Few family scrapbooks cut as deep into the American consciousness as that of Michael Tilson Thomas, known to the world as the esteemed conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, but increasingly identified by his grandfather's surname thanks to
The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater
, performed Tuesday with film, photos, songs, and the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Kimmel Center.
Part memoir, part Broadway show, The Thomashefskys has been developed over a number of years, tracing the couple's New York-based stardom and postdivorce careers stretching between the 1880s and the 1930s. Tilson Thomas is now taking the show he wrote and narrates - directed by Patricia Birch and featuring Judy Blazer and Shuler Hensley as the stormy couple - for one more round with U.S. symphony orchestras (this performance was presented by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia) before it's taped for PBS, and perhaps not a year too soon.
Like much pop culture before World War II, remnants of the Thomashefskys' world are moldering by the minute, and could well be lost if not for the research and reanimation from Tilson Thomas and Linda Steinberg (now education director of the National Museum of American Jewish History here).
But as much as Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky reinvented each other, themselves and popular culture with dizzying velocity and bravado, sustaining the evening musically is hardly a given. Though tuneful, songs of this period, Yiddish and otherwise, have the substance of advertising jingles, functioning mainly as platforms for charismatic personalities and progressive politics, creating the kind of cultural affirmation that gives dignity and diversion to its special-interest constituency. Performers seem to have been like lightning rods for a group experience. The question wasn't so much the quality of the material but if it allowed the Thomashefskys to be their authentic selves.
In fact, the Yiddish theater's ultimate aim was to put itself out of business, said Tilson Thomas, to raise public consciousness to the point where this kind of conspiratorial relationship between performer and audience was no longer needed. That's not to say that the music and comedy of The Thomashefskys is obsolete. Thanks to careful selection and archival visuals evoking the period, the music and attitude are still fun, and fascinating for how they resonated into the future.
When Bessie retired to Los Angeles, kids who once sold potatoes in the lobby of her New York theaters were running the movie studios. Time and again, visual images and character types seen in The Thomashefskys had direct descendants in movie musicals. One of Bessie's racier monologues is a forerunner to phone sex. One of Boris' surviving films shows an elemental, intense performer that makes Fiddler on the Roof seem bland.
Portraying this might seem like a tall order, but it looks like a blast. As Boris, Hensley conveys a sense of towering physical stature - aided by his booming voice. Blazer is one of Broadway's best singers, and her recitation of Bessie's monologue, portraying the wily Eastern European emigrant Minke was an Act II highlight. Tilson Thomas also became a song and dance man in "Who do you Suppose Married My Sister? Thomashefsky." It's hard to imagine the high-strung Tilson Thomas of 30 years ago doing anything like this. But could anybody have seen a show like this coming?