As the music director of the San Francisco Symphony for the past ten years, Michael Tilson Thomas hasn’t done too badly for himself. His grandparents, though, Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky—they were really something. They had “hyperstardom,” says Tilson Thomas. “I always say it was the equivalent of, like, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, as far as the New York Jewish community went.” The two Eastern European immigrants pioneered the American Yiddish theater, producing and performing original plays and musicals and Yiddish adaptations of Shakespeare, Ibsen, Wagner, and Oscar Wilde. When the couple eventually separated, Bessie bucked convention and founded her own theater company on the Bowery.
Bessie’s grandson the maestro has spent the past seven years spearheading the Thomashefsky Project, which has unearthed about 1,000 documents (posters, scripts, scores, and the like) relating to his grandparents’ careers. Some of the material will be brought back to the stage for the first time in more than 100 years this weekend, in “The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in Yiddish Theater” at Carnegie Hall. Broadway veterans Shuler Hensley and Judy Blazer will embody Boris and Bessie, performing and reading from their memoirs. Though the project might at first appear to be another bit of easy nostalgia for a dead art form, Tilson Thomas says he’s hoping to help rescue the sociopolitical bite it once had. “The Yiddish theater in most people’s minds is kind of an anecdote,” says Tilson Thomas. “But the audience was very reactive, giving their advice, expressing approval or disapproval. The theater was being used to be a real forum of ideas. There’s a whole avant-garde, experimental side—the public has lost a sense of that, and also how serious it was.”