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Leonard Lehrman: Malamud and Music

Leonard Lehrman
May 23, 2012

by Leonard Lehrman

There have been eight musical treatments of Bernard Malamud’s works, to date; five of them are mentioned in Philip Davis’ biography, Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life — in a footnote.

Malamud is, in fact, unique in the number of his works that have inspired musical treatments. Leon Kirchner’s opera Lily was based on Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King, and Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy” enjoyed life as a play (with Tovah Feldshuh) and movie musical (with Barbra Streisand). But among American Jewish writers of fiction, none have had their work musicalized and staged as frequently as Malamud has.

On Halloween night, 2008, at a book talk at the 92nd Street Y by Philip Davis, literary lioness Letty Cottin Pogrebin, who knew Malamud, commented on his terse eloquence and influence. Having known him and his family myself since 1970, I also spoke briefly on the paradox and influence of his wife Ann’s Catholicism, and on the various musical treatments. Afterwards, a beautiful woman came over to me and introduced herself: “I’m Arlene.”

Malamud’s daughter Janna, in her 2006 memoir, My Father Is a Book (2006), reveals the existence and her wary toleration of an affair her father had with a student named Arlene, with whom Bernard and Ann had remained friendly. Arlene, now Dr. Arlene Heyman, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, appears in two photos in Davis’ biography: in 1965 when she was 23, and at her wedding in 1979, being kissed by her former teacher. This was clearly the real person, whom Malamud evoked in characters like Karla Harris (in his short story, “Notes from a Lady at a Dinner Party”) and Fanny Bick (in his novel Dubin’s Lives).

Arlene told me that she had been there at the 92nd Street Y with the Malamuds at a 1985 performance of Elie Siegmeister’s last operas, which were based on two of Malamud’s short stories. This came about because Malamud admired the operatic treatments of his work, by Marc Blitzstein and myself, more than the film treatments, in which he no longer recognized so many of the words as his — this he told me feistily, but with a forthright enthusiasm, following the New York City premiere of the Blitzstein-Lehrman Tales of Malamud in January 1978 (reviewed in Jewish Currents, March, 1978).

Years later, his widow authorized and on June 1, 1996, attended the premiere at Hebrew Union College of my operatic treatment of his only published dramatic work, “Suppose A Wedding,” which he subtitled “a scene of a play.” A tale of materialism vs. idealism in the struggle between a retired Yiddish actor and his wife over their daughter’s suitors, the piece is one of Malamud’s most socially conscious, including a monologue borrowed from S. Ansky’s The Dybbuk.

None of this is mentioned in Davis’ biography, which fusses over which of Malamud’s novels was greater than the others, somewhat to the neglect of the short stories — including “Idiots First” and “The Magic Barrel,” which inspired operas begun by Marc Blitzstein; “The Jewbird,” which inspired an opera in Hebrew by Jacobo Kaufmann and Raymond Goldstein; “Notes from a Lady at a Dinner Party,” which inspired my opera Karla; and “The Lady of the Lake” and “Angel Levine,” which inspired Siegmeister. “Angel Levine” had also been attractive to Blitzstein, but it became temporarily unavailable for musical treatment when it was filmed, starring Zero Mostel and Harry Belafonte. (In 1995, it was turned into a musical by Phyllis K. Robinson.)

Davis’s biography nevertheless provides a window on how much of the suffering endured by Malamud’s characters was the product of real experience (his impoverished father, suicidal mother, and deranged brother, for starters), and how the writer painfully honed his craft, creating characters and vignettes that are polished jewels. Other writers he influenced included Philip Roth, along with Clark Blaise, Jay Cantor, and Katha Pollitt, who were his students. As such it is an extremely valuable document, that ought to spur one to read or reread the works themselves — and listen to the music.


• Excerpts from Idiots First (with piano):

Premier Recordings CD 1005 A Blitzstein Cabaret; Original Cast #OC-4441 A Marc Blitzstein Songbook; Original Cast #OC-6127 The Marc Blitzstein Centennial Concert CD;

• Excerpt from The Magic Barrel (with piano):

Koch 3-7050-2 H1 Zipperfly & Other Songs;

• Excerpt from The Lady of the Lake (with orchestra):

Milken Archive CD# 8.559450 Scenes from Jewish Operas,vol. 2

Videography Links:

Idiots First (excerpts from Scenes 3-4, with piano):

Idiots First (complete, with orchestra):

Scenes 1-2

Scenes 3-4

Scenes 5-9

Scenes 10-13

Suppose A Wedding (complete, with piano):

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Karla (complete, with orchestra):

Scene 1

Scene 2

Scene 2 Pt2

Scene 3

See also:

Leonard Lehrman has been contributing articles to Jewish Currents since 1981. The composer of 205 works to date, including 10 operas and 6 musicals, he is currently updating the 1988-91 Superspy!: The S-e-c-r-e-t Musical with his collaborator Joel Shatzky, whom he met through the magazine.