Jay Kholos doesn’t hesitate when asked where he got the idea for A Stoop on Orchard Street, his musical retelling of the turn-of-the-20th-century Jewish immigrant experience in New York: “The Yankees’ Old-Timers’ Day,” he says with a laugh.
Of course, that’s not the whole story behind the show that is now playing at the Dell Theater of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Old City.
It is true that Kholos went to Yankee Stadium with his wife, Paula, on a broiling hot day in 2000. And in exchange for her being a good sport for the six hours’ worth of ceremonies and innings, he accompanied her the following day to the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side.
“I walked in there,” Kholos recalls, “and all the stories my grandfather had told me about coming over from Russia — having just the clothes on their backs, landing on the Lower East Side —just came flooding back to me. When I finished the tour, I literally sat down on the stoop of the Tenement Museum and told my wife and son that I thought this would make a great musical.”
True to his word, Kholos not only thought of the story for A Stoop on Orchard Street, he wrote the script, the book, the lyrics and produced the play. It was quite an unusual feat, considering that he had never written or produced a play before. That is not to say that he came into the process cold. He has been involved in the entertainment industry since the 1960s, when he worked on The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Red Skelton Show and The Jack Benny Show, among others.
Yet, despite his experience and connections from working in television and songwriting, Kholos came to one inescapable conclusion: “Although I’ve been in the entertainment business for a long time, I had no name or track record, so nobody was going to open their wallet” to produce the show. “I made the decision to take on the responsibility myself, to live or die with the play.”
So far, he and the play are both thriving. Judging from initial box office sales, the play’s run in Philadelphia will be as successful as runs in New York (where it broke all box office records at the Mazer Theater on Orchard Street), Ft. Lauderdale (a four-month run of sellouts) and other stops on the national tour — a long way from its origins being workshopped at the Nashville JCC in 2003.
“Audiences really embrace it,” Kholos says, “maybe because of their parents or grandparents” who had similar experiences to what is depicted on stage. The play is written in flashback style, as an elderly Jewish gentleman reminisces about his childhood on Orchard Street circa 1910. His narration makes way for a cast 20 strong, all dressed in period-specific attire, as they bring the immigrant drama of the early 20th century to life.
The tsuris of trying to spirit loved ones into the United States before something terrible befalls them; the strain experienced by families dealing with culture shock in different ways; the dreams of making it big in America — these are just a few of the pathos- touched moments that mark the 18-song score. That score includes the rousingly defiant “Lipschitz,” about trying to hold onto your identity even after being given a new name at Ellis Island; and “The Bubbie Song,” which features the shockingly hilarious sight of Jewish grandmothers rising from their eternal rest in order to dish out more guilt to the living.
The cast also helps A Stoop on Orchard Street succeed as an evocative piece of historical theater. The rhythms and accents, especially those of Francine Berk, who plays the matriarch Bubbie, and Sam Nagel, who plays the troubled husband, Hiram, will be instantly familiar to anyone who has had relatives who grew up in New York during the first part of the 20th century. And Kholos’ liberal sprinklings of Yiddish — enough that the playbill contains a comprehensive beginner’s Yiddish-to-English glossary — give an authentic patina to the dialogue.
But for a play about the Jewish immigrant experience of the time, it all feels a little less weighty than expected.
Kholos doesn’t disagree. “It is a very romanticized version of what happened in 1910, as seen through a boy’s eyes,” he says. “Although there is heartache and sadness, ups and downs, you feel uplifted when you leave the theater.”
He actually looks at this as a way to expand the play’s narrative scope. He is currently in preliminary talks with HBO about doing a series based on the play, “something very gritty. If it becomes an HBO series, it will be more about the real stories that happened in those tenements.”
Regardless of whether or not premium cable is his next stop, Kholos has already written a successful ending to his play, one that echoes the ultimate triumph of so many Jewish immigrants a century earlier.
A Stoop on Orchard Street is performed Wednesday through Sunday at the National Museum of American Jewish History. For tickets and information, go to www.bigapplemusicals.org or call 215-220-2361.