Theatre Review: Fiddler on the Roof
Fiddler on the Roof, book by Joseph Stein, based on stories of Sholom Alecheim; music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Broadway—Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway, New York, NY
Reviewed by Scott Klavan on January 6, 2016
In the 1950s-60s, Myron Cohen was a Russian-born Jewish comedian, telling humorous stories to Americans about the Diaspora, using heavy Yiddish accents to lovingly lampoon the various Goldsteins and Levines, the bubbes and zaydas, transported from Eastern Europe to Florida, New York, The New World. Cohen was popular, appearing on many TV variety programs, more than 25 times on top-rated Ed Sullivan alone. His career came about in a post-World War II America and New York that had a culture with a strong Jewish influence. TV shows, books, movies, and plays portrayed the travails, successes, and challenges of emigres and their children, escaped from the Old Country, from overseas pogroms, discrimination and persecution, including most recently and tragically, The Holocaust.
During this 50-60s, New York City had approximately 2.1 million Jews, over a quarter of the city’s population; no other city in the history of the world ever had that many Jews. There were hundreds and hundreds of Jewish delicatessens in all five boroughs. The Borsht Belt, an upstate Catskills enclave of lavish Jewish resorts, drew thousands of vacationers every year. It was a time of Hennys, Sheckys and Jackies, of Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner’s routine The Two Thousand Year Old Man. Jewish wisdom, humor and despair, the Jewish voice, moved from a niche sidelight to the mainstream center.
Best-selling novelists Herman Wouk, Phillip Roth and Saul Bellow wrestled with, rebelled against and occasionally embraced the beliefs of their fathers. The blockbuster book and film Exodus depicted and celebrated the heroic creation of the state of Israel. During the ‘60s into the 70s, openly Jewish film stars George Segal, Elliot Gould, Richard Benjamin, Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand were dynamic, funny, sexy leads, not exotics in negligible, stereotyped supporting parts. On stage, Paddy Chayevsky, Arthur Miller, and Neil Simon wrote landmark, long-running dramas and comedies about families, morality, good and evil. It was estimated in the period of the 1950s-60s, Jews made up as much as 70% of the New York theater audience.
In September, 1964, Fiddler On The Roof, a musical adaptation of the stories of the Yiddish writer Sholom Alecheim, featuring his beloved character Tevye the dairyman, debuted on Broadway. Following the success of The World Of Sholom Alecheim, adapted by Arnold Perl, with Howard Da Silva as Tevye, on stage and TV in the 1950s, Fiddler had a book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, was produced by Harold Prince, and directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins. It featured Zero Mostel as Tevye. Fiddler was an immediate smash hit and ran for over 3,200 performances, for many years the record for a Broadway musical. There were near constant tours and regional productions and countless amateur, school and synagogue presentations. Several of its songs, including “Tradition” and “Sunrise, Sunset,” became standards. Many different ethnic groups, often emigres themselves, embraced the tale of Tevye and his daughters and their suitors, the milkman’s struggle with tradition, progress, prejudice, and family loyalty. His story became their own.
Now, 2016 has begun and New York and American culture is very different. New York City population has lost about one million Jews. In 2013, the Pew Research Center reported that 58% of U.S. Jews now marry outside the religion; 71% of the non-Orthodox. This is up from 17% in 1970. Less than half of intermarried Jews say they are raising their children in the Jewish faith. (Even liberal Reform Rabbis now regularly refuse to officiate at inter-faith marriages.) Baby Boom Jews, and those of the following generations, determined to reject the mores, mannerisms, and culture of their parents/grandparents, have engaged in an almost complete assimilation. Americans as a group seem content to let Jews recede back into the role of the outsider, the Other.
Or worse. A few modest but indicative examples: according to The Jewish Week, recent attempts by students to create Hillel, or Jewish organizations, on suburban New York college campuses, were met with apathy and ignorance by Jews and anger and derision by gentiles, including threats on social media. An Israeli soldier asked by Jewish students to speak at a college was booed and treated as a terrorist; one student stopped the soldier’s talk to ask if the audience felt “safe.” In several cities and universities nationwide, Jewish students attempting to participate in demonstrations with the Black Lives Matter movement encountered open Anti-Semitism. Among young Americans, Israel is often looked at as an oppressive regime for its occupation of the West Bank, rather than a free, tolerant democracy and staunch U.S. ally. Jews themselves are contentiously split over the issue. Orthodox Jews, growing in number, are increasingly isolated, essentially segregated in their own neighborhoods, and do not contribute much to popular culture.
The resorts of the Borscht Belt are all closed; some sit abandoned; in the past year, New York State approved the building of casinos on part of the land. There are perhaps a dozen genuine Jewish delis left in the entire city. There are virtually no big stars who identify as Jews or regularly portray Jewish characters, and novels and films based on the Jewish experience are minor and few. Myron Cohen is dead.
It is an atmosphere that might seem risky in which to open a new Broadway revival of Fiddler On The Roof. But director Bartlett Sher and a team of producers have done that, with Danny Burstein starring as Tevye, and featuring a new interpretation of the Jerome Robbins choreography by Israeli Hofesh Shechter. The result is a profound triumph: exciting, defiant, and heartbreaking.
