Almost No One Speaks the Language. How Do They Perform the Show?

Show-Score | By Doug Strassler | Jul 5, 2017

"Amerike – The Golden Land" is a currently running musical performed almost entirely in Yiddish. How do these non-Yiddish-speaking actors do it?

Courtesy of National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene Courtesy of National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene

"Amerike – The Golden Land", the 1984 musical by Zalmen Mlotek and Moishe Rosenfeld, tells stories about Jewish people who immigrated to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Fittingly, the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene's new production is running near Ellis Island.

Though the show was originally conceived as an English-language musical in order to accommodate non-Yiddish speakers, the revival, which runs through August 6 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, will be performed in Yiddish with English and Russian supertitles.

"Part of the mission of NYTF is to continue its 103-year-old tradition of preserving Yiddish and Jewish culture through theater and music," says director Bryna Wasserman, whose Yiddish-language revival of "The Golden Bride" earned her a 2015 Drama Desk nomination.

Still, an interesting question looms for a production that aims for such authenticity: how does one cast a show in a language that most performers don't speak?

A scene from "Amerike: The Golden Land." Photo by Victor Nechay / Proper Pix.

According to casting director Jamibeth Margolis, actors first sang songs that showed off their voices before learning a full song and scene from the show in Yiddish. "To aid the process they were given MP3s of the pronunciation, as well as a printed pronunciation guide,” she says. “They read the scene with a Yiddish speaker. Often, if we see great potential, the team will work with an actor, asking them to slowly speak back words with corrections made."

She continues, "At the second callback, we then gave an additional song and scene to learn that is exactly from the character's material in the show (specific to the role they are being called back for). You can really tell who has done their homework."

Sheer talent wasn’t enough to ensure casting, of course. "I had to look for clues that they could handle the Yiddish in the production,” Margolis says. “Some very strong performers come in and audition but are unable to handle the Yiddish, which really does have a very specific sound, dialect, and cadence. Some people have a very natural ear for it. I find that performers with an opera background who are used to singing in foreign languages can grasp the Yiddish very well."

The company of "Amerike – The Golden Land" includes 12 performers and two understudies. While most of them are non-Yiddish speakers, many members of the production's creative team speak Yiddish and can support the cast. 

However, one of the actors is well-versed in Yiddish. "We are fortunate to have the well-known musician Daniel Kahn, who speaks and sings in Yiddish," Wasserman says. "The other wonderful, talented actors, Jewish and non-Jewish, who are experiencing performing in Yiddish for the first time are learning about the beauty of the language and the treasure chest of material."

NYTF wants the musical to offer audiences a similar reward.

"We are all looking forward to bringing to the stage this timely musical journey of the immigrant experience," Wasserman says. "I believe its message will resonate with audiences of all backgrounds, religions, and ethnicities."