Fiddler on My Mind

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Theatre Marquis. Photo: Shael Shapiro


Fiddler on the Roof has been on my mind these days, the plaintive strains of the violinist leading me uptown to the New York’s Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY), then midtown to experience the current revival of the musical on Broadway starring Danny Burstein, and finally back to the MCNY on March 28th to hear a lively panel on Reimagining Fiddler.
The lights dimmed and the actors who play Tevye’s rebellious daughters, Chava, Tzeitel and Hudel, appeared on stage, belting out Matchmaker, as the warm-up act for a panel moderated by the exhibit’s guest curator, Edna Nahshon, a Professor of Jewish Theater and Drama at The Jewish Theological Seminary. The lyrics were perfect, Sheldon Harnick at his best, with clever rhymes—”I’ll bring the veil, you bring the groom, slender and pale”—and puns at the end. The audience smiled when the sisters delivered the line: “Playing with matches a girl can get hurt.”
My memory flashed back to 1965 when I saw the original musical, one year after it opened in 1964, with Zero Mostel commanding the stage. Fiddler broke records and ran for over 3,000 performances.
The big question of the evening: Why was Fiddler such a sensation?
Alisa Solomon had an answer. The author of Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof and a Professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, Solomon laughed when she answered. “For one thing,” she said, “It’s a damn good show. For another, it was the first big work of popular culture that put the idea of the old country before the general public.”
Solomon explained that the show was the first representation of the history of Ashkenazi Jews. As such, it created a “memory site for second and third-generation Jews.” Letters poured in to Producer Hal Prince thanking him for the show. Some wrote that they used to be ashamed of their parents’ accents. Others that the shtetl Anatevka was just like the town that they came from. A few, Solomon quipped, wrote to say that something was missing: “Could you put a samovar in the house?”
Another reason for the show’s popularity was its timing. Fiddler was a show with a generational theme. “Each generation pushes ahead with the next great idea,” said Bartlett Sher, the Tony Award-winning director whose most recent productions also include the Broadway revivals of South Pacific and The King and I. Sher had a list of great musicals: Before Fiddler, there was Oklahoma and before that there was Show Boat. The selection of an exotic location also contributed to Fiddler’s success. According to Sher, “It allowed the audience to transfer to another universe.”
Marc Henry Aronson, a writer, editor, publisher, and historian, whose father, Boris Aronson, was the scenic designer for the original Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof, spoke about the visual images in the play. Born in Kiev, his father saw New York as the essence of the modern. In his set for Fiddler, the central visual image, Marc Aronson explained, was a circle. The house was on a revolving platform, “the circle of tradition.”
Sher and Solomon agreed that the action in most musicals is driven by an “I want” song—an example, Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Fiddler, however, inverted this pattern. The sisters are clearly driven by what they don’t want.
Several audience members asked Sher how he approached the revival of a musical that never really disappeared. “Respectfully, tactfully,” Sher said, acknowledging his indebtedness to Solomon’s book and to Life is With People: The Culture of the Shtetl by Mark Zborowski, an ethnographic work on shtetl life.
The big question to Sher was what is important about the musical now? Why see it today? That question resulted in the framing device – a contemporary nod – he used at the opening and closing of the musical, Tevye’s red jacket. “At the end,” Sher said, “Can we put ourselves in the position of the people who are leaving? Can we be the man in the red jacket leaving Anatevka?”
 
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Roslyn Bernsteinis a journalist and critic based in New York. Her arts journalism has appeared in Guernica, Huffington Post, and Tablet. She is the author of Boardwalk Stories and Illegal Living: 80 Wooster Street and the Evolution of SoHo. She is currently working on a new novel, set in Jerusalem in 1961 during the Adolf Eichmann trial.
 
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