‘WANDERING STARS’ tells the tale of a love lost in the shtetl and refound in New York. (photo credit: BRIAN NEGIN)
‘WANDERING STARS’ tells the tale of a love lost in the shtetl and refound in New York.
(photo credit: BRIAN NEGIN)

Classic Yiddish tale 'Wandering Stars' gets Jerusalem musical adaptation


Robert Binder had a dream. It may not have quite been in the globally game-changing Martin Luther King league, but he lovingly harbored the idea of producing a musical version of Wandering Stars, by Sholem Aleichem, for many a moon.

That dream will finally become a reality when the Jerusalem-based Encore Educational Theatre Company, under the devoted steady hand of long-serving artistic director Binder, puts on three shows of the inaugural production at the Train Theatre in Liberty Bell Park on June 27-29.

“I read Sholem Aleichem’s book, in translation, by his granddaughter, many many years ago. I was very taken with it,” recalls Binder. The seed had been well and truly sown. All that was needed for it to bear corporeal performative fruit was a generous dosage of contemplation, the passage of time and negotiating the matter of adapting the early 20th-century Yiddish literary work to the stage.

It seems that Binder has now managed that and the results of that protracted gestation period, and the sweat of the artistic director’s brow, are now ready to be unveiled for public consumption. “It has been a lifetime ambition of mine to bring this story to the stage,” he declares. It was also a grind. “I tried with it for a long time. I wrote an initial scene and I outlined other scenes.”

Binder knew he was up against it. “It’s a sprawling epic of a novel that covers the previous 10 years, with dozens of characters,” he notes. This was around the turn of the 20th-century and the novel was originally proffered to the reading public in a serialized version in various Warsaw newspapers, running 1909-1911.

 SHOLEM ALEICHEM’S century-old book is revived at the Train Theatre. (credit: BRIAN NEGIN)
SHOLEM ALEICHEM’S century-old book is revived at the Train Theatre. (credit: BRIAN NEGIN)

The base storyline is the stuff of classic Hollywood romantic escapism and tells the tale of Leibel, scion of a wealthy family, who falls in love with Reizel, a cantor’s daughter who comes from much lower down in the socioeconomic pecking order.

In addition to their ardor for each other, they are both mesmerized when a proverbial circus – actually a Yiddish theater group – comes to town. The die is set for a happy-ever-after elopement but not all goes to romantic plan. The troupe splits into two rival groups and the young lovers go their separate ways reuniting years later in New York.

Now, thanks to Binder and his Encore colleagues, we can get a visual and sonic handle on the goings on between Leibel and Reizel, who find thespian success under their professional sobriquets of Leo Rafalesco and Rosa Spivak. In the new production, the protagonists are played by Jake Halperin and Aviella Trapido, both veterans of quite a few Encore shows.

BUT THIS was far from just a matter of portraying the tale from the shtetl and the Lower East Side of New York, as thousands of Eastern European Jews converged on the New World. “I had always been seeking for some way to put it on the stage, that would be comprehensible and run to less than seven hours,” Binder chuckles.

It is always a challenge when it comes to transposing a work of art to another discipline, particularly books which naturally contain a plethora of detail which simply cannot be fully imparted on the stage or silver screen. The trick is to fashion something that conveys the spirit of the narrative, and provides a good overview of the action and a decent sense of the sentiments therein, in a cohesive, fluid and comprehensive form.

To that end, after writing all the dialogue Binder reunited with veteran sparring partner, composer-musician Paul Salter to put the words to music. A smaller than the usual complement of Encore production singer-actors was duly recruited, supported by an instrumental septet. 

In fact, the Binder project is not the first attempt to give the Sholem Aleichem work a new entertaining lease of life. “I found out, much later, that Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, the composer and lyricist, had wanted to make this book into a show on Broadway,” he notes. “They tried for a long time to adapt the book to the stage and they finally gave up.” That was over 60 years ago.

Still, Bock and Harnick did not exactly come out of the abortive venture empty-handed. “They turned to an existing script, by Arnold Perl of Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye stories, and they said ‘let’s do something simple, like Fiddler of the Roof!’” Binder laughs. Sholem Aleichem’s loss turned out to be Sholem Aleichem’s immensely popular gain.

And where the aforementioned famed American Jewish twosome failed, it appears the determined seasoned Encore artistic director has now struck creative gold. “It’s taken all this time for Binder and Salter to get it to the stage,” he observes, “I hope successfully.”

 ARTISTIC DIRECTOR Robert Binder (L) and musical director Paul Slater bring Sholem Aleichem’s ‘Wandering Stars’ to the stage.  (credit: Ben Hashbaz)
ARTISTIC DIRECTOR Robert Binder (L) and musical director Paul Slater bring Sholem Aleichem’s ‘Wandering Stars’ to the stage. (credit: Ben Hashbaz)

Bringing Wandering Stars to the stage: A journey that has taken over 100 years

ALL TOLD, it has taken more than a century for the Wandering Stars to make it into bona-fide theatrical form. In the normal course of things, that would present the adapters with the thorny problem of presenting the storyline in a convincing manner that is true to the source while making the onstage action amenable and credible to a 21st-century digital and substantially virtual-oriented audience.

Nonetheless, many of us have roots in, or are familiar with, the Eastern European yesteryear cultural lay of the land and should be able to relate to the zeitgeist of the Yiddish tome. Binder believes that, and the way Sholem Aleichem crafted the tale, should help to draw us into the performance dynamics.

