Fiddler on the Roof: Can tradition balance turbulence?

Despite its nearly 50-year run, 'Fiddler on the Roof' still feels timely. In fact, very much so.
Village Theatre's production of Fiddler on the Roof

Village Theatre's production of Fiddler on the Roof Photo: Jay Koh

Village Theatre's production of Fiddler on the Roof

Village Theatre's production of Fiddler on the Roof Photo: Jay Koh

“If I Were a Rich Man” may be one of the most recognizable songs of all time. The hit tune of the classic musical Fiddler on the Roof, inspired by 19th century Yiddish tales, has been sung in 15 different languages, including Hindi and Japanese. In the last 50 years it has toured in countless productions around the world, travelled to more than 30 countries and once set a record as the longest-running Broadway show with 3,242 performances. That’s a lot of “Ya ha daidle deedle dums,” and “Bidi bidi boms.”

And that’s just half of it. Gwen Stefani lifted samples of the words and rhythms from that iconic song in her own 2004 blockbuster version, produced by rapper Dr. Dre, “If I were a rich girl,” after a more obscure reggae version a decade before. Many who found themselves humming these tunes may not have known their musical DNA.

If you’ve never seen Fiddler, though, you can still visit and experience the fictional village of Anatevka, in 19th century Tsarist Russia at the Village Theater in Issaquah. Their adaptation of the original Broadway production, which opened to rave reviews and nine Tony awards — including Best Musical — in 1964, is running through the end of January.

Fiddler is the tale of a humble laborer in a Russian shtetl (village) in 1905, who yearns for a better life and fantasizes about how riches would ease his life of poverty and misery. Tevye (Village Theater regular Eric Polani Jensen) is a simple, poor dairyman lugging a milk cart. He, his wife Golde (Bobbi Kotula) and their five daughters are struggling to stay sane under the persecution of the Tsarist regime and the threat of imminent revolution.

The more light-hearted plot line is Tevye's attempts at marrying off three of his daughters — preferably to men of some means. Tevye and his wife cling to old traditions, while their daughters defy them, wanting to marry for love instead of succumbing to the practical custom of having their marriages arranged by a matchmaker.

The daughters, all feisty and independent, are excellently acted. Tzeitel, the eldest (Jennifer Weingarten), wants to marry the poor tailor instead of the rich butcher; Hodel (Emily Cawley) wants to marry the Bolshevik; and Chava (Mara Solar) falls in love with a non-Jew.

The action is set against another of Fiddler's best pleasures: Its sets. Inspired by the paintings of Marc Chagall, who pictured fiddlers in paintings like “I and the Village” and “The Green Fiddler,” the brightly-colored sets by Bill Forrester and Julia Franz frame the stage. Much like Boris Aronson's brilliant original Broadway designs, theirs achieve a dreamy, dramatic contrast between the drab, grey reality of the villagers’ clapboard houses and peasant clothes — and the rich color of their spiritual lives.

That, on a deeper level, is a main theme of Fiddler: Being reliant on tradition and faith in times of change and turbulence. “Without tradition, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof,” says Tevye in the opening number. Jewish comedy may not be his usual shtik, but Jensen embodies Tevye's warm, wry humor, and brings his own gentle edge to the role, distinguishing himself from the cliché toward which actors playing Tevye's familiar character can sometimes veer.

As the story progresses, Tevye becomes concerned not just that his daughters are falling in love with poor men, but that they are falling out of their faith. In one of his frequent dialogs with God and his conscience, Tevye reflects on the choices, and facets, of his struggle.

“Accept them?” How can I accept them?” Tevye cries. “Can I deny my own child? ... If I try to bend that far, I will break. On the other hand, there is no other hand.”

It is an especially relevant theme in the greater Seattle area, which has been settled by so many relatively recent immigrants, and where parents and children may very well conflict over old ways and traditions. One could easily imagine Tevye, the east Indian father of a Microsoft software marketer, or Tevye, the Vietnamese father of a Boeing engineer, as their own children forsake ancient traditions and customs — or perhaps just question them.


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