December 6, 2020

A Star-studded Folksbiene Chanuka Spectacular

Meet Your Host: Adam B. Shapiro

In the days leading up to this Tuesday’s extravaganza, we sat down (virtually!) with Adam to discuss the production, his career, and the other Adam Shapiro (who he’s often mistaken for).

You may know him as Der Rov from Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish or Gimpel from Gimpel The Fool. Or as the cantor in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Or even from his virtual series (Still A) Live from Shapiro Hall. And now, Adam B. Shapiro is taking on a new role: directing the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s star-studded Folksbiene Chanukah Spectacular, a virtual benefit enlisting more than 50 Yiddish performers from across the globe this Tuesday night.

“I’m an Indiana-born and raised kid who followed his Broadway dreams to New York City,” Adam says, “who discovered that an ear for Yiddish can be a very useful thing, who used to put on shows in his backyard for his parents and ultimately now does it just in a larger backyard.”

In the days leading up to this Tuesday’s extravaganza, we sat down (virtually!) with Adam to discuss the production, his career, and the other Adam Shapiro (who he’s often mistaken for).

So how does it feel to sit in the director’s chair for the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene?

I’m really thrilled and honored to be making my directorial debut with the Folksbiene, that they would entrust me with something like this. I’m very excited about what we’re creating, and I hope people will watch and will donate and keep supporting the company that does such great work.

When did you first learn Yiddish?

I am Jewish on both sides of my family and Indianapolis has a very sizeable Jewish community. But growing up I was not exposed to Yiddish. I moved to New York after college and was auditioning all over, had gotten a call-back for a Broadway debut that didn’t happen. I realized I needed something different, and I saw an audition notice for a theater company whose name I could barely pronounce, Folksbiene. I said I could play that role but that meant I had to learn Yiddish for the audition.≈

Daniella Rabbani and Adam B. Shapiro belt a tune.
Photo credit: Victor Nechay, properpix.com

I decided I was up for the challenge, so I downloaded the materials and pronunciation guide. I worked and worked, went in and read the scene. I didn’t do too badly, but didn’t get that first show. Three months later, I got a call from them. They were doing a musical and wanted to bring me in for the lead. It was the premiere of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Gimple the Fool. I auditioned and got the part – and I’ve never been so simultaneously thrilled and terrified at the same time. The role was great. The play was great. But I had to do this in Yiddish.

I never worked harder in my life and pretty much every moment I wasn’t needed I was in another room with my Yiddish coach, Folksbiene’s Associate Artistic Director Motl Didner. I would go home and practice and as it started to stick I got more confident. When opening night came, it went off without a hitch. I thought, I just did a show in Yiddish so I think I can officially do anything now!

Adam B. Shapiro in Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish, flanked by James Monroe Števko and Michael Einav.
Photo credit: Victor Nechay, properpix.com

What happened next?

Because I had worked so hard, it would have been a shame to stop here, and so in the 12 years since we’ve done six productions, including two that were done twice, The Golden Bride and Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish. It’s been this beautiful experience and made me feel very connected to my heritage, because my family on both sides are Russian and eastern European Jews, and my grandfather was born and raised on the Lower East Side. I am sure my great-grandparents probably went to the Yiddish theater in its heyday, so with Fiddler, Yiddish theater is having a little bit of a renaissance and to be part of that is so gratifying and meaningful.”

What is it about Yiddish entertainment and theater that is so appealing?

Yiddish is such an expressive language. It lends itself so well to music and theater. There are certain songs in particular that I’ve performed in both English and Yiddish, and nine times out of 10, I prefer doing it in Yiddish because there is something so expressive and so from the nefesh?, from the soul.

Yiddish declined in the latter half of the 20th century because parents weren’t teaching it to their kids. They said it’s the past, the language of the oppressed, we’re going to speak English or modern Hebrew. By the time I was born, neither my parents nor their friends spoke Yiddish. What we’re seeing now is people wanting to reconnect with their heritage, which means embracing Yiddish.

What was your first acting gig?

The first time I was every on stage was in the elementary school talent show when I was in kindergarten, so I was five years old. At my mother’s suggestion, I reenacted the scene from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs where the wicked queen turns into the witch.  My first time in a musical was as Motl in Fiddler on the Roof when I was nine years old in summer camp. The summer after my sophomore year in college, I got my first acting job at the Barn Theater in Augusta, Michigan. That was the first time I got paid to act.

