Stephanie Lynne Mason has luminous eyes as huge and dark as an anime character’s. “I’m not gonna lie,” she told me with a sigh, “I had a total meltdown the other night. I just sat there sobbing at my keyboard for about 15 minutes. This show feels like rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time.”
It was week one of rehearsal for the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s show Amerike, which runs July 10-Aug. 6. I’d asked NYTF if I could follow a young non-Jewish, non-Yiddish-speaking actor from casting to first performance, and they introduced me to Mason, one of the leads. I figured I’d be shadowing her for six months or so. On the first day of rehearsal, I learned that performances started in three weeks.
NYTF is legit off-Broadway theater. The company, now in its 103rd consecutive season, co-produced this year’s Tony-winning play Indecent; Amerike’s creative team has a raft of Tony and Drama Desk nominations to its credit. Mason and three of the other leads have done a host of Broadway shows and national tours. Detroit-born Daniel Kahn, the show’s only Yiddish speaker, fronts a klez-punk-cabaret band and co-headlined NYTF’s third annual Yiddish Soul concert at Central Park SummerStage last month. (His performance of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in Yiddish, published the day before news broke of Cohen’s death, is a showstopper, with nearly a half-million YouTube hits.)
In other words, this is not amateur hour.
The casting process began in early April when a notice went up in Backstage: “Seeking actor/singers for various roles in Amerike: The Golden Land. All should be excellent singers with strong music-reading skills, ability to sing and act in foreign languages (experience with Yiddish and Hebrew a plus), and be able to move well. All roles are open to performers of all ethnicities.” Equity actors would be paid $430 a week.
The 12 performers who made the cut, plus two understudies, met for the first time in a small classroom at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park, which hosts NYTF. They looked like chorus boys and character actors, ballerinas with superb posture and hipster alt-rock musicians. They all seemed impossibly young.
Before the first rehearsal, Mason had had two coaching sessions with Motl Didner, NYTF’s baby-faced 44-year-old associate artistic director. “Usually I’m really quick to get off-book, but this is like learning through osmosis,” she said. “But I’ve done a lot of classical singing, which helps.”
The show’s other non-Jewish lead, A Light in the Piazza alum Glenn Seven Allen, who’s done two previous shows with NYTF, agreed that a classical background, with its demands for multiple languages, is useful. “Yiddish is easier to learn to sing than Chinese,” he said sanguinely. (Opera News once called the extremely goyish looking Allen, with his lantern jaw and electric-blue eyes, an “Edwardian matinee idol”; he is on the “Barihunks” blog — devoted to the Sexiest Baritone Hunks From Opera —despite being a tenor. Never say that Tablet does not do the research.)
Amerike’s co-author Moishe Rosenfeld, who is blind, tapped his way to the front of the room. “I don’t see very well, but I see a lot,” he told the cast with a smile. “This show needs to be real, and present, and honest. There’s a Yiddish word, schmaltz, and other icky words like ‘nostalgia’… I want this to feel authentic.” He was followed by the show’s designer, Jason Lee Courson, who showed off sketches of his set design, evoking the Iron Age underpass of a Lower East Side elevated train, with rolling panels that also serve as projection surfaces for photos, Yiddish-theater posters, handwritten letters, and snippets of video. At the top of the proscenium arch is space for supertitles. (Rosenfeld later estimated to me that 80 percent of the audience will be non-Yiddish-speaking.) Merete Muenter, the choreographer, held up a book of Ellis Island interviews that she’d been using as inspiration; she encouraged the actors to borrow it. “Thank you in advance for everything you’re about to do for me,” she said.
The show’s musical director, Zalmen Mlotek, a Juilliard grad who studied with Leonard Bernstein, Zubin Mehta, and James Levine, led the cast in their first time singing together. He began at the beginning, with the show’s opening number, “Mir Furn” (We’re Going). It’s about leaving on a voyage to America. Most of the songs in the show date from the first half of the 20th century; the show uses them to paint an impressionistic portrait, roughly chronological, of the American Jewish-immigrant experience. Seated, reading from sheet music, the cast sounded great to my non-Yiddish-speaking ear. But right away Mlotek began correcting pronunciation. The word “furn” was a challenge; the young Americans kept making it sound like “FUR-en.” “I’m looking for no vowel!” Mlotek demanded. “Frn! Frn!”
