Founding Artistic Director of Symphony Space
The shows for which Isaiah is best known as a writer are The Rise of David Levinsky and Yiddle with a Fiddle. Isaiah wrote the book and lyrics to these musicals, each of which was well received with a respectable Off-Broadway run in New York and performances in other cities as well.
Some of the shows Isaiah wrote were about show business itself, like the 1985 play A Broadcast Baby, about a 1940s Jewish vaudeville comedienne who struggles to break out of the usual ethnic stereotype on a new radio show, and Pair of Jokers, a short feature film in which Jerry Stiller plays an aging comedian. Isaiah wrote the screenplay and Mark Manucci produced and directed this film, which was shown at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in 1991. The Sheik of Avenue B also explored themes related to Jews in musical theatre.
Working with material from beloved Jewish writers, Isaiah wrote an adaptation of the stories of I. L. Peretz called The Theatre of Peretz, an English version of Sholom Aleichem’s classic play about a Jewish and non-Jewish Russian student who trade places for a year titled It’s Hard to Be a Jew, and finally Dreamers and Demons: The Three Worlds of Isaac Bashevis Singer.
Several of Isaiah’s works combined art with history or politics or both. He wrote the libretto for A More Perfect Union, an opera-ballet about the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Stephen Colbert boldly praised this work, saying: “I’m going to go out on a limb here and I'm going to say it was the very best baroque ballet about the 1787 Constitutional Convention ever written.” Watch the opera-ballet here:
Other historically themed works by Isaiah include the narration written for Theodore Bikel in The Last Chapter, which was a full-length historical documentary film assemblage on one thousand years of Polish Jewish history; The Road to the White House, which was a 20-program series on presidential elections that Isaiah wrote for WNBC-TV (this series received an Emmy nomination), and, in a similar vein, Oath of Office: The Inauguration Story, which was a 90-minute special on presidential inauguration lore, also for NBC. And going farther back in history, there is Isaiah’s provocative retelling of the Christopher Columbus story, Columbus Circle, written with his long-time composer friend Bobby Paul, which premiered at the White Barn theatre in Connecticut in 1977 and then opened at the Tappan Zee Playhouse shortly thereafter.
Writing for Millennium, a 10-part public television series on music history that was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, took Isaiah to Vézelay, France in 1985 for the filming of the first episode, Music in the Twelfth Century: The Advent of Polyphony, narrated by Fritz Weaver. That episode won a Gold Medal at the Houston Film Festival. A decade later, Isaiah wrote and directed Contingent Loves: The Wartime Romantic Correspondence of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, at Symphony Space, and Clair de Lune by the Pale Moonlight, a tapestry of new translations of French romantic poets and songs of Gabriel Fauré, which played at the Miami Book Fair International in 1995. Other music-themed pieces were Paganini: The Devil’s Violinist, a video drama written and directed for PBS, and a new rhymed-couplet English version of the libretto to Stravinsky’s “Story of a Soldier,” also for PBS.
Isaiah was also fond of spoofing, or explaining, medical and healthcare issues in writing, whether through sketches and songs for The Thalia Follies (particularly the Oh Doctor! show in 2006) or in The Doctor Will See You Now, a musical revue about doctor-patient relationships that Isaiah was commissioned to write for the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.