Shlemiel the First (musical)

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Shlemiel the First
MusicHankus Netsky
Zalmen Mlotek (additional music)
LyricsArnold Weinstein
BookRobert Brustein
David Gordon (edited by)
Basisthe stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer
Productions1994 Cambridge, MA
other productions

Shlemiel the First is a musical adaptation of the "Chelm" stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer about the supposedly wise men of that legendary town, and a fool named "Shlemiel". It was conceived and adapted by Robert Brustein, with lyrics by Arnold Weinstein and music based on traditional klezmer music and Yiddish theater songs by Hankus Netsky of the Klezmer Conservatory Band and Zalmen Mlotek, who wrote additional music and arrangements, and served as the musical director of the original production. Singer had written a non-musical theatrical adaptation of the stories which Brustein produced in 1974 when he was the artistic director of Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven, and this served to provide the basic material for the musical.[1]

Shlemiel the First combines the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer...
...with klezmer music, the secular Jewish music of Eastern Europe.

The musical was originally co-produced in 1994 by Brustein's American Repertory Theatre [2][3] in Cambridge, Massachusetts and the American Music Theatre Festival in Philadelphia, and was directed, choreographed and edited by David Gordon, who one critic referred to as the "auteur" of the production.[4] Critic John Lahr, writing in The New Yorker about the show in its run at ART, said that Gordon's "fresh and elegant production ... filters a traditional tale through an avant-garde aesthetic" and has "an element of wonder. In fact, it dares the musical to go back to its beginnings and start again."[5]

The original production subsequently played at the Lincoln Center Serious Fun Festival, the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco,[6] the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles[7] – where it earned Gordon Drama-Logue Awards for Outstanding Direction and Choreography – and also toured theatres on the east coast of Florida and in Stamford, Connecticut. A planned Broadway booking by Alexander H. Cohen did not come about.[1]

Subsequent to the last presentation of the original production in 1997, new productions of the play were mounted in 2000 by the Pegasus Players in Chicago,[8] and by Theater J in Washington, D.C. in the 2007-2008 season.[9]

In January 2010, the original David Gordon production, utilizing the original set and costumes designs by Robert Israel and Catherine Zuber, respectively, was remounted at the Alexander Kasser Theatre of Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey, as a co-production of Jed Wheeler's Peak Performances and the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene.[10] That production was remounted under the auspices of Theatre for a New Audience for performances at New York University's Skirball Center in December 2011.[11][12]


  1. ^ a b Klein, Alvin. "'Shlemiel' Continues A Path to Broadway" New York Times (April 9, 1995)
  2. ^ ART Past Productions: Shlemiel the First (1994)
  3. ^ ART Past Productions: Shlemiel the First (1997)
  4. ^ Klein, Alvin. "'Shlemiel' Continues A Path to Broadway" New York Times (April 9, 1995) "It can be said that Singer is the original author, Mr. Brustein is the adapter and Mr. Gordon is the auteur."
  5. ^ Lahr, John. "Bring Back the Clowns" (subscription only) The New Yorker (July 11, 1994)
  6. ^ ACT Production History Archived 2008-01-01 at the Wayback Machine.
  7. ^ Martinez, Julio. "Shlemiel the First" Variety (May 15, 1997)
  8. ^ Helbig, Jack. "Shlemiel the First". Chicago Reader (February 24, 2000)
  9. ^ "Theatre: Shlemiel the First" on the Theater J website
  10. ^ Orel, Gwen. "The Shlemiel as Experimental Mensch" The Forward (February 17, 2010)
  11. ^ Orel, Gwen."Talking With Robert Brustein and Zalmen Mlotek About Shlemiels" The Forward (February 26, 2010)
  12. ^ "Shlemiel the First" on the Skirball Center website

External links[edit]