B y W h e e l A n d B y W i n G
PROLOGUE: (CLARINET SOLO) The story begins at a new synagogue in Skalat, on the Polish/Ukraine border, 1906. The rabbi blesses Edel Channah, her ebullient young daughter, Esther, and their family for all their help building the synagogue, invoking Neshomah, the feminine, holy spark of the divine, to protect the family. As they leave, Esther drops a ribbon she was playing with, which the ephemeral, dancing Neshomah picks up and puts in her hair. Throughout the story, this presence appears, sometimes as a bird, always as a protective presence for the family.
Flash forward to the bustling town of Skalat, 1941, occupied for 3 years by the Russian communists, who have been very good to the Parnes family – Parents Mickey and Esther and their seven children: Moishe, Sally, Izzy, Clara, Johnny, Tonia and Genie, ranging in age from 18 to 3. Stars of Yiddish musical theatre, the family is well liked, but not by everyone. Nazis are due to invade and Ukrainian bullies, resentful of the Parneses, announce their intention to turn oldest son Moishe over to the Nazis as a collaborator. Fearing for his life, Moishe decides to bicycle to a nearby town “until it all blows over.” Sally and Moishe’s best friend, the loud, burly Azriel (enamored with Sally) refuse to let him go alone (SKALAT).
The rest of the Parnes family has been packing up to wait out the expected invasion in a relative’s basement. Esther tells the children stories that warn them not to wander off. (BABA YAGA). Upon learning that Sally and Azriel had followed Moishe away from Skalat, Esther resolves that the family must stay together and all head off on a horse and buggy to find the teenagers.
A happy reunion is tempered by the realization that that they cannot go back to the fighting in Skalat, nor can they wait where they are, so they must continue eastward until they can return home. Azriel insists on traveling with them and Esther admits to Mickey that she is pregnant with their eighth child. Mickey berates Sally for leaving, believing that had they waited in the basement, they would have been able to return to normal life instead of living out of a horse drawn cart (HOME AGAIN).
The family survives for months in the cart, with Esther and Mickey wishing they did not have to rely on the ethically troubling activities of Azriel to keep them safe and supplied with horses to carry them. Food is scarce, and the family is surprised when Moishe appears with a basket of much needed food. Ever a source of cheer, he leads them in an amusing reenactment of his encounter with the dimwitted Russian official through whom he received the basket (STALIN’S THIRD COUSIN).
The family sets up camp for the night, but the sound of approaching aircraft and bombs sends them racing to whatever hiding places they can find. Everyone is terrified – death and destruction have never been so immediate – but perhaps protected by the Neshomah, the family emerges to find themselves the only ones alive and, inexplicably, seven bombs remain unexploded – one for each Parnes child (SEVEN BOMBS FOR SEVEN CHILDREN/AFTERMATH).
The Parneses continues eastward, finding shelter in an abandoned barn, but food is still hard to find. Izzy steals a chicken from the yard of what turns out to be a local official, assuming it will not be missed. He assumes wrong but when two officials barge in demanding the chicken back, the family has hidden it. The family’s increasingly entertaining efforts to distract the officers from little Genie, who cannot keep her eyes off the hiding spot, save the day (THE CHICKEN).
Even so, the family continues to suffer – both from increasing cold and hunger, and from resentment. Family members resent their situation while Esther and especially Mickey resent their dependence on Azriel – as well as Sally’s growing affection for him. While snowed-in, Esther becomes determined to combat the family’s growing lethargy, insisting that Izzy play a tune to which all can dance (NOT ALONE). The short emotional respite does not bring relief, however. Pragmatic Clara determines that the only answer is to find food – and she is the oldest one who is small enough to fit through the barn’s small window. As she pushes through wind and snow, she reflects on the family’s peril, wondering if only she can see it for the dangerous situation it is (ALONE).
It turns out that indeed, Clara is not alone; Genie has followed her into the dangerous cold and both have gone too far to turn back before returning with something for the starving family to eat. Despite small victories, however, the family is stricken by a Typhus epidemic – and while trying to care for everyone, Esther goes into labor. Something is clearly wrong and she falls unconscious. Azriel runs off to find a way to get her to the hospital, stealing another horse if necessary. Mickey, still ill himself, must tend to his children. Moishe, the only one to be over the illness, is left to wait with Esther. Fearful for her life and for the entire family, he pours out his worries to a large bird that has landed nearby (CHAINED TO LAND). With Esther’s life uncertain, the act ends with the sound of horse hooves drawing near.
The second act opens with Esther singing angelically to a bundle in a blanket, wondering about the continued uncertainties and perils that may await them. The bundle is revealed to be only Genie’s rag doll, representing the baby who did not survive (WITHOUT HER).
The family has continued to travel on, now landing in a cotton collective where the large, strong Azriel has been made a foreman. He and Sally shyly admit their growing love for each other, as the other members of the family express their own feelings of love and longing. (FOR YOU) Clara, partly jealous of the love around her and partly demoralized by the family’s destitute situation, goes outside and is approached by a group of raucous soldiers. Both frightened and attracted by their attention, she accepts an invitation to go with them, believing that the same pragmatism that enabled her to find bread for the family in the snow will enable her to help again.
But the family truly is starving on a collective that has plenty of cotton but little food. The situation is so dire that gentle, civilized Mickey catches and breaks the neck of a tiny bird that flew into the house to feed the youngest children. Revolted by his own ability to kill so violently, he despairs to Esther of how far he feels he has fallen (HANDS). Clara returns, clearly shaken; the encounter with the soldiers obviously went terribly wrong. The family realizes that they can no longer stay where they are and must move on.
While waiting for Mickey, Moishe, and Sally to return with travel papers, Esther sends Johnny, Tonia and Genie to bring water for the journey. As each mimics their mother’s ways to keep everyone in line (BABA YAGA REPRISE). Tonia is separated from the other two, who return home without her. The family anxiously searches for her and Tonia is found before she can be harmed– but after missing their train.
To their shock, the Parnes family learns that the train they would have been on was destroyed. Izzy sees this as God protecting them, while Clara cannot imagine a God who would permit all the devastation they have seen (HOW COULD YOU QUESTION).
Upon arrival in a new, more populous town, Azriel is drafted into the Soviet army. He proposes that he and Sally get married at once stating that army service might kill him, but the prospect of Sally not there for him would make death certain. Even knowing that Esther and Mickey would never approve, the two run off to be wed. Moishe finds himself attracted to apparently widowed shopkeeper Marushka and her daughter Katya, both of whom return his affections (I THINK I LIKE YOU).
While trying to get to his post, Azriel is found to be AWOL and sentenced to five years of hard labor in Siberia. He and Sally write to each other, often not knowing of their letters will reach their destination. Mickey and Esther are unsympathetic and Azriel faces the growing affections of a female officer (LETTERS).
As the war ends, the family discovers to their horror that Skalat was completely destroyed. With no home to return to, they wonder if America might hold more promise. Moishe plans to stay behind with Maruska and Katya until they discover Maruska’s believed-dead husband among the returning soldiers. As the family boards the train, they see another soldier walking down the platform. It is Azriel – who had no idea if the family would still be there, let alone at the station when he arrived. With everyone reunited, Mickey and Esther reluctantly decide to accept Azriel as a son in law (FOR YOU/HOME AGAIN REPRISE).
Esther’s ribbon falls from the Neshomah’s hair and is picked up by Genie, who puts it in her own hair. At the last strains of music end, the Neshomah sweeps her arm out and up, in a gesture of finality, as if to indicate, “My presence here is at an end. The future is bright. And it is yours.”