Habima's production of 'Next to Normal.'
Habima's production of 'Next to Normal.' Photo by Gerard Alon
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In 1964, Eliza Doolittle paid a visit to Israel and Prime Minister Levi Eshkol went to meet her. The occasion was the Hebrew-language, Tel Aviv premiere of "My Fair Lady," the hit Broadway musical whose female protagonist, Doolittle, is a Cockney flower girl in Edwardian London who, taken under the wing of linguist Henry Higgins, blossoms into an elegant lady.

More impressive than her transformation, at this particular premiere, was the production itself: a large-scale staging with over 100 actors, singers and musicians, set against the same opulent sets that had been seen on the stages of London and New York The director, choreographer, and set designer, too, were flown in from Broadway. In a sense, this was Israel's own entree into the extravagant realm of musical theater - the event became a landmark in Israeli theater history.

The first large-scale musical to undergo conversion for the Hebrew stage was one in which the transformation of language serves as the core theme of the plot, a fitting choice for a country whose national language was itself in the process of revival and transformation. Rendering "My Fair Lady" in Hebrew provided ample challenges for translator Dan Almagor, a songwriter-lyricist who is one of the country's most prolific theatrical translators.

In addition to all of the other obstacles inherent in translation - which include adapting cultural references, making sentences rhyme, and fitting just the right number of syllables into a musical phrase - lyricist Alan Jay Lerner's book for "My Fair Lady" also demands that a strong distinction be made between "street" language and "proper" language.

Nearly half a century later, Daniel Efrat struggled with a similar dilemma relating to linguistic nuance when he translated Willy Russell's 1983 musical "Blood Brothers" for the Beit Lessin theater in Tel Aviv this past spring. "Blood Brothers," one of the longest-running musicals in London's West End, tells the tragic tale of twins separated at birth and raised with different degrees of wealth and privilege.

"A few things have changed in street talk," says the 30-year-old translator-director-lyricist-performer of the show's sometimes-dated references. "The play is a lot about languages - of the poor kid from the slums and the rich one from an educated family. So it's all about different styles. I wrote it the way I thought it should be heard today, to my young, modern ears."

Efrat, who is one of three people in Israel today professionally translating musicals from English to Hebrew (the other two are Eli Bijaoui and Dori Parnes, sees his role as a calling. His goal, he says, is to introduce Israeli audiences to the beauty and entertainment that musical theater offers but, more specifically, to show them its deeper, more cerebral side as well.

"Musicals were always my favorite," says Efrat, who started studying theater at age 10 and continued his training at the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts and later at Beit Zvi, one of the country's premier performing-arts conservatories. His focus was always on performance; translating, he says, is something that just happened.

"I needed the money as a student," Efrat says of his initial foray into translation. When he was 18, a teacher at Beit Zvi who had heard that he dabbled in the field asked him to translate an evening of Gershwin songs. After the success of that project, more translations followed. "I paid for school that way," he says. (His introduction to English, by the way, came from two years spent living, together with his family, in the United States, starting at age 4.)

Efrat counts himself lucky to have worked under the tutelage of Ehud Manor, one of Israel's greatest songwriters, translators and TV and radio personalities. Manor, who died in 2005, was responsible for bringing the musicals "Les Miserables" and "Cabaret" to Israeli audiences.

From Manor, says Efrat, he learned "to let go of the rhyme and go with the music. Not to cling to the exact meaning of the original but to find the best solution in Hebrew."

Efrat's efforts are currently on display at Habima Theater, in Tel Aviv, where the 2009 Tony Award-winning musical "Next to Normal," by Brian Yorkey (book ) and Tom Kitt, has been extended through September. The show - an intimate look at how a woman's family is affected by her mental illness and her attempts to be treated - is exactly the type of edgy, contemporary show that Efrat says he's eager to introduce to local audiences.

"Everyone was really surprised by the show," he says about the first time he saw it, together with the creative team, last summer in Toronto, where it was finishing a North American tour. "It's the last thing you'd think someone would put to music and make into a Broadway musical. The show is really special."

