Recalling New York City’s Yiddish theaters

Playwright Clifford Odets (right) with Luther Adler, actor, and his sister, Stella, in London.

Playwright Clifford Odets (right) with Luther Adler, actor, and his sister, Stella, in London.

A terrific exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York immerses visitors in a part of the city’s theater scene that vanished around the middle of the 20th century.

“New York’s Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway” fills a large gallery at the Fifth Avenue museum and includes posters, film excerpts, costumes and many other artifacts of the shows that were designed for the huge Eastern-European Jewish community on the Lower East Side.

The theaters flourished at the turn of the last century and grew before and after World War I due to the great numbers of immigrants coming into the city. Second Avenue became known as the “Yiddish Broadway” and an amazing variety of plays were produced there, from sentimental crowd pleasers to more cutting edge fare.

Yiddish theater was the training ground and launching pad for stars and designers who eventually would move into the mainstream. The influence of the downtown shows would be felt in such uptown hits as “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Funny Girl” (below) and “Milk and Honey.”yiddish

The great designer Boris Aronson learned his craft in the Yiddish theater and would later do revolutionary work for Harold Prince on “Fiddler,” “Cabaret” and then Prince’s collaborations with Stephen Sondheim, starting with “Company” in 1970. Aronson’s work on the Prince-Sondheim “Follies” in 1971 remains the most stunning scenic design in my memory bank (the sets for subsequent revivals of the show have suffered in comparison with Aronson’s concept and the way it worked with Florence Klotz’s spectacular costumes).

The museum show contains sketches and models Aronson did over the years, as well as a few gorgeous paintings he made in the process of working on theater designs.

Perhaps the most lasting impact of the Yiddish theater was created by Stella Adler, the great acting teacher whose influence is still felt in theater and film (and whose acting studio continues to thrive in New York City under the direction of her grandson). Marlon Brando always credited Adler with his breakthroughs on stage and screen in the late 1940s.

Adler was part of an acting family led by her parents Jacob and Sara. All five children worked from a very early age in Yiddish stage productions in New York. Stella made her debut at four. Her older brother Luther eventually became a star uptown, where he and his sister were part of the legendary Group Theater that spawned director Elia Kazan, among many other great talents.

The exhibit includes many photos and posters highlighting the role the Adlers played in New York theater for the better part of a century.

(The exhibit is running through July 31. For more information, visit www.mcny.org)

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