“Yiddle With a Fiddle is as good a time at the theater as one with an eye and ear for musical comedy might wish.”
– The New York Times review
Yiddle with a Fiddle is Isaiah’s musical based on Joseph Green's classic 1936 Yiddish film, starring Molly Picon. The original movie had included three songs by composer Abraham Ellstein (1907-1963), with whom Isaiah had worked closely at the radio station WEVD. Immersing himself in Ellstein’s tunes decades later was, as Isaiah told the Los Angeles Times, a “joyful undertaking.” That newspaper article describes how Isaiah and musical director-arranger Lanny Meyers “pored over Ellstein's compositions, eventually settling on 17 songs – all of which had been written for other shows.” Isaiah then whited-out the old lyrics and wrote in new ones that fit the new show:
What we were trying to do was not a revival of a Yiddish piece – which it never was – but what Tommy Tune did with 'My One and Only': stitch together some old, well-known and not-so-well-known tunes. … The soul of the show is Ellstein's great melodies. There are a couple of ballads, tangos, Gypsy numbers, jazz tunes, some authentic Yiddish music – although that's really the exception. One of the best-known Yiddish songs, 'Stay Home With Me,' was originally a sad ballad to a waltz tune. Now, it's a comic ballet.” (source)
Yiddle is rooted in Isaiah’s feeling of friendship for Abe Ellstein and love of Yiddish theatre, but through the process that Isaiah describes here the show became much more than a testimonial, expressing Isaiah’s own voice and theatrical spirit through the new songs and story. In 1936 Poland, Yiddle and her father Aryeh set out to try to make a living as traveling musicians. For self-protection in a treacherous world, Yiddle disguises herself as a boy. Times are tough but these two have a joyous way about them nevertheless:
Yiddle with his fiddle, Aryeh with his bass
coming to bring a little smile of happiness to your face –
the music has a message: Hey, the world’s a crazy place!
When Yiddle and Aryeh meet up with two other musicians who have similar hopes, the four decide to join forces rather than compete, but these two new guys – Froym and Kalamutke – play in a strange style that at first mystifies Yiddle and her father. The song that demonstrates this new genre is a jazzy tune with classic Isaiah lines:
New rhythm – come on and try it!
Please don’t even ask me why it
is like it is -- why does seltzer have fizz?
That’s how this new rhythm is!
Of course, Yiddle’s disguise sets the stage for romantic confusion and comedy as she eventually falls in love with Froym, who, in a duet called “Man to man,” makes it clear that he views Yiddle as a terrific music partner but has no idea who she really is. Various scenes, songs, and subplots take the cast to the big city of Warsaw and to other deceptions and confusions until it all eventually gets sorted out as Yiddle reveals her true identity and true feelings.
The show is upbeat in its music and its exhortations (“Don’t give in and suffer, be a little tougher, optimism never hurt,” sings Froym in “Help is on the way”), but it also has a darker side. As the LA Times observed:
Although the show's subject matter is light and its tone generally upbeat, the setting
reflects a grim period in world history. “At one point,” said Sheffer, “when Yiddle's upset
about losing a guy, an older woman says, 'Times are bad, but they're sure to get better.'
Of course, in 1936 Poland, that's all about to be blown away. It lends another level to the
show: a time and place and way of life that are not long for this world.”
Yiddle opened at Town Hall in New York City in the fall of 1990 and over the next few years played in Los Angeles, Ft. Lauderdale, Palm Beach, and Boston.
Florida Sun-Sentinel, February 1991, Los Angeles Times 1991 review, and a reminiscence in the Jewish Daily Forward, shortly after Isaiah’s death in 2012, about the impact of the show on the reviewer’s young daughter.