By MORDECAI SPECKTOR
Un mir zaynen ale brider, oy, oy ale brider / Un mit zingen freylekhe lider, oy oy oy!
(We are all brothers / We sing happy songs.) — “Ale Brider”
The first song in the Guthrie’s acclaimed production of Indecent, the very Jewish play by Paula Vogel, is “Ale Brider (All Brothers).”
The traditional Yiddish folk song — based on a poem, “Akhdes (Unity),” by Morris Winchevsky (né Leopold Benzion Novokhovitch), born in Lithuania in 1856 — was popular among Jewish labor activists in the early 20th century.
Violinist Lisa Gutkin, who appears onstage during most of the play, did not have to learn “Ale Brider.” The song is part of the Klezmatics’ repertoire — played as a finale, as the band snakes through the aisles — and Gutkin has been a member of the renowned klezmer ensemble for the past 22 years.
Vogel did not choose “Ale Brider” because it was a popular Klezmatics song, according to Gutkin, during an interview with the Jewish World last week. The chat took place at the Guthrie, in a comfortable lounge overlooking the Mississippi River and Stone Arch Bridge.
“Our version that we play is derivative of the Klezmatics, for sure, because I can’t help myself,” Gutkin commented. “Paula loved it for what it’s saying. It really says what’s needed to be said in the play: we’re brothers, we’re sisters, we get along. It’s really about tolerance. Paula just had to have that song; she wrote that into the script.”
In the way of context, Indecent features a play within the play. It’s the story of The God of Vengeance, by Sholem Asch. The subversive work is introduced early in the show, first, in a scene where the 23-year-old playwright’s wife, Madje reads the play and weeps. She exclaims, “I can’t breathe… it’s wonderful. It’s so sad. I love it.”
The next scene is set in the Warsaw home of author I.L. Peretz, Asch’s mentor. It’s a literary salon in 1906. The God of Vengeance tells the story of a brothel owner who plans to buy a Torah in honor of his virginal 17-year-old daughter’s wedding to a scholar. Events take a turn for the tragic when Yekel, the father, learns that his daughter has fallen in love with one of his prostitutes. He casts both the Torah and his daughter into the basement with the prostitutes.
Although Peretz found The God of Vengeance scandalous — and urged the playwright to burn the manuscript — the play became a success across Europe, as is depicted in Indecent. It also was well-received in a production on the Lower East Side of New York. However, when translated into English and staged at the Apollo Theatre, with the first lesbian kiss on Broadway, the show was busted by the cops, in 1923. The producer, director and cast of players were jailed and charged with obscenity.
(In fact, Asch’s play was ratted out by a New York rabbi who couldn’t abide the perceived denigration of Jews and Judaism. In Indecent, Rabbi Joseph Silverman, of Temple Emanu-El, gives a sermon denouncing the play: “I expect scurrilous lies to my face from the crackpots who call themselves Christian — but to be hit by a stone in my back by a fellow Jew!”)
The Guthrie’s production of Indecent is directed by Wendy C. Goldberg, and it’s a winner on every level. Jewish World readers should run to the theater and see this show.
Members of the small cast play multiple roles and they are all superb. Ben Cherry is wonderful as Lemml, the stage manager whose life becomes wedded over the decades to Asch and The God of Vengeance. And local performers Robert Dorfman, Steven Epp, Miriam Schwartz and Sally Wingert are uniformly excellent.
There are three musicians onstage during most of the show. In addition to Gutkin on violin — who has been with Indecent since its beginnings, and was part of the Broadway run last year — Spencer Chandler plays accordion and Pat O’Keefe plays clarinet.
“The musicians are fantastic… we got great local people,” said Gutkin, who also is credited as Yiddish coach and co-composer, with Aaron Halva.”
She talked about her idiosyncratic style of auditioning musicians, which included moving while playing, and speeding up and slowing down — and observing how the musicians reacted.
“It’s a very particular thing, the way our writing is, Aaron and my writing,” she explained. “It’s not typical klezmer music — it’s got elements of traditional sound, but it’s got a lot breath and air in it.”
