Musical Plays on the Hebrew Stage
Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs
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 Musical Plays on the Hebrew Stage

7/16/1998

 The Israel Review of Arts and Letters - 1996/103
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Musical Plays on the Hebrew Stage

Dan Almagor

 
 
Two Kuni Lemels

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Man of La Mancha

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shraga Friedman as Fagin in Oliver

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Megilla of Itzik Manger

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scene From "Guys and Dolls"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jacket Cover From
"There Once Was A Hassid"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CD Cover of "King Solomon and Shalmai the Cobbler"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Record Jacket of Kurt Wiell and Bertold Brecht's "Threepenny Opera"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Fair Lady

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Evita

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Les Miserables

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fiddler on the Roof

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yehoram Gaon in the title role of Kazablan
  The English term "musical," which has been adapted by other languages as well, is usually employed as an abbreviation for "musical comedy" or "musical drama." This genre is generally associated with the English-speaking theatre, especially in America. Many view it as the most characteristic contribution of American culture to world theatre. In fact, it represents a new stage in the growth of the lyric theatre, whose origins date back to ancient times. Latter-day developments in the lyric theatre, developments which preceded musicals and anticipated them, included opera, operetta, American minstrel shows and the British music-hall. Actually many operettas by Offenbach, Kálman, Strauss or Gilbert and Sullivan as well as some of the light operas of Mozart, Gluck and Weber, are not so remote from the British and American musicals of our century. Most historians of the genre include in its repertory such opera-like musical dramas as "Porgy and Bess," "The Threepenny Opera," "Lost in the Stars," "West Side Story" or "Sweeney Todd."

The Hebrew term mahazemer, which originated in one of the weekly magazines during the 1950s, was created from two other Hebrew words, mahazeh ("play") and zemer ("song"). The need for a new term arose from the great popularity of this theatrical genre, familiar to Israeli audiences in those years from many Hollywood musical films. These included "On The Town," "Singing in the Rain," "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," "Oklahoma," "Annie Get Your Gun," and many others. A desire arose amongst Israeli theatre people to produce a Hebrew mahazemer on the British or American model.

However, musical shows had been seen in Israel for a number of years, even before the word mahazemer came into usage. In fact, some historians of the Hebrew stage assert that the first works in that language were a kind of proto-musical, including a chorus, an orchestra and soloists. Scholars of the "Song of Songs," whose authorship is ascribed to King Solomon, have termed this biblical book not merely one of the earliest Hebrew plays - perhaps the earliest of them all - but also the first mahazemer. They believe the Song of Songs was performed in the open air each spring before a large audience, in Jerusalem and elsewhere, in the spirit of a spring play, or the ritual plays at the close of summer characteristic of the ancient east. Some see in the brief work a tale of love between two characters, King Solomon and Shulamith the shepherdess. Others view it as a classical triangle composed of the old king, the young shepherdess and the young girl's lover, who is a poor young shepherd. On one point there is general agreement. Sections of the play are intended for a chorus or choruses: Maidens of Jerusalem, King's Guards, Shepherds and so on. One serious scholar of the theatre in the ancient east, Theodor Gaster, even stated in his book "Thespis" that some of the Psalms were dramatic works sung or performed before an audience, with instrumental accompaniment.

The feeling of spring, the pastoral flavour, the link with the earth and agriculture and the daring erotic element in what we might term this book-cum-play - all these features encouraged the setting of many of its verses by Israeli composers. These settings have also become a sizeable part of the Israeli folk dance repertory. Incidentally, we see Solomon and Shulamith, the "stars" of the "first Hebrew musical," returning time and again, both together and separately, to play an important part in the history of the genre in Hebrew.

