“A moving, joyous triumph. [The Rise of David Levinsky has] heart, soul, story and music.”
“[A] richly textured stage piece about the early days of the Jewish immigrant experience.”
The Rise of David Levinsky is a musical adaptation of Abraham Cahan’s 1917 novel. Isaiah wrote the book and lyrics and his long-time friend and collaborator Bobby Paul composed the music. The show follows the young Talmudic scholar David as he arrives in America a penniless orphan and eventually becomes the most successful garment manufacturer in America – cynical, ruthless, and struggling with the deeper identity and longing that he has buried or even betrayed along the way.
A New York Times reviewer said “It would seem to be an impossible chore to translate Abraham Cahan’s book into a staged musical, but the [American Jewish Theatre] has done so glowingly. This is a delightful production with catchy music, a sense of irony and a feel for the times.” To turn the book into a theatrical piece, Isaiah split the storytelling between the young David and the older Levinsky, each representing different parts of the man and different phases of his life. Throughout the show the two argue, cajole, remember, and eventually achieve a tentative reconciliation.
After opening at the Folksbiene Theatre in a Yiddish translation by Isaiah’s uncle Zvee Scooler in 1976, Levinsky opened in 1983 in English at the 92nd Street Y’s American Jewish Theatre, with Avi Hoffman playing the young David and Larry Keith playing the older Levinsky. Other productions followed: at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick in 1986 with Avi Hoffman and Laurence Luckinbill, and then a commercial run in 1987 at the new John Houseman Theatre on 42nd Street in Manhattan, with Avi Hoffman and Broadway actor Larry Kert, who had starred in the original production of West Side Story.
Twenty years later Avi Hoffman, now director of the New Vista Theatre in Florida, revived the show, this time playing the older Levinsky while Shane Jacobson played David. Isaiah wrote this blog post about his anticipation at seeing the show brought to life again. In the fall of 2013, a year after Isaiah’s death, Avi produced a staged reading of the show at The Leonard Nimoy Thalia, both as a tribute to Isaiah and as a way of generating interest in the possibility of another New York production. Broadway actor Etai BenShlomo (best known for his role in Wicked) played David as Avi again played Levinsky. The Jewish Daily Forward wrote about that reading and the show’s long history.
These audio clips give a feel for the show:
Reading a letter from friends who have already made it to America, those still in the old country fantasize about the glorious new world that they imagine exists in New York’s Lower East Side. The song “Grand Street,” sung Herb Rough, Margery Lowe, and Avi Hoffman:
How can an aspiring businessman get started in America? The tango song “Credit Face,” sung by Avi Hoffman:
Levinsky, now very successful in business but facing anger and accusations from his old friends and union organizers, sings “Survival of the Fittest.” (sung by Avi Hoffman):
Near the end of the show, Levinsky takes stock of his life and tries to reconcile the boy and the man. “View from the Top,” sung by Avi Hoffman:
In this video clip from the December 2012 Isaiah Sheffer memorial celebration at Sympohny Space, Eleanor Reissa
sings “Two of a Kind.” Eleanor played Dora, the unavailable married woman with whom Levinsky falls in love, in both the AJT and the Houseman productions. Lanny Meyers, who was the show’s musical director, is on piano.