Imagine a Broadway musical first seen in 1964, based on fanciful stories now a hundred years old about an impoverished community of people. They face the realities of a changing world by singing and dancing, by yielding to their lot but remaining unbent, while struggling with their religion and traditions, all in an imagined small village in a country far away.
What can these people possibly tell us about our condition today? If the musical is "Fiddler on the Roof," the answer is a lot.
Works of popular culture such as Fiddler are often dismissed when we speak of great art. Fiddler is not perfect, many consider it a too schmaltzy, nostalgic romp, but no art is perfect as long as there is the critical observer. Nonetheless, it is a great work.
When first produced it was an extraordinary synthesis of brilliant collaborators: a witty and perceptive book by Joseph Stein riffing on the earlier Yiddish stories of Tevye the Dairyman by Sholem Aleichem; a score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick that has more than stood the test of time with several songs entering into the Great American Songbook; wonderful and succinct choreography by Jerome Robbins who also directed, including two of the best short dances to ever grace a Broadway stage, the Russian dance in the tavern, and the bottle dance at the wedding. Finally, there were the masterful sets by Moscow-trained Boris Aronson, who was the son of the Grand Rabbi of Kiev, and the inspiration offered the whole production by the work of the painter Marc Chagall, for whom a fiddler on a roof was a signature image originally created in 1920 for a wall panel at the Moscow State Yiddish Theater.
Tevye is the dairyman of a small and poor Jewish village, the fictional Anatevka in Czarist Russia around the turn of the 20th century. He struggles with a rapidly changing world in which his traditions no longer seem the anchor for his life they once were. Tevye, part Job, part Rodney Dangerfield, has three eligible daughters (two more are not of age) who become enamored of young men, each of whom, for Tevye and for his no-nonsense wife, Golde, are not appropriate. In the course of the play, the residents of Anatevka celebrate together, and mourn together and finally face expulsion from their ancestral home by a cruel government edict.
A warm and sentimental story, "Fiddler on the Roof" has almost universal appeal. Audiences, whether in Tokyo, Atlanta, or Moscow, can identify with the stock characters; the notion of the small community; the "appropriateness" of a suitor; arguments, petty and not, between family and friends; respect, or not, for conventions; relations with the almighty; and how one faces tragedy.
"Fiddler" can be seen as a theatrical history lesson, but it is really much more. Its characters and plot posit questions that are very much a part of our current national dialogue: change and continuity; the limits of tolerance; forgiveness; the nature of ethnic and national identity; the 'êother'ê in our midst; the trauma of leaving a home to find another; and the place of civility, even love, in our everyday discourse.
I do not presume that the creators of "Fiddler" had all these things uppermost in their minds when they developed the show, rather trying to create first and foremost a piece of popular entertainment, but their mastery of the form and their intelligence could not help but give the story deeper resonance and meaning.
It was especially touching to me to hear the characters describe where they would go when they were forced to leave Anatevka. One mentions Chicago, seemingly the most distant place on earth. Another is going to Krakow, and my heart skipped a beat, for although "Fiddler" is a work of fiction, it was a somber thought that only 35 or so years later almost all of the Jews of Krakow would be dead.
As an aside, it is some measure of the quixotic nature of history that some 60 years after the end of World War II, and 100 since the period in which Fiddler was set, I traveled to Krakow and there attended the Jewish Music Festival, one of the largest of its kind in the world. As I came to an old market square in the Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter, a visiting band was playing Klezmer music on top of the market building and yes, there was a fiddler on the roof.
A new touring production of 'êFiddler on the Roof,'ê directed by Sammy Bayes, who also 'êreproduced'ê the Robbins dances, and starring Harvey Fierstein as Tevya, opened at The Paramount this past Tuesday and runs through Sunday (May 30). Seattle is one of the last few stops on a tour that began late last year.
The production has several nice things going for it: the appealing, intricate and highly mobile sets by Steve Gilliam (whose program bio acknowledges the inspiration of Chagall and Aronson), fast-paced direction by Bayes, and strong performances by several of the principals including Mary Stout as Yente the Matchmaker, Zal Owen'ês Motel the Tailor, and the two older daughters of Tevye, Tzeitzel and Hodel played by Kaitlin Stillwell and Jaime Davis. Susan Cella'ês Golde, Tevye'ês wife, also has her moments, particularly in the song, "Do You Love Me?"
The dancers for the bottle and Russian tavern dances were excellent and brought great excitement to the production, even with their brief time on stage, and the fine pit orchestra of eleven was ably conducted by David Andrews Rogers (note to lighting designer: if your conductor is bald — disclosure, so am I — don't let the stage light spill over onto him, as from where I sat he occasionally looked like a musical lighthouse).
There were some disappointments too. David Brummel's Lazar Wolfe, the butcher, was far too refined, and Stephen Lee Anderson not threatening or complex enough in his duties as the constable, the deliverer of bad news. While one does not expect perfect Yiddish accents, the voices heard on stage were wildly inconsistent, many presenting a veritable Tower of Babel of misdirected Eastern Europe speech patterns, and a dialogue coach might have been of great assistance.
The role of the fiddler, who appears as a musician in some scenes, but also frequently hovering about the stage as a spectral presence symbolic of continuity, resiliency and hope, just did not work in this production. His beard looked fake, his feigned violin playing was clumsy, and he had no real presence. If Mr. Bayes directs "Fiddler" again, he might consider cutting the number of times the character appears, or more sharply defining the role, which I believe he himself has played in the past.
And what of Fierstein as Tevye? There is a lot of baggage attached to this role, the anchor around which all else revolves. The greats preceded him: Zero Mostel, the original Tevye and immortal kosher ham of an actor, Theodore Bikel, Herschel Bernardi, and Chaim Topol, the star of the excellent film version, and veteran of many stage appearances for whom this tour was originally to be a farewell to "Fiddler," but who had to bow out even before it began due to a shoulder injury.
Fierstein is a very talented theater person, an eccentric actor with that wonderful and ridiculous croak of a voice. But he is not a very good Tevye. He plays it cute, which works some of the time, but when authority and gravitas are needed, it just is not there.
He is not a first-rate singer, though when he talks a song, rather than bellowing, he can be charming, as with Cella in "Do You Love Me," or "Anatevka," the bittersweet song of departure. He seemed to rush his dialogue and vocals too often, and at times was inaudible. I was surprised how awkward he was in dance numbers, and how heavy he was on his feet, not the light on his toes big man that I anticipated.
The role of Tevye is for a boomer of an actor, for a bigger-than-life interpretation, perhaps irrevocably so determined by Mostel's original. But Tevye is also the moral compass at the heart of "Fiddler," not a giant, but just a man wrestling with God and his fellows. Fierstein did not hold the stage and the evening together. Perhaps at the end of a long tour he was a bit tired.
Whatever its shortcomings, this production of "Fiddler" is worth viewing if you have not ever seen this musical before. There is still the wonderful story, funny dialogue, schmaltzy heart tugs, some great dancing and good acting, terrific songs and music.