A number of Hebrew-language dramas besides the biblical tales had an accompaniment of songs and instrumental music. The title of "the first Hebrew musical" can also be attributed to "The Comedy of Betrothal," a prose work written during the mid-16th century in Mantua, by Leon Sommi, a Jewish playwright, director, producer and theatre scholar. During his lifetime, Sommi was one of the outstanding figures of the theatre in all Europe. One theory even has it that in 1592, shortly before his death, he was visited by the young William Shakespeare. Sommi produced most of the spectacles in Duke Gonzaga's court in Mantua. We are aware of considerable musical activity among the various Jewish communities of Italy, including popular Jewish composers like Salomone di Rossi and dancers such as Simon Basilea. We also know that oratorios and dramatic dialogues with music were staged before members of the Jewish "academies," as amateur culture groups were known. Nor should we forget that sung dialogues between cantor and congregation had long been customary in the synagogue. Amongst the 37 professions of the prolific 17th century Rabbi Leone Modena were the writing of plays and the conducting of a choir in the ghetto of Venice. The single Hebrew comedy which Leone Sommi has left us was performed in Mantua, Venice and, apparently, other Italian ghettos before Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. Its manuscript includes choruses apparently added by a later director. By the way, echoes of the Song of Songs in Sommi's Hebrew comedy are apparent not only in the dialogues between the young lovers, interspersed among the verses of the book, but in the plot as well: the lovers' highly dramatic meeting in the vineyard, the location frequently mentioned in the play written by King Solomon.

Early popular plays also included songs. These were the Purimshpiel dramas, performed during the festival of Purim in Yiddish - and perhaps in Hebrew as well - among Jewish communities in central and eastern Europe. The story-legend, Mekhirat Yosef ("The Sale of Joseph"), a favourite of these audiences, is drawn from the Book of Genesis. Its melodramatic plot (Joseph thrown in the pit, the brothers telling Jacob that his beloved son has been devoured by a savage beast, the encounter between Joseph and his brothers), dampened many handkerchiefs. The story of Joseph was later taken up in musicals produced around the world, and not only in the Hebrew language.

During the second half of the 19th century, works by Jewish dramatists were performed, not only in synagogues, schools or private homes, but also in large theatres and opera houses. In France, the charming operettas of Jacques Offenbach - who was a cantor's son - won the acclaim of non-Jewish audiences. Among their heroines were characters from Greek mythology, as in the operetta La Belle Hélène. In cities in Romania, Poland and other places where Jews resided, the Yiddish operettas of Avraham Goldfaden, a deepdyed man of the theatre, were performed time and again. Goldfaden brought to this new genre the addition of popular Jewish motifs. Shulamith, one of his most beloved operettas, featured a story line based on a Talmudic legend.

The influence of these two Jewish artists on the history of the musical was greater than we might imagine. Certainly Offenbach had an effect on many of the European operetta composers who succeeded him, including, apparently, Gilbert and Sullivan. But Goldfaden's Yiddish operettas actually made a strong impact upon the way the genre developed in the United States. These and similar works written under their influence were staged with great frequency 100 years ago in the popular Jewish theatres of New York's Lower East Side, whether in Yiddish or an English-language adaptation. Eastern European Jewish immigrants, who had been streaming to the new Promised Land since the 1880s, flocked to see these shows. For many of the leading makers of the American musical - from the Gershwin brothers, Oscar Hammerstein II and Irving Berlin, as far as the generation of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim - these Yiddish shows served as the very first meeting ground between the world of music, the theatre and the musical theatre. And though it may sound strange, it is fairly certain that "Porgy and Bess," which has been called America's first major black opera, owes a good deal to the nave, melodramatic Jewish operettas which Ira and George Gershwin saw during their childhood.

Another group of people never forgot Goldfaden's operettas. These were the refugees who had fled the pogroms of Czarist Russia in a different direction: to Eretz-Israel. Among the first Yiddish or Hebrew dramatic works performed here at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, in school auditoriums, in Jaffa, Jerusalem or the tiny new agricultural settlements, was Goldfaden's Shulamith - in exceedingly amateurish stagings, which, nevertheless, aroused the ire of ultra-Orthodox extremists.

Theodor Herzl, the founder of the World Zionist Organization and prime mover of the first Zionist Congress in 1897, which envisioned a state for the Jews, was also a playwright and ardent lover of opera and the theatre. In 1902, he published a utopian novel entitled Altneuland ("Old-New Land"). It recounted an imaginary tour of a futuristic Haifa on the Carmel, where each evening a plethora of plays and operas was presented in halls recalling the opera houses of Vienna, Budapest or Paris. The tourists and their hosts decide to see an original opera, Shabbetai Zevi. But on their way to the glittering opera house they discover they have forgotten to bring their white gloves with them from Europe. To their great disappointment they learn that, at this hour of the evening, no shop is open in Haifa where such articles can be purchased.