Gutkin said she wasn’t looking for virtuosos. “We didn’t need really fancy playing. We needed somebody who could understand how to support words, how to be underneath and still have a power, and a strength to the music without obliterating the script, what was going on onstage.”
The director made some changes in the musical score for the Guthrie production.
“The music changed in subtle ways; and it was really important to me that I be open-minded about how the music would change,” said Gutkin, whose luxuriant auburn head of hair is tucked under a wig for this staging.
She recalled that Goldberg told her: “I’m going to use the music a little differently.” And Gutkin was okay with that
“She was afraid that I was going to be really rigid about it. So how do you do that, how do you allow the music to change? We don’t want to change the melodies or the arrangements. But the feeling of it would change.”
She gave the example of the character Rudolph Schildkraut, the famous European actor. In the original production of Indecent, he was loud, a “brash kind of guy.”
“This Schildkraut was gentler,” noted Gutkin, of the Robert Dorfman performance. “So the music had to be gentler. Maybe start a touch slower, not as loud — so we changed the feel.”
Also, some of the “transitions were quite different, so we shortened some of the music… In Wendy’s production, the scenes were a little longer and the transitions were shorter… that meant we had to use the music a little differently.”
I mentioned to Gutkin that the music flowed throughout the play, and was of a piece with everything happening onstage — almost like a musical.
“Yes, it’s almost like a musical,” she replied. “It’s actually a conundrum for the theaters: Is it a musical? Is it not a musical? Not only how do we bill it, because billing it as a play with music is nice,” and the Guthrie is billing Indecent as “a musical drama.”
Gutkin added: “It’s not a true musical in that the songs don’t propel the story. They sort of do, but they’re old Yiddish theater songs. You know, we didn’t write the songs, obviously — ‘Bei Mir Bist Du Sheyn,’ I didn’t write that. We did the arrangements. So in that sense, it’s not a musical.”
Unlike a true musical, say, South Pacific, the songs in Indecent “don’t carry the script… they set a tone, or they set a mood that tells the audience what time period we’re in.”
At the conclusion of her chat with the Jewish World, Gutkin effusively praised the Guthrie Theater, which provided whatever was needed throughout the process of bringing Indecent to local audiences. She said that the theater has been “impeccable” in every detail of the production.
As mentioned, Gutkin plays violin and sings with Klezmatics. During the extended runs of Indecent, she’s had to step out of the group’s lineup. For the group’s Orchestra Hall debut, in October 2015, Deborah Strauss filled in for Gutkin. When the Guthrie’s production concludes on March 24, Gutkin will fly out to San Francisco and join the klezmorim for a show at historic Congregation Emanu-El.
Gutkin also recently composed the score for a short film, Summer, by Pearl Gluck. She said that she did the composing during off-hours right on the Broadway stage where Indecent was playing.
And as for Gutkin’s Grammy, that honor was for the Klezmatics’ 2006 Wonder Wheel album, which set lyrics by the legendary Woody Guthrie to music. Gutkin wrote the music to “Gonna Get Through This World”; and Susan McKeown sings it on the Klezmatics record. (Gutkin sings the song on her solo CD, From Here On In, which was produced by John Lissauer.) It’s a lovely song.
When I talked to Lorin Sklamberg of the Klezmatics, in 2014, beloved folksinger Pete Seeger had recently died. Sklamberg recalled that the Klezmatics had played at Seeger’s Clearwater Festival several times (2-14-14 AJW).
And Sklamberg mentioned that Seeger “quite liked” a song on the Wonder Wheel album, “Gonna Get Through This World.”
“He wrote Lisa [Gutkin], who wrote the music, a letter about the song, and, first of all, how much he liked it, and second, how he thought she could improve it,” said Sklamberg.
I mentioned that story to Gutkin, who added that Seeger sent her “a three-page letter,” which included the suggested improvements. “It’s beautiful to get a letter from Pete Seeger.”
“He wanted everybody to have an easy time singing it,” she said. And Gutkin has incorporated some of Seeger’s “very subtle” changes for her own performances, not with the Klezmatics, of “Gonna Get Through This World.”
Indecent runs through March 24 on the Wurtele Thrust Stage at the Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2 nd St., Minneapolis. For tickets, call the box office at 612-377-2224.