The show doesn’t hide or flaunt its ethnicity. It presents the fictional 1900s Russian village of Anatevka (based on the true-life Pale Settlement) and its downtrodden but exuberant Jews, with black hats, pais and prayer shawls intact. There is an unapologetic sincerity, a gritty straightforwardness, no defensiveness. Burstein as Tevye is accomplished and fine: the Everyman, loving his five daughters, arguing with God, hesitantly courageous with the bigoted local authorities, pulling the cart of his milk delivery, the burden of his life perpetually behind him. While seeming to imitate Zero Mostel’s comic cadences, Burstein’s dramatic moments are his alone, and in particular, his torment over his daughter’s marriage to a non-Jew is explosively bitter in its grief. Jessica Hecht, too often seen on stage in mannered comedy roles, is unyielding as wife Golde. There is a tremendous integrity in her unsmiling chastisement of husband and daughters, thinly masking a fear of exposing her children to the cruelties of the outside world. Ben Rappaport’s intense student Perchik provides some of the liveliest, most spontaneous interplay; Adam Kantor is appealingly fussy and sensitive as the tailor Motel, discovering his own strength and manhood on stage. In a potentially bland daughter role, Samantha Massell as Hodel is human and specific, and her singing is first-rate. Veteran supporting players including Alix Korey as crafty Yente the matchmaker, Adam Grupper as the hapless Rabbi, and Karl Kenzler as the regretfully villainous Constable, make excellent, individuated contributions, eschewing prototype.
Some of the less-remembered songs of the beautiful score stand out this time: “Anatevka,” the whispered haunting farewell to the battered hometown; “Far From the Home I Love,” Hodel’s realization of the cost of adult relationships; “Sabbath Prayer,” softly registering the power of the simple “Mazel Tov” as a statement of spirit and self, a union with God.
Set designer Michael Yeargan has to deal with his unfortunate surroundings, the high, wide, cold and prohibitive Broadway Theatre, a Madison Square Garden for plays. The huts, benches, indoor and outdoor constructs, flying in throughout, are imaginative and canny, but intimacy is impossible when even the closest seat seems remote. However, Donald Holder’s lighting design manages to create a mysteriously dusky Old World shade, a town where even its longtime residents are forced to feel like visitors.
The adjustments to the choreography are the biggest risk, as director Sher dared to mess with the revered Robbins steps. Hofesh Shechter, a 40 year old now based in London, has his male villagers give off a charismatic sinuous sex in their folk dances, and this, along with the amazing bottle-balancing of the marriage sequence and the audacious mystical weirdness of the dream scene put a threatening and dangerous element into the Old Country milieu. The sensuous movement, and the heartfelt acting, kick the cute hamish trait out of the production, a welcome interpretation by Shechter and Sher. It’s not the Temple Israel Fiddler.
A 2004 revival of the show, starring Alfred Molina, played down the Jewish aspect, including in the casting; the reaction to this “sanitized” attempt, both critically and in terms of audience, was mild at best. In the current version, the casting of many Jewish actors is palpably positive and potent. There is an underlying dolorous feel on stage, a unique sorrow of the blood. The crushing emotional quality towards the finish of Fiddler had many in the large, diverse audience noisily crying; an African-American woman seated next to this critic made so much commotion getting out her Kleenex it obscured several lines of dialogue.
Much has been made in the entertainment press of the new opening and coda: at rise, Burstein appears not as Tevye, but as a nameless modern man, reading about this Russian tale from the past, and at the conclusion returns to this role, joining the queue of Jewish refugees walking towards an uncertain future. One can wonder whether this choice seems expedient, a pandering to current events and, to return to earlier themes, is a diminution of the Jewishness of the material, as if to say: gee, Jews are just like people you can really care about. But the undeniable importance and sheer magnitude of the current crisis in Europe makes it seem not only acceptable, but obvious; it would be remiss to leave it out. (Plus, director Sher, perhaps as a reminder, instructs his cast to return to a spirited Jewish dance at the curtain call.)
Throughout history, whether banished or accepted, reviled or welcomed, Jews, like Tevye, have been the people of complication, turmoil, emotion, pain, and insight. All that is included here. And one leaves the performance of this revival of Fiddler On The Roof filled with that other, most vital Jewish feeling: rachmones.
Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, in regional theater, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including The Joy Luck Club. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater by the Blind (TBTB, now Theater Breaking Through Barriers), and his play Double Murder was published inBest American Short Plays of 2006-2007. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. In 2014, he starred in A Soldier’s Notes, an episode of the new Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch, earning him a nomination for Outstanding Actor in the LA Web Series Festival 2015. He recently directed the one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn, at the United Solo Festival in New York, and a series of staged readings of a new comedy, Sheila & Angelo, at the Dramatist Guild. In the summer of 2015, he appeared in the Off-Broadway production of the musical Sayonara, for Pan Asian Rep.