After the rehearsal, Mason and I grabbed iced tea and scones and retreated to her blissfully air-conditioned apartment in the Midtown theater district. It was dominated by a huge comfy couch and a keyboard, and was quieter than usual; her mom in Ohio was taking care of her fluffy white Havanese, Sophie, for these intense three weeks. She’d always wanted to perform, Mason told me. “I was obsessed with Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act—I made my grandmother and great-aunts and cousins be my choir. I staged Phantom of the Opera with Barbies. I made everyone do Oklahoma.” She paused. “I was kind of bossy.”
Back in the day, her own family came through Ellis Island. Her real last name is Iannarino. (Like generations of Jewish performers, she changed her name to sounds less ethnic.) “My great-grandfather on my dad’s side was a Sicilian fisherman,” she said. “The family wound up in Columbus, where they had a vegetable stand. They had to deal with prejudice—I love to cook and I have a collection of old family recipes, but I had to put the garlic back into them. They’d taken it all out, because people used to say they smelled bad, like garlic. I put that garlic back!”
She moved to New York City right after high school, got an agent immediately, and was cast as Maria in West Side Story at Houston’s Theater Under the Stars at age 19. “It was my first professional experience! Max von Essen played Tony and Alan Johnson from the original cast directed.” She laughed, recalling how green she was. “During tech [technical rehearsal], I was all, ‘This is the first time I’ve sung with an orchestra!’ and they were all, ‘uhhhhh.’”
Mason’s dad was diagnosed with leukemia shortly after that and died in 2008. “But he got to see my first three professional jobs,” she said. “And after I’d been in the city for 11 years, I made my Broadway debut on Father’s Day. It felt like my dad was saying ‘hi.’” That Broadway debut was in Fiddler on the Roof, a show she’s done multiple times in multiple venues. With her dark hair and expressive face, it’s not surprising that she’s a convincing shtetl girl. “This is unlike anything else, though,” she said. “It’s just…it’s hard to feel tongue-tied.”
At rehearsal a few days later, I asked Mlotek why the creative team had chosen Mason. “We looked at around 300 people for 12 slots,” he said. “We want voice, acting, presence, and the ability to mimic in five minutes of audition what they heard on a recording they got 23 hours before the audition.” The actors get a written page of dialogue in Yiddish transliteration, an English translation, plus a chorus and verse of a Yiddish song. “We loved Stephanie from the beginning,” he told me. “We were all struck by her emotional honesty. It all manifests in her work—she is so diligent and meticulous. She really wants to understand, to be a believable Yiddish speaker for that hour-and-a-half you’re with her in the theater.”
At first, the actors only mimicked. “Aspirate the consonant and it’ll sound more authentic,” Didner told Mason. “It’s zitzn [to sit] not ZIT-ZIN. Loyfn. Koyfn.” Mlotek kept reminding all the actors always to say “AH” instead of “UH.” “Don’t let it become a schwa,” he urged.
As the actors got more comfortable, they started learning grammatical structure. “Sentence order is different in Yiddish,” Didner explained to me. “Yiddish uses a double negative, and reflexive verbs, like French. You can say, ‘I don’t drink no coffee’ and ‘I don’t want for myself any coffee.’ You can say, ‘I read a book,’ but also, ‘A book read I’—if you’re clarifying that you were reading a book and not a newspaper.” He continued, “You can’t just give actors a script and say, ‘Make these sounds with your mouth.’ Even if they speak every word correctly, and they get the kh and make r’s that don’t sound like American r’s, if they don’t put the emphasis on the right part of the sentence, it won’t work. I’ve sat through shows in the Yiddish world where the articulators made all the right sounds, but I couldn’t understand a sentence they said because they didn’t understand the operative words.” Throughout the rehearsal process, Mlotek ordered the actors to reach out if they didn’t know a word. “We will tell you. Because if you don’t know what something means, it will show.” (Another exhortation I kept hearing: “Find the verbs.”)
I sat in on Mason’s individual coaching session with Rosenfeld. “Yiddish is spoken a little bit with a melody?” he told her, melodically and Yiddishly. “If you can get some of that in there wherever it’s appropriate, it’ll give it a sense of authenticity?” “Thank you,” she said. Line by line, he helped her with the nuances of the language, and how it breathes. Later, he told me, “Someone like Stephanie—what a joy. Such commitment, such an effervescent personality, such stature and charisma!” I told him how much I enjoyed watching the expressions flickering across her face when she was onstage. He smiled at me, “I don’t see well. The first time I’ll really see her is when I’m in the first row and the lights are on her face. I can’t wait.”
At night, Mason called her mother to listen as she worked on her Yiddish. “She had no idea what was going on, but she was sort of my accountability partner, to ensure that I did my homework,” Mason told me.