Adam in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

And eventually Mrs. Maisel happened…

I had never heard of it when I got the audition notice and, once again, I didn’t know how to pronounce it, My-zel? May-zel? The role was to play a cantor and to sing blessings during a service and I said, “I can do that”. I saw that Tony Shalhoub was involved, and my mother and I just love him. I thought how cool it would be to play a cantor from the 1950s on a television show. I had no idea that it was going to take off, and I was brought back for the second season. Everyone was delightful, particularly Marin Hinkle who plays Midge’s mother, Rose. I hope the cantor makes more appearances. Hashtag #MoreCantor!

Adam Shapiro with Adam B. Shapiro
Photo ©Adam B. Shapiro

People often mistake you for the other Adam Shapiro…

We knew of each other for years and we finally got to meet when her came to see Fiddler with his wife, Katie Lowes. I loved that we got to meet after a show. The following week, I went to see them in Waitress. I would love for someday to do something together. I think he and I should do The Producers. Can you imagine? The Producers starring Adam Shapiro and Adam B. Shapiro.

Amid the pandemic, you shifted seamlessly to virtual presentations?

I’ve actually been creating online content since 2015, a series called One Man Broadway where I make these videos of Broadway production numbers where I play all the roles. I didn’t know I’ve been planning for a pandemic. When everything started locking down, I got antsy and I said I need to create something. I went to my roommate, Janice Hall, who also is an accomplished performer, and asked if she’d like to make a filmed special in the style of old variety shows from the 60s and 70s like Carol Burnett, Sonny & Cher, and Dinah Shore. We can make it here and have whatever we want with a green screen, so we created (Still A) Live from Shapiro Hall, and we integrated guest stars and made it look seamless and purposeful.

We did our first one in May and people absolutely loved it. They were not expecting the kind of sort of digital production value we had. We thought we would do just one, but it was so well-received that we did another, then a Halloween special, and soon we’ll do a holiday special. It’s been a wonderful way to hone my editing and video skills and keep the creative muscles flexed. It feels really good that this has given people enjoyment this year.

And now you’re an award nominee!

How about that?! The Broadway World Awards are always fun. I have to say seeing us nominated for filming a quarantine series and bring nominated for producing the series feels very good. Whether it’s a win, lose or draw, to get that kind of recognition feels very good.”

How did your role in the Folksbiene Chanukah Spectacular happen?

So Motl Didner watched my first special and has always been one of my live viewers. He showed it to Folksbiene’s Artistic Director Zalmen Mlotek, and they contacted me to ask if I could possibly direct something for them. I hadn’t thought of doing a special for anyone, but if I was to, it would certainly be for Folksbiene. I’m really thrilled and honored beyond belief.

There’s something rather poetic about it because they’ve done so much for me in my career. They cast me in Gimple when a lot of other companies wouldn’t even look at me sideways. Being brought in for this role for the Folksbiene Chanukah Spectacular is quite beautiful. It’s also something I know how to do that they’ve never done. I know the technical side and they certainly know the Yiddish, so after 12 years with them I feel I can marry the true heart and soul of Yiddish theater with this technology and create something that embraces both.

What can audiences expect to see?

This is not just going be people singing in their living rooms. You’ll see some great digital production numbers, and our opening number alone, well let’s just say I haven’t counted how many people are in it! And, they represented different countries, not just the United States but Germany, Japan, Australia, the UK, Romania. People from all over the world are participating.

It was important to all of us that you really have something to see, and not just hear. By this point, we’ve seen people standing and singing in their living rooms. We don’t want to see that anymore. This is going to be fun, and you can’t spell fundraiser without f-u-n. My goal is to create something that you could see produced on television.

What do you want people to experience?

What I love about this is just with the medium alone it’s embracing both the past and the future. A lot of people associate Yiddish theater with the past, and what was so wonderful during our run of Fiddler of the Roof was that Yiddish theater was very present, and it was present in the present. It was undeniable, and so what we are now doing is acknowledging and respecting our past and our history, where we are in the present, and what the future will hold for the Yiddish theater.

What have you learned about yourself in this process?

Adapting and embracing can be fun. We all would love to be doing something live right now, to be on a stage in front of an audience, and we look forward to when we can do that again. But Folksbiene is saying we are going to use this as an opportunity to try something new. We don’t usually get to have tons of guest stars from around the world, and we don’t usually put on a concert with big edited sequences that are visually interesting and have some camera magic. But Folksbiene has looked at this as an opportunity to try something new. You’ll be surprised by how much you’ll enjoy the results.

What’s next for you?

Hopefully in the Spring I will release my first album. I started working on it in 2019 while we were in Fiddler. My hope was that in 2020 I would have more time to work on that. But this isn’t what I meant! But I was able to work remotely with a producer and we’re almost finished with the album.

Where can fans follow you?

On Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, I’m at theadambshapiro. If there’ no “B”, it’s not me!