Part of what made it special also posed some challenges in adapting and translating. For example, the language of "Next to Normal" is more down-to-earth and less poetic, whereas poetic verse, says Efrat, allows him to dip into the richer treasure chest of formal Hebrew. Cultural references had to be altered as well - Efrat chose to change a reference to actor Charlie Sheen to one about pop star Lady Gaga, because he thought the latter would be easier for Israeli audiences to relate to.

'The rain in Spain'

In 1964, when Dan Almagor brought "My Fair Lady" to the stage in Hebrew (as "Gvirti Hanava" ), he struggled with the show's most famous line: "The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain." It serves as the key to Eliza's development; when she masters proper enunciation of that phrase, Higgins knows he has accomplished his mission. A Hebrew equivalent eluded Almagor until his co-writer Shraga Friedman proposed the following: "Barad yarad bidrom sfarad ha'erev" (literally, "Hail fell last evening in southern Spain." )

It's a genius solution because it fits the music perfectly, conveys the same general idea of the original phrase, and allows Eliza's pronunciation to ultimately morph from the deep gutteral "R" to the rolling "R" sound that defined elevated Hebrew at the time, thus demonstrating her progress.

It's the kind of keystone that proves elusive, at some point, for every translator.

Efrat's holy grail was the line "Catch me, I'm falling," in the song "Make up Your Mind / Catch Me I'm Falling," in "Next to Normal." He says he knew that, "when we crack this one, we'll have the whole thing pretty much worked out." The pivotal line is sung by the main character's son, who is then joined in harmony by the other actors.

"That's so specific and so exact," Efrat says. "There's no way to translate that to Hebrew because the one-syllable words in English are too short." He reports that after seeing the show for the first time, he went back to his hotel and made a list of 30-40 potential solutions. The winner, ultimately, was "Ima tahziki" - "Mother, hold me tight." He was able to maintain the sense of falling in the following verse: "rak al tni li lipol" - "Just don't let me fall."

Efrat says there are two major mistakes that translators of musical theater tend to make: One is called "Zimmerman," which is trying to push too many syllables into a phrase. "It feels forced," he says. The second is when they put the wrong emphasis on the wrong syllable. He calls rhyming "a nightmare" and laments the lack of popularly used synonyms for common words in Hebrew.

While the 2011-2012 theater season has seen major musical productions in Tel Aviv - a revival of "Cabaret" at the Cameri, in addition to "Blood Brothers" at Beit Lessin and "Next to Normal" at Habima, Efrat isn't sure that musicals have entirely caught on in Israel.

"I think there's a prejudice here that says musicals are all about entertainment and sequins and shiny costumes and dance numbers. That's [just] one kind of musical," he says.

Cost is also prohibitive - musicals are always more expensive and technically complex than a simple play that can tour the country - so when they do stage them, theaters often stick with safer bets: shows with name recognition, like "Cabaret" or ones that audiences have seen on film, like "Chicago."

And of course, anything with a Jewish theme, namely Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock's "Fiddler on the Roof," based on a character by Sholom Aleichem, which has been staged here many times in the 40 years since its Tel Aviv premiere and "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," Andrew Lloyd Webber's campy take on the biblical tale of Joseph's rise to power in Egypt.

Efrat also points out that the quality of performance and productions are still developing. He compares the training of actors here to the so-called golden age of Broadway, in the 1940s, when the evolution of the musical demanded performers who comprise a "triple threat" - who could sing, dance and act equally well. At the local acting schools, particularly at Beit Zvi, where Efrat recently directed a student production of "Les Miserables," there's a sense that interest in musical theater is gaining momentum.

To date, there is still not a large archive of Broadway musicals that have made their way into Hebrew. Efrat says that he and his contemporaries are still building up a library. Part of that library, Efrat insists, should include original Hebrew musicals. After directing a version of "Mami" (Sweetie ), a 1986 rock-opera written by Hillel Mittelpunkt, Ehud Banai and Yossi Mar Haim, this past June at Beit Zvi, Efrat realized how important original musicals could be to the cultural landscape of Israel.

"It feels so right," he says. "Like it's ours. It doesn't feel like Israelis singing translated lyrics trying to live up to Broadway quality. It's Israeli people singing about Israeli subjects and the things that we care about."