In 1978 the Gilbert & Sullivan Workshop of Long Island, as a fundraiser, presented a short Yiddish version of H.M.S. Pinafore called Der Shirtz (based on a show written by Miriam Walowit, staged by an amateur cast and then recorded as a fundraiser for the
Kadimah Hadassah in Brooklyn in 1952). Featuring English-language narration and Yiddish lyrics to the familiar Gilbert & Sullivan tunes, it proved so popular that, by the early 1980s, a separate company-within-a-company had evolved, performing a full-length Der Yiddisher Pinafore and Der Yiddisher Mikado (both prepared by company member Al Grand, assisted by producer Bob Tartell and company president Phil Gellis).
As demand for the Yiddish productions escalated, the Yiddish company developed its own membership and, in 1988, was spun off as a separate group, the Yiddish Light Opera Company of Long Island. Several company members—notably Gellis, Tartell, Grand and Martin Fuller—continued to perform with both companies, rehearsing English-language shows on Tuesdays and Thursdays in Merrick, and Yiddish shows on Wednesdays in the same room. The two groups’ schedules were busy enough, however, that most performers were members of one company or the other, but not both.
The Yiddish Light Opera Company would have a 30-year run, presenting its original two shows plus Di Yam Gazlonim, Grand’s Yiddish version of The Pirates of Penzance, which premiered in the late 1990s . The company took its shows around the U.S. and even to Canada and England. A particular triumph came in 2006 when the Folksbiene theater in Manhattan staged a full professional production of Di Yam Gazlonim, drawing sold-out houses and rave reviews from such publications as The New York Times (“Bringing new life to old theater and old language, Di Yam Gazlonim gives Folksbiene’s audiences a joyful treat”) and The Forward (“(Grand) ably captures the silly, giddy humor that has endeared Gilbert and Sullivan to generations of fans”). The show was nominated for a Drama Desk Award as Best Musical Revival.
The aging of its audience and of its membership finally forced the Yiddish Light Opera Company of Long Island to close in 2018, but it remains a unique part of the history both of Gilbert & Sullivan and of Yiddish theater.