Tickets are FREE
Donations encouraged.

Tues. Dec. 8 at 7PM est

November 29, 2020 | Joanna Gallai

Around the World in Yiddish – An Inside Look at NYTF’s Chanukah Spectacular

We’re a little over a week away from the global Yiddish extravaganza of the season – the Star-Studded Folksbiene Chanukah Spectacular – and already thousands of people plan to attend!

Here is a sneak peek of the opening number, Around the World in Yiddish. Packed with performers joining us from the far reaches of the globe, it’s a vivid reflection of how musicians have been keeping Yiddish alive by sharing old favorites and creating new compositions, continuing tradition while adapting to different cultures, geographies, and times.

“Yiddish is an international language that ties Jews together. It is a unifying force even for those who don’t speak it themselves,” National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene Artistic Director Zalmen Mlotek says. “We have an emotional attachment to it because we’ve heard it from our parents, our grandparents, and our teachers. As you’ll see in our opening number, Yiddish music is a universal experience packed with energy and emotion.”

Folksbiene’s trip around the world is a veritable ver iz ver (who’s who) of Yiddish and klezmer music. Fans in America may not be familiar with all of these accomplished musicians, and because now is no time to travel the world to discover their new sounds and voices, our Chanukah gift to the Folksbiene mishpacha is to bring the world to you.

The performers in the opening number are paragons of Yiddish music – artists you’ll want to hear again and again (and one day hopefully see in person!). Until then, we’ll tell you a little bit about them before you see them on December 8.

Joining us from the farthest distance is Miwazow Kogure, co-founder of the funky Japanese klezmer band Jinta-la-Mvta. She is a percussionist, singer, and koto (Japanese harp) player who sings in Yiddish and has performed at Klezmer festivals around the world.

Then sail south to meet Melbourne’s Yiddish Klezmer Diva, vocalist Freydi Mrocki, who was signed on to be the Yiddish coach for our Australian tour of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish. She has been speaking, singing, and teaching Yiddish for decades. And, her students will be tuning in to our Chanukah Spectacular (it’ll be just before lunchtime for them – a day ahead of us!).

Next, hop a flight to Israel where the lead singer of the eponymous band, Mendy Cahan & Der Yiddish Express, is known to translate popular (English-language) songs into Yiddish. At his Yung YiDiSH center in the basement of the Tel Aviv central bus station, which is an eclectic hub for artists, he keeps thousands of volumes of Yiddish books, hosts cabaret nights, and is at the forefront of the rebirth and embrace of secular Yiddish culture in Israel.

From Israel, we head north to Moldova, where Efim Chorny and Susan Ghergus are the founders of the prize-winning Jewish Song Theatre and the renowned Chorny-Ghergus Duo. They are hailed in Moldova and throughout Europe for their traditional Yiddish and klezmer music as well as their original compositions.

Just west, we meet an actress with the 140-year-old State Jewish Theater in Romania – one of the only government-sponsored Jewish theaters in the world. Geni Brenda is at home speaking Yiddish on stage. For more than twenty years, she has performed Yiddish plays in Romania and on tour with her company around the world.

Now we move on to northern Europe, where Shura Lipovsky has been a major player in the revival of Jewish music in The Netherlands. A singer, writer, and composer of new Yiddish songs, Lipovsky has collaborated with the greatest Yiddish singers and musicians of today.

Our next stop is Great Britain, where two musicians join us: Polina Shepherd, a somewhat recent immigrant originally from Siberia and Tatarstan, and Merlin Shepherd, from Wales. Polina and Merlin Shepherd collaborate with each other as well as celebrated musician colleagues. Each stands on their own with their incredible musical talents, and when they come together, it can be transformational. One journalist, after experiencing a performance, dubbed them “the Led Zeppelin of contemporary Yiddish music.”

Finally, we return to North America with audacious Canadian musician Josh Dogin (Socalled), who mixes klezmer with different musical interests, like hip-hop and techno. One of the most innovative performers in Yiddish today, Socalled produces exciting music through his use of technology and collaborations with musicians from diverse genres.

 

Around the World in Yiddish reveals that Yiddish truly is everywhere; and with viewers logging in from around the world, we will be connected with each other in a time when we may otherwise feel so far apart,” Mlotek says.

 

Reserve your virtual seat now, and join us on Tuesday, December 8 at 7:00 p.m. EST as the Star-Studded Folksbiene Chanukah Spectacular lights up the universe with a trip around the world of Yiddish

Tickets are FREE/donations encouraged.

Thank you for visiting

Please do consider a donation to the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene.  Your support, no matter how small or large, enables us to continue our mission of producing, presenting and preserving Yiddish culture.