At On The Stage, we believe that the incredible pioneers of theatre history deserve recognition for their invaluable contributions to the growth and evolution of the performing arts. In this blog, we’ll delve into the importance of celebrating such trailblazers by exploring the life and career of Boris Aronson, a Yiddish designer who changed Broadway. 

First: A History of Yiddish Theatre

Yiddish theatre originated in the late 19th century in Eastern Europe, specifically in the Yiddish-speaking communities of Poland and Russia. Yiddish theatre emerged as a form of entertainment for Jewish immigrants who were living in crowded, impoverished urban areas, and the plays performed in Yiddish were often comedic and satirical. They dealt with themes that were relevant to the lives of Jewish people at the time, such as poverty, immigration, and anti-Semitism.

In the early 20th century, Yiddish theatre began to flourish in New York City, which had become a hub for Jewish immigrants. The first Yiddish theatre in America was founded in 1882 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and Yiddish theatre would thrive until the mid-20th century. It was at this point that an overwhelming sense of assimilation and the decline of Yiddish as a spoken language led to the decline of the art form. Yet still, the impacts and influences of Yiddish theatre prevail, with phenomenal shows like Fiddler on the Roof continuing to captivate audiences around the world, and many organizations keep the art alive.

The Life and Legacy of Boris Aronson

Early Life

Boris Aronson was a legendary theatrical designer whose contributions to the world of stage design were nothing short of revolutionary. Born in present-day Ukraine in 1898 to a family of rabbis, Aronson’s upbringing was deeply rooted in Jewish culture and tradition. From an early age, he demonstrated an innate talent for the arts, and early on he enrolled in art school, where he honed his skills in painting and sculpture, which he applied to his incredible work in the future.

Aronson’s life was shaped by his exposure to the great artistic movements of his time. As an apprentice to Aleksandra Ekster, he was introduced to the Constructivist school of art, which emphasized geometric forms, industrial materials, and functional design. Aronson was captivated by this new aesthetic, which challenged the traditional forms of realism that dominated the theatre at the time. Inspired by the work of Vsevolod Meyerhold and Alexander Tairov, who were leading figures in the avant-garde theatre movement in Russia, he began to bring these ideas to his own designs.

Surrounded by so many greats, it makes sense that he became one himself! Aronson’s early exposure to these masters of the theatre would have a profound influence on his work in the years to come.

The Art of Immersion

Through his immersion in the Russian experimental school during World War I, Aronson developed his own principles of stage design. His early designs greatly reflected the Russian Constructivism of his training, but he also began to incorporate his own ideas and influences from his Yiddish theatre background. 

Boris Aronson’s set designs were unique in their fusion of form and color, creating visually stunning environments that complemented the play’s themes and characters. His sets were also are notable for their versatility, allowing for varied movement and changing scenery to occur smoothly without interrupting the flow of the production, something that continues to inspire many set designers. He paid attention to every detail, from the texture of surfaces to the use of light and shadow, to create a fully immersive theatrical experience for the cast, crew, and audience. 

Even once he had finished creating a visionary masterpiece, Aronson was often heard emphasizing that a set was not complete until actors moved through it.

From Kiev to Broadway

Boris Aronson’s career on Broadway was greatly influenced by his background in Yiddish theatre. After living in Berlin and Paris, he settled in the United States and began designing sets and costumes for the Yiddish Art Theater and the Unser Theater. His exceptional designs attracted the attention of Broadway producers, and he was soon designing for productions on Broadway. Over a period of almost twenty years, he worked on thirty-four plays and three musicals.

In 1945, Aronson married Lisa Jalowetz, a talented designer who often worked alongside him on his productions. Although he is best known for his work on The Crucible and The Diary of Anne Frank, Aronson had a particularly successful decade in the 1970s, during which he designed sets for some of Broadway’s most iconic musicals.

He won his fourth Tony Award for “Company” in 1971 and followed that up with wins for “Follies” in 1972, and a nomination for “A Little Night Music” in 1973. In 1976, a few years before his death, he won his sixth Tony Award for his work on the original set design of Stephen Sondheim’s “Pacific Overtures”.

When Aronson wasn’t winning numerous accolades on Broadway, he was busy designing sets for the Metropolitan Opera and several ballet companies and was also known as a painter and sculptor. He won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Set Design three times!

In 1979, a year before his death, he was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame, solidifying his place as one of the most innovative and influential set designers of his era.

A Lasting Impact on Yiddish and Broadway Theatre

Boris Aronson’s impact on the Broadway industry was significant, revolutionizing the role of the scenic designer and shaping the look and feel of many of Broadway’s most iconic productions. 

Productions such as “Hamilton,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” and “The Lion King” draw on Aronson’s techniques and designs for their sets. He was also an early advocate for the use of projections in scenic design, a technique that is now ubiquitous on the West End. Boris Aronson was a true visionary whose work transformed the world of theatre, and his contributions will continue to inspire generations of artists to come.

Support Jewish Theatremakers

At On The Stage, supporting theatremakers is at the heart of our mission, and we are committed to providing a platform for all artists to showcase their work and reach a wider audience. We’d like to share a few notable organizations that support Jewish theatremakers today:

  1. National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene: This organization is dedicated to the preservation and celebration of Yiddish culture through the performing arts. They produce a range of productions each year, including plays, musicals, and concerts.
  2. The Braid: The Braid, previously known as Jewish Women’s Theatre, is a prominent non-profit organization that produces and preserves stories rooted in Jewish culture and experience. 
  3. The New Yiddish Rep: This theatre company is dedicated to bringing the essence of Yiddish theatre to modern audiences by presenting both classic Yiddish and contemporary Yiddish-inspired theatre in Yiddish, English, and multilingual formats. They curate a variety of performing arts productions, including theatrical performances, readings, and workshops.
  4. The Jewish Plays Project: The Jewish Plays Project engages emerging artists in their Jewish identity, involves Jewish communities in the selection and support of new voices, and secures mainstream production opportunities for the best new plays, featuring some incredible Broadway directors, playwrights, and actors. 
  5. Jewish Theatre Collaborative: This company produces contemporary works of theatre that explore Jewish themes and experiences from both the past and the present. 

In a touching tribute to Aronson’s life and career, the late director Harold Clurman said, “I know of no designer since (Robert Edmond) Jones who more unequivocally deserves the title of master visual artist of the stage than Boris Aronson.” 

We couldn’t agree more!

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