August 7, 2018: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Last week, I had the pleasure of once again seeing Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick and Joseph Stein’s Fiddler on the Roof, for probably around the 50th time. Broadway, regional theatre, student productions, as well as my having been in it and directed it (though on two separate occasions), all add up to such a high count. Certainly among my top five favorite musicals, I have to rank this particular theatregoing experience as the most profound. That is because in this glorious rendition by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, it is performed entirely in Yiddish; the language that these Sholem Aleichem characters would have spoken. That, and the significance of it being staged in the auditorium of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park (with the Statue of Liberty in the distance when you get off the subway), brings another immeasurable layer to the proceedings. Hearing every line in Yiddish lifts the already wonderful language in Stein’s book to new levels of poignance. I laughed, I cried … everything that usually happens when I see Fiddler. But this time … this time …
First, let me go on record as stating that although I am a full-blooded Jew on both sides of my family, I am not a religious person. However, I have always been fascinated and interested in my ancestry. Interestingly, none of my grandparents were immigrants, which for a New York Jew is somewhat rare. There was never a foreign language, like Yiddish, spoken around me. And though none of my digging into the roots of my family tree indicates I come from life in the shtetl, I still feel a deep connection whenever I am transported to Anatevka, three hours at a time for Fiddler on the Roof. And I am not alone in that, considering the show has been successfully staged in nearly every country where it’s been produced over the last fifty-four years. The oppression of a people strictly based on their religion is relatable to all faiths and cultures, and of course, its themes of family and tradition shall be forever universal.
Fidler Afn Dakh, as it translates, was first performed in Yiddish in 1965 in Israel, shortly after its Broadway premiere. Although that wasn’t the first time Tevye the Dairyman spoke his lines in Yiddish, as he was a staple of the Yiddish Theatre for many years since the early 1900s. But for the first time — for some unfathomable reason — we finally have a Yiddish-speaking Fiddler on the Roof in America. After the show’s premiere in 1964, Shraga Friedman, a native of Warsaw who emigrated to Israel at the outbreak of World War II, was assigned with the difficult task of rewriting the book, as well as find ways to be faithful to Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics, while retaining a rhyme scheme that wouldn’t go off the tracks. The translations into both English and Russian show up on both sides of the stage, but I’m proud to say that I rarely took them in. When I did, some of the new lines made me laugh for different reasons, so different were they from all that I’ve grown so accustomed.
As for this production, directed by Joel Grey, it doesn’t break any new ground. It’s done on a very simple, almost bare stage (credit to Tony Award winning Broadway veteran Beowulf Boritt for his design). Grey has instituted few directorial flourishes, choosing the story to speak for itself, unlike Bartlett Sher’s 2015 Broadway staging, which I didn’t care for. There was a maudlin quality to that Fiddler, especially in its opening and closing conceptual framing device, employing an unidentified Anatevka ancestor (played by the actor portraying Tevye), woefully sighing over the disintegration of what had occurred by way of the Holocaust. It was entirely unnecessary, as well as counter-productive, considering that the specter of all that befalls these Jews happens in real time in front of our eyes, with everyone forced out of their homes by the show’s devastating conclusion. Sher’s production was close to being joyless, which is the opposite of what you get here. From the moment Steven Skybell (in a flawless performance) stomps the floor and cries “Tradition,” you know you are in for something special.
The entire company, a mix of both Broadway professionals, and non-Equity actors, work as a finely-knit unit. As Golde, Jennifer Babiak brings a lovely, humanistic quality to a role I have often seen poorly conceived. Jackie Hoffman, a notorious scene stealer in nearly all she does, scales back and brings a world-weariness and a certain glow to Yente the Matchmaker, that I found refreshing. The singing is all top notch, particularly when, as Hodl, Stephanie Lynne Mason performs “Far From the Home I Love” (a number that invariably works in every Fiddler I’ve ever seen). That is usually when the tears start flowing for me, but I actually wept a bit earlier that that, when the usually thrown-away “Now I Have Everything,” sung by Pertshik (I’m using the spellings listed in the program, for those who think I’m mistyping), moved me deeply in how open hearted he was in expressing his love for Hodl (and she for him). After the show, I met up with the wonderful actor Lee Wilkof, and he too had the same tearful response to “Now I Have Everything.” 😪
But back to Steven Skybell for a moment. This iconic role is one that can be played many different ways, but at its best, works when played by an actor with an affinity for it deep in his bones (I shouldn’t say “his,” because once I saw a thirteen-year-old girl play it brilliantly). Skybell leaves little doubt this is a part he was born to play, bringing a virility to Tevye that allows him to be forcefully commanding one moment, then decidedly tender the next. Carefully navigating the ever-changing earth beneath his feet, it felt all evening long, that in his good hands, I was becoming spoiled for any other characterization I may see in future productions.
Lastly, it is not without irony, that viewing Fiddler in August of 2018, brings to mind how we are sadly living in yet another time of uneasiness. The rise of xenophobia; the internments of immigrants, even Nazism — something I had long hoped was relegated to some minor fringe, and NOT supported by the President of the United States — were things of the past. If there is anything that will give you a much-needed reminder of when things are at their worst, resilience is a virtue, go to the Museum of Jewish Heritage and see Fiddler on the Roof. It has been extended (again) through October 25th and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Geyn aroys (go forth)!
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway at Amazon.com, available in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.