Inside the Theatre on the Pier at Calliope Arts and Fitness off Roslyn’s Main Street, the Rev. Bill McBride and Irene Failenbogen, his wife and artistic collaborator, are rehearsing a scene from their new autobiographical musical, “Oy Father.”
“This is another ‘oy’ moment,” says McBride, setting up a scene in which the Yiddish expression of dismay pops out of the mouth of — not Failenbogen, who is Jewish, but McBride, a Christian. That happened a lot, the couple says, during the two-year courtship portrayed in the musical, when McBride, then a Roman Catholic priest, met and fell for Failenbogen, the Brooklyn-based cantor who was giving him voice lessons.
McBride, 62, wearing a clerical collar with plain pants and jacket, and Failenbogen, 50, dressed in the cantor’s robe she inherited from a great uncle, re-enact a mid-1990s ice cream get-together that turned unexpectedly romantic.
“She kept looking at me, and I’m thinking, ‘I want to kiss her,” McBride says, setting the scene, which originally took place during Failenbogen’s visit to his parish back home in Janesville, Wisconsin. “I kept thinking, ‘No, I’m a Catholic priest,” McBride says. But, as the play reveals, they do kiss, prompting McBride to exclaim in his faint Midwestern twang: “Oy.”
It was perhaps inevitable that McBride and Failenbogen would collaborate on a show. Both come from show business backgrounds. McBride’s mother was the successful comedy writer Mary McBride, a Midwestern “housewife” who wrote one-liners for Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller beginning in the 1960s. The antics of Bill McBride and his siblings became fodder for material Mary McBride crafted for Diller, such as this classic: “The reason I’m not an alcoholic is that I don’t like to drink in front of the kids, and when I’m away from them, who needs it?”
Failenbogen, who earned a degree in body expression from the National School of Dance in Buenos Aires, Argentina, sang in professional theater productions. In becoming a cantor, she followed a family tradition. The robe she wears in “Oy Father” and at religious services once belonged to her great uncle Harry Feimberg, a cantor in Brooklyn and Queens, who had emigrated from Bialystok, Russia, to escape the Holocaust. Failenbogen’s branch of the family, who were also Ashkenazi Jews escaping the Nazis, had settled in Buenos Aires.
Looking forward to reuniting with the American branch of the family, Failenbogen arrived in New York in 1995, carrying her guitar and two suitcases like Maria in “The Sound of Music.” After living with American relatives on Long Island, a place she found “too rural,” she settled amid a more urban vibe, and fellow Spanish speakers, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
A year after Failenbogen arrived here, McBride left his parish in Janesville on a mission to set up an exchange program with an arts community in Taiwan. But before leaving for the Far East, he stayed a few months in New York City, taking a writing course at New York University with the renowned journalist Nat Hentoff, as well as acting lessons. Wanting to follow in the footsteps of his vocally gifted, church-singer father, he also sought out a voice teacher. In Brooklyn, he saw a sign that said, “Singing lessons in English, Hebrew and Spanish.”
The voice teacher, Failenbogen, gave him a deal — charging $25 an hour instead of her usual $75 fee. McBride said it was like hearing the angels sing, and after his Taiwan mission and 16 years as a Roman Catholic priest, he resigned the priesthood in 1998, a month before marrying Failenbogen. In 2001, McBride was ordained as an interfaith minister at All Faiths Seminary International in Manhattan. These days, Failenbogen serves as cantor for the New Synagogue of Long Island in Brookville. They codirect the religious education program for the Interfaith Community at the Multifaith Campus in Brookville.
If you were one of those baby boomers who spent hours listening to Stephen Sondheim or Rodgers & Hammerstein, you’ve probably wondered whether your life might be the stuff of musical theater — replete with hummable tunes and clever lyrics. McBride and Failenbogen have climbed that mountain, creating a theatrical experience with songs by Failenbogen — lyrics in English, Spanish and Hebrew — and a book by McBride. With a title tune in which the couple laments “the mess we’re in,” and another song, “Om Shalom,” which plays on Failenbogen’s sideline as a yoga instructor, the musical’s gentle humor leavens a subject some might find controversial.
That doesn’t bother the creators of “Oy Father.”
“The message is about making choices based in love and all the factors that go into that, and ultimately choosing love even though in the process things happen that are comical and difficult,” says McBride, who is also writing a book based on their life together.
Failenbogen, who accompanies their singing on an acoustic guitar, says, “The songs really show a broad spectrum of my emotions while I was falling in love, and as I was moving through the path of love, music helped me to deal with all the changes I was experiencing.” She adds, “the music really came out of what I was feeling, and the play is a great way to reconnect with our love story again and again as we retell it.”
She says, “Every time we play it, we feel the excitement again as we were living it, all the choices we made and the emotional roller coaster we lived with.”
Audiences also have responded emotionally to the musical, laughing at the “oy moments” and giving the duo a standing ovation in a previous production. Rhonda Carol, the director, who also owns the center where the musical will be performed early next month, says “Oy Father” sold out all 55 seats on both nights staged last spring. Carol adds, “Now we’re tightening up; we’re working more on the comedic aspect and the timing. It’s a work in development.”
Their home life in a Little Neck, Queens, apartment, reflects their interfaith perspective. They celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah with their children, Nathan, 11, and Michael, 15.
“We do one present for each holiday, not the ‘Crazy 8’,” Failenbogen says.
There’s a mezuzah on the doorjamb, placed there by a previous tenant, but the kids are more likely to see the Torah parchment case in their father’s hand.
“I bless my son with a mezuzah with the idea of integrating traditions,” McBride says. “We don’t have a cross in the apartment,” he adds. “All the symbols we have are very unifying.”
Candles are lit on the Jewish sabbath as well as “anytime we need spiritual help, such as if the kids have a hard day ahead,” Failenbogen says.
Their home life will no doubt feature prominently in future musical theater endeavors. McBride says he’s planning a trilogy and has already chosen the titles for his two sequels: “Hail Mary Mazel Tov” and “Glory Be to the Father, Son and the Holy Shtick.”
Says McBride of “Oy Father”: “This is just the beginning.”