In Jerusalem, Avraham Zvi Idelson, a musicologist, conducted an orchestra of Jewish musicians which played for General Allenby when Jerusalem was liberated from the Turkish yoke in 1917. The selection was a hoary Hassidic melody known today the world over as Hava Nagila. Only after the end of the First World War and the establishment of the British Mandate over Palestine in the early 1920s, did Eretz-Israel undergo a cultural and musical revolution, particularly after the immigration of professional composers, directors, actors, dancers and painters familiar with modernist trends in Europe. And when Tel Aviv's Hateatron Hadramati took the decision in 1922 to restage the operetta Shulamith, this time in Hebrew, the orchestration that had become familiar to everyone was discarded. The show's musical arranger, just arrived from Russia, was sent to a little Arab village on the way to Jerusalem called Bab al Wad, in order to live amongst the people and "absorb the atmosphere of the east." In 1924, Tel Aviv was a small city, founded only 15 years previously. But Mordechai Golinkin, brought with him 25 years of experience conducting symphony orchestras and opera groups in Russia. He took the daring step of founding a professional opera company, complete with orchestra, in the local Eden cinema. Works of the standard Italian and French repertoire were performed in Hebrew translation; one of the first was Gounod's "Romeo and Juliet." The moment when the curtain rose on the premiere performance of opera in the Hebrew language was a dramatic one indeed.

The year after the opera's debut saw the founding of Tel Aviv's Ohel, the theatre of the workers of Eretz-Israel. Two years later, in 1927, the first Hebrew satiric theatre, Hakumkum ("The Kettle"), was opened. In 1928, another satiric company was born whose name also derived from a common household article: Hamatateh ("The Broom"). In the same year the theatre company, Habimah, came to the country on its first visit. It had been founded 11 years earlier in Moscow during the Russian revolution. Only five years later, in 1933, did the Hebrew theatre dare to take up the challenge of opera. The work was a modern one, premiered only four years previously, which had taken the theatrical capitals of Europe by storm. It was "The Threepenny Opera," or Opera beGrush in Hebrew, the work of the Jewish composer Kurt Weill and the playwright Bertolt Brecht. (Weill's parents emigrated to Eretz-Israel after Hitler's rise to power, where they settled in Nahariya, a coastal town in western Galilee where many people spoke German.)

About two years later, in 1935, the work that was billed as the first Hebrew musical in Eretz- Israel had its birth on the satiric Hamatateh stage. Its title, "Manufactured in Eretz-Israel," stems from the movement that favoured the purchase of local products over imports. It was an exceedingly nave comedy that included several songs of which only one is remembered today. The book and lyrics were written by one of the lesser luminaries of the theatre, Emmanuel Harussi. The music was the work of Moshe Wilensky, a young musician newly arrived from Warsaw. Wilensky functioned as the little theatre's pianist - indeed as its entire orchestra. Over the next 50 years he went on to make a major contribution to Israeli cabaret and musical theatre, as well as adding hundreds of original pieces and arrangements to our song repertoire.

The 1940s saw several attempts to create Hebrew musical-dramatic works. Two were written in Palestine, in German, by authors who had continued to work in their native tongue. One of them was Max Brod, Kafka's friend and literary executor, and Habimah's dramatologist. Returning to the tale of Solomon and Shulamith, he wrote a dramatic adaptation in German of the Song of Songs. It was set to music by Marc Lavry, who also composed Dan Hashomer, a Hebrew opera that dealt with the lives of the settlers in the land. The Ohel was the venue for a highly-successful staging of "The Witch," by Goldfaden, the author of Shulamith. A Hebrew version of a biblical comedy about King Solomon was written in German in Palestine by the humourist Sami Groniman and adapted by the poet Natan Alterman. This was "King Solomon and Shalmai the Cobbler," a comedy about the exchange of identities between two people who resembled each other almost to the extent of seeming to be twins. It enjoyed the influence of Mark Twain's "The Prince and the Pauper" and included a scene taken from "Don Quixote."

