How Klezmer Music Haunts 'Indecent'

By its very nature, klezmer music pulses with life, but for Aaron Halva, it has a haunted quality as well. "To me it really feels like when I listen to the blues or hear a banjo played really well, and I just start crying," he says. And for those of Eastern European heritage, he adds, "it's in their DNA, just as the smell of pasta and tomato sauce for some people makes them feel like they're at home. Klezmer makes you feel like you are somewhere, too. It beckons the ghosts." 

How appropriate, then, that Halva and Lisa Gutkin are co-music directors and co-composers of the klezmer-inflected score for Paula Vogel's play Indecent, which is now on Broadway at the Cort Theatre. Steeped in the history of Yiddish theatre – and inspired by a particular, harrowing incident that persecuted Yiddish artists in New York City – the play is restless with spirits. 

Co-conceived with Rebecca Taichman, who directs this production, Vogel's play centers on a troupe of Yiddish theatre artists who performed Sholem Asch's 1906 moral melodrama The God of Vengeance. In its original language, the play toured Europe and the Lower East Side to great success, but when it was translated into English and performed on Broadway in 1922, it was suddenly declared obscene. Scenes of same-sex attraction and feminine liberation were so controversial that the cast and producer were arrested. 

Indecent charts the aftermath of that arrest, delivering a potent story about the power of art and the cost of taking a moral stand in a culture that denounces you.