Malamud's Angel Levine
AUFBAU 61:12 June 9, 1995 p. 10
[original title: On the Musicalization
of Malamud's Angel Levine]
Copyright by Leonard Lehrman & AUFBAU
May 17, 1995
[slightly revised; May 31, 1995]
Not long after I began private composition study in 1960 with the American (Jewish) composer Elie Siegmeister (1909-1991), I learned that he had greatly admired and would have liked to make into an opera Bernard Malamud's short story "Angel Levine," in which the mystical symbiosis of Jews and blacks was symbolically etched in a poetical prose that was dialectic, in both senses of the term. But another composer got there first: Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964), who had known Malamud (1914-1986) as a fellow faculty member at Bennington College, and had proposed a series of one-act operas based on his stories, to be called Tales of Malamud.
This was the second time that Blitzstein's and Siegmeister's tastes had run in similar channels: Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock was made into a musical (which some have called an opera) by Blitzstein; Siegmeister settled for his second choice: the playwright's The Plough and the Stars, which became Siegmeister's first full-length opera, and his own favorite among all his stage works.
Then Malamud sold Angel Levine to the movies - the film starred Harry Belafonte in the title character, playing opposite Zero Mostel. Blitzstein decided that his two other projected Malamud operas would be abendfuellend without it, and continued working on Idiots First and The Magic Barrel. The latter was only barely begun: one song and part of one scene. But the former was 60-70% complete. When Blitzstein died in 1964, Leonard Bernstein told a Philharmonic Hall audience (and The N.Y. Times) that he intended to finish it.
He never did, and several other composers were asked to consider doing so, including Elie Siegmeister, who recommended this writer in 1970. After analyzing the work with Siegmeister and with Nadia Boulanger (who had been both Siegmeister's and Blitzstein's teacher), I completed it in December 1973 and then added another Malamud opera of my own (Karla, based on his "Notes from a Lady at a Dinner Party") to complete the double-bill. Having obtained approval from Bernstein and the Blitzstein Estate, as well as from Malamud, I produced Tales of Malamud at Cornell, Indiana University, and with the Bel Canto Opera Company in New York City. (I also founded the Juedischer Musiktheaterverein Berlin in hopes of presenting the work in Europe, with a promise of Senat funding from Heinz Galinski and the Jdische Gemeinde there, but that promise was never fulfilled.) It won the first Off-Broadway Opera Award for "most important event of the season" (in 1978) and later received an NEA grant for the orchestral premiere (in 1992) by the Center for Contemporary Opera.
Malamud attended the final Bel Canto Opera performance in January, 1978. He later told me on the phone that he preferred the operatic treatment of his works to the movie treatments (such as The Fixer, The Natural, etc.) mostly because the latter had to open the work up so much and add material he had trouble recognizing as his, while opera libretti (needing fewer words) could stick more closely to what he had actually written. He was therefore, he said, buying the musical rights to Angel Levine back from the movies and giving them to Siegmeister. Thus was born another Malamud opera, which Siegmeister coupled with still another: The Lady of the Lake. Commissioned by the 92nd Street Y as the (alas) last work in the series Jewish Opera at the Y, the work premiered October 5, 1985 to relatively mixed reviews. The vocal score was printed by and is available from Carl Fischer.
Meanwhile, The Magic Barrel has been staged as a straight play; Malamud's only published play (he called it a "Scene from a Play" but it's actually a one-act play on its own) Suppose a Wedding is being made into an opera (by me); and Angel Levine has just opened as a Jewish Repertory Theatre musical at Playhouse 91 with book, music and lyrics by Phyllis K. Robinson.
The plot of Angel Levine, which takes place in the 1940s, concerns a poor Jewish tailor whose wife is dying. A black man appears and announces that he is Alexander Levine, an angel, and if the tailor will only believe in him, his wife Fanny will get better. There ensue a series of Talmudic arguments, ponderings and chases involving a night-club singer named Bella and a bar in Harlem, but eventually the tailor believes, Fanny gets better, and Levine, having accomplished his mission, ascends to his heavenly reward.
Ms. Robinson has lots of credits in advertising, worked as a lyricist on (the ill-fated Mitch Leigh musical) Cry for Us All, and succeeds admirably in a few numbers like "You Can't Sing the Blues When You Tango," "Black Is the Color of the Night," and the quartet "Something to Live For," which recall the Broadway idioms of Pajama Game, Damn Yankees or Fiddler on the Roof! But dramaturgically her piece has problems. Andre De Shields as the angel is a terrific talent with energy and control down to his finger-tips. Tina Fabrique shines as Bella, his Harlem foil. Jordan Leeds and Pauline Frommer make a nice young couple in a new subplot (not in the original short story) between the doctor and the girl next door. And Marilyn Sokol is a sympathetic and loving wife in Act I. But in Act II she does not even get to open her eyes, let alone her mouth. And her recovery from illness, so vital to the plot, is barely spoken of, let alone shown.
The most serious lack, though, is at the center. The Zero Mostel character, called "Manischevitz" for an obviously wry comic effect in the story, the movie and the opera, in the musical has become "Finkel" - the name of The Magic Barrel's protagonist! And Michael Ingram in the lead, though listed erroneously on the program as a member of the "Ensemble" (a Freudian slip?), does not seem to know whether to act like Tevya, Jackie Mason or Joe Schmo. In the end he - and his material - comes across most like Joe Schmo, leaving a big hole in the middle of the work. Which is too bad. Instead of a black man floating into Judaism to find his identity, we have a Jewish man floating around Harlem and not finding anything. Even the black synagogue scene, which was hilarious in the opera, in the musical is done mostly in dialogue and falls flat. Malamud and this company deserve better.
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