Now we have returned again to the 1950s, when the American film musical was at its height of popularity. One of the outstanding representatives of that genre was "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers." Its story line, concerning the abduction of girls for the purposes of marriage, follows the biblical story of the sons of Ephraim or Leone Sommi's "first Hebrew play," in which the abduction takes place in a vineyard. Influenced by the American film, one of the army entertainment troupes decided to attempt a full length mahazemer rather than the usual fare of songs and comic sketches. Its title was Hufsha Bakfar, or "Village Holiday." The heroes were a platoon of soldiers posted near a village famed for the beauty of its young women. The soldiers fall in love with the girls and vice versa. Naturally the parents, themselves farmers and native-born villagers, prefer that the girls marry farmers who will help them in the fields and cowsheds. As the well-known line from "Oklahoma" runs, "The farmer and the cowman should be friends" - but they aren't. And not only cowboys, but soldiers too. However, the girls feel differently, and love blossoms. The libretto was written by Aharon Megged and the music by a new immigrant from Hungary, the popular composer Yohanan Zarai. The director's wife - who wrote the lyrics, as well as some of the tunes, was an unknown kibbutz girl named Naomi Shemer, who today is famed not only for her Yerushalayim shel zahav ("Jerusalem of Gold"), but for dozens of other beautiful songs.

The popular and commercial success which the Israeli theatre enjoyed in the early 1950s was due in part to musical productions. In 1952, Habimah staged "Lost in the Stars," a musical drama about the lives of black people in South Africa. The libretto, by Maxwell Anderson, was based on Alan Paton's novel "Cry, the Beloved Country," and the music was by Kurt Weill. The production was staged on an impressively large scale by a guest director, Julius Gellner, and played to capacity audiences for more than 220 performances. During these years, many young professional actor-singers and musicians arrived, especially from Romania and Bulgaria. Some found work in the Israel Opera, under the direction of Edis de-Philippe, an American-born opera singer and stage director who had succeeded Golinkin. Madame de-Philippe hired young singers from abroad who were just beginning their careers. Salaries were laughable, and the opera building - which had been the venue for the first sessions of Israel's parliament before it was transferred to Jerusalem - was a far remove from the beauties of world-class houses. But the young singers were given an offer that was hard to refuse: a chance to appear in leading roles in the finest operatic repertoire. Among them was a young, unknown Spanish-born Mexican tenor called Plcido Domingo. The brief visit of a foreign company brought a Broadway-style staging of Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess." It apparently influenced Edis de-Philippe to introduce a pair of American musicals into the repertoire of the Israeli Opera: "Kiss me, Kate," and Jerome Kern's "Show Boat." However, the regular audience at that time was decidedly limited. De-Philippe did not succeed in her attempt to use these musicals as a drawing-card for a broader, younger audience.

At this time a recent immigrant from Romania, George Wahl, founded a musical theatre company called Do-Re-Mi, which staged cabaret productions, classic operettas (KÁlmÁn and LehÁr), and comic works from central Europe which included songs. In order to attract a young audience, Wahl also decided to put on American musicals. As he did not have a suitable venue, he had to make do with the open-air garden of Tel Aviv's ZOA House. There, in a space in which no more than 500 spectators could be accomodated, he mounted Hebrew versions of "The Pajama Game" and "Annie Get Your Gun." Most of the actors were new immigrants with Romanian or Bulgarian accents playing Buffalo Bill and other characters out of American folklore. Similar accents were heard at that time on every stage in Israel: in a production of "Pygmalion" at the Cameri theatre, Mrs. Higgins' eight "British" guests were played by actors each of whom spoke in a different accent.

