in some ways a typical L.A. kid in the ‘50s, entranced by rock ‘n’ roll and its lifestyle, Tilson Thomas was never far from the world of Yiddish theater. On most Sundays, there were musicales at his home. Bessie sang, and sometimes Tilson Thomas accompanied her, learning the songs, the phrasing, the timing and the intonation. This also connected him to Broadway and other musical theater traditions, since Yiddish theater was the prototype for early Broadway. The Marx Brothers and many of the Great White Way’s great songwriters -- Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin and George Gershwin among them -- grew up in New York’s Yiddish theater world and then refashioned what they had absorbed into a new medium. Gershwin, in fact, went to school with Ted.
“Boris, with his level of talent, imagination and sense of adventure, is the legend for me,” Tilson Thomas says. “He used to meet with his partner and ask, ‘How much money did we make this season? We are now going to invest half our profits in producing new works. These things we know won’t be box office, but we have to do them. People have to be able to know them.’ This drove his partner bonkers.
“Bessie was the more practical one,” the conductor continues. “She came out from under his shadow and realized that as a comedienne, as someone who could do a particular kind of wry social commentary, she had a talent that was different and in some ways surpassed his.
“He was tied to being a kind of heroic figure with that big stentorian baritone voice that he had. She had more of a music hall voice, and she could do an American style much better than he could.”
A new perspective
Linda Steinberg, an art historian with a specialty in Jewish studies, administers the Thomashefsky Project. As she was showing me around the collection, she described how Tilson Thomas’ understanding of his grandfather has grown since they began working on the show.
“At first, there wasn’t a lot of Boris in it,” she said. “But now there is a lot more. Michael had heard from Bessie all those stories about how he was a womanizer and was maybe a little turned off by him. I felt the same. But the more I learn about Boris, the more I like the guy.”
Tilson Thomas says, though, that the deeper he enters into the material of Yiddish theater and examines the plays Boris wrote, the more respect he has not only for his grandfather but also for the historical importance of that tradition and its continued relevance.
Boris was a Yiddish Hamlet (Shakespeare “adapted and improved,” as the posters put it) and even a Yiddish Parsifal. At the turn of the previous century, when English-language theater was still censored in America, Yiddish theater wasn’t, and works by Ibsen, Gorki, Strindberg and Shaw were often first done in Yiddish.
But the Thomashefskys were also known for their more populist productions, called shund, which is Yiddish for “trash.” “It seems to me now,” Tilson Thomas says, “that the shund plays are the more interesting ones to know about. The literary plays, especially those which reprocessed biblical or historic epics, are far less interesting than the ones about life on the street.” Radical politics were espoused in those melodramas, as were the social issues of immigrants becoming assimilated while at the same time attempting to retain their old culture and language.
“Also, music was an enormous part of it,” Tilson Thomas explains. “And I’ve grown to suspect that a lot of my most primal musical instincts come from this background. I recognize now that I’m really descended from many, many generations of village musicians and entertainers in the Ukraine who could climb up on a chair and take one of the old songs and improvise a whole new variation on it with words appropriate to any occasion.”
Tilson Thomas says all this puts his career in a new perspective. Devising the show -- which is directed by Patricia Birch and features Judy Blazer as Bessie and Eugene Brancoveanu as Boris -- has, along with the work he’s lately been doing making television and radio programs, been a revelation.
“I love music, and I love where it takes me. But maybe most naturally where I should have been all this time is working in theater or film. Well, one last chance. . . . “
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, 11 a.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday
Price: $42 to $147
Contact: (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com