After 10 days or so, the show was beginning to come together, but tensions had begun to flare. Everyone was exhausted. Mason told me that on her most recent day off (they don’t roll on Shabbos), she’d taken a five-hour nap. An actor lost his temper onstage; Mlotek snapped at the show’s director, Bryna Wasserman. But Wasserman was the picture of calm. The daughter of famed Yiddish theater actress Dora Wasserman, she had perspective. “We came to Canada after being in a DP camp in Vienna,” she told me. “My mother started a Yiddish theater in Montreal, and I’d watch rehearsals and fall asleep on a bench, and as the theater grew, the seats became softer and my bed became more comfortable.” She told the jittery cast softly, “You are equipped to do this show. You are giving so much from your own instincts that I’m watching it with—you know what naches means? You are doing the work, and I am taking pride.” She praised Mason and Allen’s duet—set during the Depression—that blends “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” with “Vi Nemt Men Parnuse” (How Do I Make a Living?). It hadn’t been fully choreographed yet, but, she noted, “when you went to the grid and stood there, what a story you told! There are a multitude of moments that you caught on your own, and that’s really what we’re trying to equip you with. You’re finding how to work with each other and how to work with the play.” Toward the end of the day, when an actor fumed about a staging issue and the other actors started to get agitated, she said, “Kinderlach! Take a breath. We don’t have to solve all the problems right now. We have solved 10 already. We will solve 11.” Later, I watched her offer her charges clementines. She had a whole bag.
The actors progressed from wearing street clothes to partial costumes (one day, Mason was in character shoes and a Fiddler on the Roof cast hoodie; Alexandra Frohlinger, a tiny vocal powerhouse and Jewish-day-school grad who’s done national tours in West Side Story and Cinderella, sported a huge petticoat and lavender knee socks depicting rainbow-farting unicorns) to full costumes. I gasped the first time I saw Mason in her Yiddish theater showgirl outfit, a slinky concoction of sparkle, feathers, and fringe. Wasserman whispered to me, ““It’s been almost two months since [costume designer] Izzy and I met for lunch and said, ‘This is what they’re wearing.’ Going from paper to the real thing is always…”
The show whips through the greenhorn experience, the labor movement, the joy of becoming a citizen, Yiddish theater and radio, economic advancement, the Depression, and the desperation of a newer wave of European Jews in a fast, intermission-free 90 minutes. As the timeline progresses, Yiddish-accented English words creep into the dialogue: Capitaleest. Svetshop. Union man. Regular Amerikaner. Fency-schmency.
As opening night neared, the actors sometimes seemed punch-drunk. “It’s just so muuuch,” an actor wailed to himself. A rapid-fire costume change, from showgirls to Macbeth’s witches, failed disastrously; an actress couldn’t find the sleeves in her raggedy voluminous robe and wound up flapping her arms like a chicken as the other witches giggled. During one number’s spinning choreography, a broom went flying offstage. “That’s what my dog sounds like when he’s falling down the stairs,” an actor noted helpfully. Wasserman barely raised her voice. “Please, ladies. I cannot get this time back. Stay with me!” Mason rarely broke character. Watching her, choreographer Merete Muenter whispered, “I love her. She’s so focused.” When I spoke to Mason later, she confided that she was still having trouble spitting out a rapid-fire list of Yiddish theater stars. In passing, she mentioned that she’d looked up the careers of every one of them.
Finally, the evening of the first preview dawned. “I feel OK,” Mason told me. “I can’t worry about the audience right now. I’m just concentrating, minute to minute, on those costume changes and being where I need to be.” I brought my 12-year-old daughter, Maxine, as my date. As the lights dimmed, I watched Max as much as the show. Much of the story was familiar to her; New York City public school kids learn about immigration history, and the Triangle Fire looms large in our personal family history. She clutched my hand during Mason’s monologue about losing a child in the fire. But as I’d hoped, she adored all the comedy in the show—it’s totally kid-accessible. But the play’s politics are pointed, too. There’s so much here for families (Max and I both think the show’s appropriate for kids over 10) to discuss, especially since Hebrew schools, in their endless march of Genesis-Holidays-Holocaust, rarely focus on American Jewish labor or cultural history.
Mason didn’t stumble over a single word. At one point she got a huge laugh (for a joke in Yiddish!), and I kvelled. No one would have guessed that three weeks earlier, she didn’t speak the language at all.
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Marjorie Ingall is the author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.