After having acquired experience in producing in Israel, Wahl made the bold decision to stage an original musical in an enclosed space with all the production trimmings. But no such work existed at the time. Who could provide it? Goldfaden and his Shulamith of course! Wahl chose to update the aged operetta and make it relevant to the Israel of the 1950s, which was busy absorbing vast numbers of new immigrants, including those from Yemen. Shoshana Damari, the Yemenite singer known as Israel's "Queen of Song," was offered the leading role. Wilensky, who had been responsible for the "first Hebrew musical," as well as the extraordinarily beautiful Yemenite melodies that Damari had been singing, wrote additional songs and rearranged the old ones. The producer spared neither money nor effort. The production featured dancers, a chorus and impressive sets. But Wahl did not take one thing into account: a short while after opening night, the Sinai Campaign broke out (October, 1956). Many of the participants in the show, not to mention members of the audience, were called up to their reserve units.

The level of tension was so high that the big halls Wahl had hired remained nearly empty. The financial blow was too much and he was forced to close the show and the theatres. Wahl was the first independent producer in the history of Israeli theatre. He insisted on full-scale stagings of musical plays, but was active only for a few years.

Other producers, learning from his mistakes, limited themselves to comedies on a small scale that included songs, such as Goldfaden's Kuni Lemel. The next American musical was staged in 1962 in a small cabaret venue, the Moadon hateatron, adjoining the Haifa municipal theatre. This was the pocket musical, "The Fantasticks," adapted from a work by the French writer Edmond Rostand, author of Cyrano de Bergerac. The musical's young director was Menahem Golan, who later became world-famous as a director and producer of films and one of the founders of the Golan-Globus production firm. This experimental musical with only eight characters had made its debut in a small basement in Greenwich Village not long before. The manager of the Moadon Hateatron happened to see it there and bought the rights. The privilege of translating it fell to me. Thus it was that "The Fantasticks" had its first production outside New York only a few months after its premiere - and in Hebrew of all languages!

In the same year, Habimah decided to stage another musical, but cautiousness led to the choice of a small chamber piece with only a few characters. This was the delightful Franco-British Irma la Douce, which had been directed in Europe by Peter Brook. Israeli audiences loved it, which tempted another Israeli impresario to try to produce a musical at Habimah. This man was Giora Godik. The Habimah stage was free for several months in 1964 owing to the company's appearances at a festival abroad. Godik's selection was "My Fair Lady," and he decided to import the Broadway staging. This musical enjoyed a huge success and became a milestone in the history of the Hebrew theatre and indeed a victory for the Hebrew langage.*


The success of "Irma la Douce" and "My Fair Lady" during the early 1960s proved that the Israeli audience had taken to the genre, which it had come to know, prior to that time, mostly through the cinema. After "My Fair Lady," which had been his first production on such a large scale, Godik was forced to relinquish the Habimah stage after the return of the troupe from overseas. He hired a large and neglected cinema hall of about 1000 seats in the heart of Jaffa, called the Alhambra, and turned it into his permanent venue. For the next seven years, musicals played there to full houses almost every night. Soon demand had become so great that Godik, not satisfied with putting on double performances two or three nights of the week, began to run two different musicals in tandem every night. One was staged at the Alhambra, while a second troupe travelled the length and breadth of Israel. Godik's productions were highly professional, with no artistic compromises. Most were lavish stagings on a large scale, featuring chorus, orchestra and dancers and impressive sets.

Following the new musical's success, the Cameri Theatre decided to surprise audiences as well as competing theatres with an original Israeli musical. The main interest was again King Solomon, author of the Song of Songs, billed as "the first Hebrew Musical." The show was based on the biblical comedy "King Solomon and Shalmai the Cobbler," which had been one of the great successes of the Hebrew theatre 20 years previously, and was now given a musical adaptation. Nathan Alterman, one of the country's most respected poets, adapted the work and wrote sparkling lyrics. One of Israel's finest composers, Alexander ("Sasha") Argov, was responsible for the music. The large-scale production with chorus and orchestra catapulted a talented young comedian, Illy Gorlitzky, to stardom. Gorlitzky played the dual role of King Solomon and his look-alike, alter ego, the cobbler. The Israeli audience loved Alterman's witty text, proving that an original musical with biblical characters could be no less successful than a translated musical, and perhaps even more so.