“It’s a very theatrical piece,” he says. The compelling energies and developmental continuum are certainly there to be creatively utilized, added to the backdrop shared by many Ashkenazi Israelis. But it is not an exclusively Ashkenazi scene. This is, after all, a country of immigrants and, presumably, Jewish Israelis with Moroccan or Iraqi roots can also readily identify with the trials, tribulations and eventual epiphanies that can ensue from geographic and cultural transitions.

A classic story of Jewish immigration

Wandering Stars is basically a classic tale of immigration, from Poland to the US. Binder says there is a major lifestyle shift worked into the fabric too. “There is the culture, going from a shtetl where anything outside was totally strange and new and bewildering, to large cities when the company goes to Vienna and Warsaw to London and finally to New York. It is really a metaphor for the Jewish experience, in the 20th century.”

The production is a theatrical musical in which the score is not just about making the lyrics entertaining. Binder says it also helps to bring us into the socio-cultural scene. “Paul is a very gifted composer, orchestrator and arranger. I was just saying this to him last night, when I heard the orchestra playing for the first time, the score captures the flavor of Sholem Aleichem in music. It has the Jewish taste, it has the European lilt, it is show business at the same time. It’s like all Jewish songs.”

Having lived with, and nurtured, the project for so long presumably Binder has frequently pictured the onstage end product in his mind’s eye. That is, indeed, the case but it has not been an entirely smooth road with a constantly uninterrupted view of the artistic finish line. “It has undergone many transformations,” Binder observes. Then again, the solid and evocative core was always there for the inspirational push. “The characters are so vibrant, and one can relate to them on so many different levels. They have been part of me and now I have tried to bring them out in the dramatization.”

That has involved much sifting, and making tough decisions about what to omit to keep the theatrical production to a manageable scale. “There has been a lot of reduction, elimination and duplication of characters,” Binder explains. It has been, he says, an equally challenging and rewarding undertaking. “I’ve loved the process.”

It sounds like a definitively daunting and exciting exploit. “All that and more,” Binder says, adding that the job in hand required special attention, and a cautious approach. “We have a hand-picked cast. Usually our productions are quite large, with a cast of 40 or 50 people or more. This is just 21 people on stage, a seven-piece orchestra and 200-seater theater.” That may very well be the parochial calm before the international smash success storm. “This is an experimental version. I call it an off-Broadway tryout,” he jokes, “quite far off-Broadway. We’ll see further productions of it – here and in other places, please God.”

Does that include New York, where some of the Wandering Stars storyline takes place, at the epicenter of global musical-theatrical derring-do? “I think it could transfer to many places,” Binder suggests. “But, like any new show, it needs a tryout to get the audience reaction, and we have cast changes and other changes. It’s still a work in progress.” 

The set designed by Roxane Goodkin-Levy, perhaps, reflects that softly softly ethos. 

“The show is being done very minimally, scenery-wise,” Binder says. “Usually Roxane goes to town with the scenery. In this show there are just a few small pieces.” 

There is just one scene where Goodkin-Levy gets to let her artistic hair down, which references Amsterdam and 17th-century Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza. That spreads the cultural palette a mite.

Binder, Salter and the rest of the crew are clearly doing their best to turn that ambitious vision into an actual, onstage and – who knows? – box office-spinning fruitful reality. 

IT HAS been a long time coming. 

“Robert told me about this 16 or 17 years ago,” says Salter, adding that it wasn’t just a matter of putting it on a back burner and waiting for the right moment to get down to it. Apparently Binder’s vision has been taking shape in dribs and drabs, over time. “We wrote one of the songs, it could be that long ago, let’s say 16 or 17 years ago. The first one was called Hotzmach & Co.” That references the wily theater troupe founder in the Sholem Aleichem story, played in the Encore run out by Michael Sacovsky. 

Salter was immediately taken both by Binder’s zeal and the source material. “I read the book, which I really enjoyed. It was the 1950s translation,” Salter recalls. Actually that was an abridged version in English by Frances Butwin. “It’s not as good as the original,” Salter hastens to add.

The current venture does have some, albeit minimal, prior audience response to build on. “We actually performed it, in somebody’s house, and we said we’d be doing this show – to spark some interest. That was a long time ago.”

Theodor Herzl may not have been uppermost in Binder’s mind but he and Salter have followed in the Jewish national home visionary’s footsteps who famously said: “If you will it, it is no dream.” 

The desire to go the whole hog is certainly in place. It also helps to have broken creative bread on several occasions. “Robert and I have worked on many productions over the years,” Salter says. “We have done Gilbert and Sullivan [operettas] and Broadway stuff as well. With this one we decided to keep it small scale just for now. I hope there’s going to be more, with all the work that’s gone into it by everyone – cast, crew and the writers. I hope that there’s going to be more than just three performances in a small theater.” 

Salter has laid on the instrumental substratum to help make that happen. In addition to his keyboard tinkling, the actor-singers will be backed by flute, clarinet, trumpet, violins, cello, double bass and an accordion. “Robert says I have captured the klezmer feeling, the heimisch feeling of the show in the music, and orchestration. It is a lovely story and, I hope, it will be a captivating evening.”

The audience members should go home with smiles on their faces. “And singing the songs,” Salter interjects. Broadway theatergoers stand by. ❖

For tickets and more information: www.encore-etc.com/

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