The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater

About the Program

The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater, a celebration of Yiddish theater pioneers Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky by their grandson, Michael Tilson Thomas, Artistic Director of the New World Symphony, airs Thursday, March 29 at 8 p.m. (check local listings), on THIRTEEN’s Great Performances.

Recorded in April 2011 at the Frank Gehry-designed New World Center in Miami Beach, The Thomashefskys is written and hosted by Tilson Thomas and stars Broadway performers Judy Blazer as Bessie Thomashefsky and Shuler Hensley as Boris Thomashefsky.  It also features Ronit Widmann-Levy and Eugene Brancoveanu and the New World Symphony.

Founding members of the Yiddish Theater in America, the Thomashefskys owned theaters, published their own magazine, wrote columns in the popular Yiddish newspapers, sponsored and encouraged generations of young artists, brought uncountable numbers of Yiddish artists to America, tirelessly raised funds for progressive social causes and, though it all, were adventurous trend setters.

This story, reclaimed by The Thomashefky Project, presents a musical sound that few have heard, assimilating Eastern European klezmer and cantorial modes with American tunes and rhythms. Over time, as the Jewish American music theater writers became absorbed in their new surroundings, they greatly influenced the American Songbook.

The Thomashefskys is a very personal project for Tilson Thomas, celebrating the lives and theatrical and musical legacies of his grandparents.  Born out of his desire to preserve the music of the Yiddish theater, The Thomashefsky Project, founded in 1998, expanded from an archival role to this stage production hosted and conducted by Tilson Thomas and directed for the stage by Broadway veteran Patricia Birch.

It features music reconstructed from the original Yiddish theater repertoire interwoven with projected images and stories from Bessie and Boris’s lively memoirs.  “My grandparents became mega-stars and found themselves smack in the public eye,” says Tilson Thomas. “They were subject to adulation and relentless scrutiny. Legions of crazed fans were obsessed with every detail of their work and their lives.”

The stage version of The Thomashefskys has been performed to sold-out houses in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Miami, and at Tanglewood in Massachusetts.  The San Francisco Chronicle said, “Thomas and his collaborators do what Yiddish artists always meant to do.  They make you forget your troubles for an evening, plunge into another world and feel your own more fully in the end.”

Following the national broadcast, The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theaterwill be released on April 24 on DVD by New Video (www.newvideo.com). The New World Symphony was founded in 1987 by Michael Tilson Thomas and Ted Arison, and has launched the careers of over 800 musicians.

The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater is a production of The Thomashefsky Film Project LLC and THIRTEEN for WNET.

The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater is directed for television by Gary Halvorson. Producers: Joshua Robison, Michael Bronson, and Michael Kantor. For Great Performances, John Walker is producer; Bill O’Donnell is series producer; David Horn is executive producer.

Major funding for the telecast is provided by Arison Arts Foundation, Marcia and John Goldman, Carole and Jeffrey Hays and Lydia and Douglas Shorenstein, Stephen and Sandra Muss, the Bernard Osher Jewish Philanthropies Foundation, the Koret Foundation, The Aaron Copland Fund for Music, and the Lisa and John Pritzker Fund.

Great Performances is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, Vivian Milstein, the LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, The Starr Foundation, the Filomen M. Di’Agostino Foundation, The Philip and Janice Levin Foundation, The DuBose and Dorothy Heyward Memorial Fund, public television viewers and PBS.