The mid-1960s were a period when the economy was in recession and one musical was chasing another across the Hebrew stage. Godik produced a splendid "The King and I," as well as the musical drama "Man from La Mancha," based freely on Cervantes' "Don Quixote." Then came the turn of "Fiddler on the Roof," based on the tale of Tevye the milkman by Sholem Aleichem. I had the privilege of seeing this musical during its Washington previews before it reached Broadway, when I met its creators and interviewed them for an Israeli newspaper. When they asked my opinion about the show, I ventured a remark that, unfortunately, neither Eretz-Israel nor Jerusalem were mentioned even once. This in spite of the fact that the protagonist, Tevye the milkman, like any observant Jew, would include in his prayers the phrase "Next Year in Jerusalem" at least three times daily. The creators explained that their Tevye had emigrated to America, and that the musical had been written as a memorial to their parents who had come to the United States as immigrants. But as a result of our talk they altered the farewell scene at the end of the play: Yenta the matchmaker announces to Tevye that she is going to Jerusalem, because she has been told that there are many unmarried men and women in Eretz-Israel who require her services. That was my very modest contribution to this famous musical.

I was happy that the creators of "Fiddler on the Roof" had entrusted its Hebrew translation to me. The role that had been created by the rotund American comedian Zero Mostel was given in Israel to Yosef Tsur, another plump comedian usually known by his nickname "Bomba." The part was inherited later on by yet another hefty actor, Shmuel Rudensky. A young actor was appointed Rudensky's understudy, but only had the opportunity to play the part about half a dozen times. Then he was called for an audition in London, and despite the fact that at the time he did not know more than a few words of English, he got the leading role. That was how Chaim Topol, at the age of 30, began his career playing 60-year-old Tevye.

Topol, now 60 himself, still occasionally appears in the role on Broadway or in the West End. After "Fiddler" had had a run of some 400 performances, producer Godik decided to have the musical translated into Yiddish. We recall that Sholem Aleichem had written his story originally in Yiddish. It was translated into English as a play without songs and then adapted as a musical and translated into Hebrew. When my Hebrew version was translated - by Shraga Friedman - into Yiddish, Tevye had come full circle and returned to his mameloshn ("mother-tongue").

Meanwhile, however, Godik in Israel was looking for more musical material. After having difficulty finding an American or British musical which would arouse as much interest as "Fiddler," he decided to stage an original Israeli musical. This time, he chose a piece written 13 years previously by a playwright, Igal Mossinsohn, who adapted Shulamith for George Wahl's production. The title of the play was Kasablan. Kasablan is a young Israeli, born in Casablanca (hence the nickname), who fought in the War of Independence after his immigration. Although he had been an outstanding soldier, he finds himself discriminated against by his former comrades. The melodramatic piece was highly successful when first presented, since it gave voice to the feelings of discrimination acquired during the first years of statehood by Moroccans and other new immigrants, many of whom were residents of the temporary camps called ma'abarot. I collaborated as a lyricist and the composer Dov Seltzer wrote the music. The title role was given to a young Jerusalem-born singer, Yehoram Gaon. Kazablan's huge success not only made Gaon an overnight singing star, but also a figure of solidarity and pride for people of Sephardic origin, many of whom were entering a theatre for the first time. The musical played for a massive 620 performances.

While Kazablan was being performed, the Six- Day War of 1967 broke out. Contrary to the experience of George Wahl ten years earlier, this time war did no harm to a successful show. Quite the opposite: Godik took steps which led to the creation of another Israeli musical, one which could have as its centre of interest nothing less than the Israeli victory in the

war. The writer, Aharon Megged, adapted one of his stories in the light of recent events. The musical, "I Like Mike," told the story of a Jewish-American boy named Mike who arrives in Israel after the war together with a wave of foreign volunteers to work on kibbutzim. He proceeds to fall in love with an Israeli girl. The new musical's atmosphere of ecstatic patriotism reflected the ambience of enthusiasm, indeed euphoria, that followed the war. Now Godik could try mounting another major musical: "Hello Dolly." This time, the stars were Hannah Maron and Shraga Friedman.

Friedman had been involved in "My Fair Lady," "Oliver," and the Yiddish production of "Fiddler." Maron was one of Israel's foremost actresses. She sang - and glowed - in the part of Dolly Levy, the red-headed matchmaker. Less than two years later, her El Al plane was attacked by Palestinian terrorists as she disembarked from an El Al plane at Frankfurt airport. Maron was seriously wounded and her leg had to be amputated. But she returned to the stage a year or so later and continues acting to this day.

1970 was the year when even the producer with the brightest ideas and the greatest financial savvy proved far from immune to error. The stock-market mania and the desire for instant profits which overcame Israel following the Six-Day War infected Godik as well, leading him to make a series of disastrous decisions. His attempts to stage additional musicals, including Goldfaden's "The Witch" and Neil Simon's "Promises, Promises," caused him to fall heavily into debt. One morning all of Israel - and especially the 200 employees of Godik's theatre - were shocked to hear that the noted producer had fled the country during the night. The theatre closed down at once. For several years afterwards, rumours were heard about the producer who had vanished from his many creditors and was forced to make a living selling frankfurters in Germany. Four years later it was announced that Godik had reached an agreement with his creditors which would allow him to return to Israel and resume his activities. But a few weeks later he was found to be ill with cancer, which quickly proved terminal.

The collapse of Godik's empire profoundly affected Israeli producers. For years, no one dared consider staging a big musical. The attempt of another independent producer to mount "The Rothschilds," a musical by the authors of "Fiddler," was far from a hit. The classic Broadway musical of the 1940s to 1960s had been supplanted by new plays which spoke the language of the young. "Hair" was staged at the beginning of the 1970s, complete with its nude scene. It spawned a local imitation entitled Kfotz! ("Jump!"), not to mention a parody, Karahat ("Bald"). A show which ran for many performances was "Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat," a pastiche by Andrew Lloyd Webber, written at the age of 17 and based on the biblical narrative of Joseph and his brothers. It is fascinating that this story, one of the favourite texts for the popular Yiddish Purimshpiels, should have been adapted as a musical by a young British Catholic.

From time to time, Israeli theatres overcame their hesitations and produced musicals such as "Cabaret" (Habimah) "Guys and Dolls" (Haifa Theatre), "Sweeney Todd," "The King and I," "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," and a big, impressive staging of "Les Misrables" (Cameri). A few Shakespeare plays, including "The Comedy of Errors" were also adapted as musicals (Beersheba Theatre). Independent producers tackled "Evita," "Peter Pan," "The Sound of Music" and staged spectacular revues compounded of popular hits from successful musicals much loved by Israelis.

Attempts were made from time to time to stage another original musical based on life in Israel. At the beginning of the 1970s, the producer of "Hair" presented, without notable success, a musical called Sameah ba'namal ("Happy in the Port"), concerning the experiences of Ashdod port workers - and their strikes. Habimah mounted a musical about the life of Theodor Herzl entitled Melekh Hayehudim ("King of the Jews"). The musical version of Salah Shabati enjoyed considerable popularity when it was shown at the national theatre towards the close of the 1980s. Ephraim Kishon, the Israeli humourist known around the world, adapted the one-acters and scenarios he had written during the 1950s into a musical. Its centre of interest was the conflict between immigrants from eastern countries living in the tents of the ma'abarot and veteran residents of Israel. The show aroused memories and nostalgia among many of these immigrants - who had meanwhile become veteran Israelis - of their first years in the country 40 years earlier.

The 1996 repertory of Habimah included a first Hebrew version of "West Side Story" (translated by Ehud Manor, who has adapted many other musicals into Hebrew), and a revival of "Oliver" (first played at Habimah in 1965.) And who will be the hero of the first major musical to be mounted at the Jerusalem Theatre during the coming 50th anniversary of Israel? Why, King Solomon of course, and Shalmai the cobbler, who resembles him like a twin. Approximately 80 years after the birth of the first modern Hebrew professional theatre, and some 48 years after the birth of the State of Israel, the Hebrew lyric theatre has once again felt compelled to turn to "the wisest of men," author and hero of the Song of Songs, "the first Hebrew musical," to carry its standard into the future.

Translated by Jay Shir

 
 
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