It is generally agreed that no creative work by or about Jews has won the hearts of Americans as thoroughly as “Fiddler on the Roof.” The musical is a Yiddish-to-English adaptation of Sholem Aleichem’s 19th century stories about the dairyman Tevye, his family and the other Jews who populated and are then exiled from the underfed and overworked Russian shtetl of Anatevka.
But for many Jews – particularly those who experienced the thriving Jewish Theater scene in Manhattan's Lower East Side and in other large cities from the 1880s through the 1940s – the Broadway musical was not quite Jewish enough.
Before “Fiddler” was to open over 50 years ago, investors feared that the show would be considered “too Jewish” for tourists. In response, the script was revisited, revised and – according to Alisa Solomon in her book “Wonder of Wonders” – ended up preserving our heritage “not so much in amber as in schmaltz.”
Recently, “Fiddler” has returned to its roots. “Fidler Afn Dakh,” the new National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s production, enjoyed a sold-out, four-time extended run at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in NYC’s in Battery Park before re-opening at an Off-Broadway theater earlier last year. The all-Yiddish show has been extended several more times and recently won “Best Revival” awards from the New York Drama Critics Circle and the Drama Desk organization before celebrating its one-year anniversary.
Yiddish and a striped-down presentation gives the production a greater sense of authenticity and authority, notes the show’s director Joel Grey in a recent American Theatre interview. And when the expression “Genug iz genug” is spoken, says Grey, the Yiddish adds weight to “Enough is enough,” particularly in light of the new wave of anti-Semitism that is spreading at home and abroad.
Perhaps other Broadway musicals, even those without a semblance of Semitism, could benefit from a Jewish makeover as well. Here are some suggestions for future revivals and regional productions.
“The Sound of Music.” Not a single Jew can be found among the musical’s characters, as if the nine von Trapps were the only ones fleeing Nazi-occupied Austria in the 1930s. A walking tour of Salzburg, the Austrian city where much of this musical takes place and where the actual von Trapp family lived, will reveal numerous brass bricks on the pavements inscribed with the names of residents who became Holocaust victims.
So why not place a few Jews hiding behind headstones in the Abbey cemetery during the family’s 11th-hour escape? And since family friend Uncle Max in the film is based on actually family friend Max Reinhardt, a Jew, why not have the character share his heritage?
“Godspell.” A few summers ago, in Cleveland Hts.’s Alma Theater in Cain Park, a Friday night performance of Stephen Schwartz’s “Godspell” – a modern retelling of the Gospel of Matthew – was taking place. Booked on the same night and immediately next door at the Evans Amphitheater was a Herman’s Hermits/Gary Lewis and the Playboy’s concert. During the somber Last Supper/Seder scene in the musical, when Judas is betraying Jesus, the pop rock music from the concert drifted into the Alma performance space just as the Playboy’s broke into their melancholic hit song “Sealed With a Kiss,” which was a remarkably appropriate if unplanned accompaniment.
The next weekend, the Yiddishe Cup klezmer band performed at the amphitheater but the starting time did not overlap with “Godspell.” A missed opportunity. Perhaps composer Stephen Schwartz wouldn’t mind (and might consider it a long overdue mitzvah) putting a klezmer band on stage to add some freylach rhythms and a little more joy to songs like “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” and “Turn Back, O Man.” After all, weren’t all the characters in the musical Jewish?
“War Paint.” There is currently a movement toward authenticity in casting. When “Miss Saigon” opened in London in 1989, an acclaimed white actor wearing prosthetics and darker makeup played the show’s leading man, an Asian. Now, producers mandate that only actors of Asian heritage play the roles of Asians on tour. Similarly, there is a concerted effort to cast LGBTTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer) characters in musicals like “Kinky Boots,” “Fun Home” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” with actors who identify as LGBTTQ.
So how about religion-conscious casting in musicals that illuminate the Jewish experience? Over the years, there have been plenty of talented non-Jews playing leading Jewish characters in musicals on Broadway, including “War Paint” (Patti Lupone as Helena Rubinstein), “Rags” (Teresa Stratas as Rebecca Hershkowitz) and, yup, “Fiddler on the Roof” (Alfred Molina as Tevye). It’s unlikely New York has run short on Jewish triple-threat performers.
“Oklahoma.” This past April, the Jewish News Syndicate reported that anti-Semitic, anti-LGBT, racist white-nationalist symbols and epithets defaced five public places in Oklahoma City and Norman. A small change in the musical “Oklahoma’s” title song lyrics would seem appropriate:
“And when we say, yeeow! / A-yip-i-o-e-ay!
We're only sayin' / You're doin' fine, Oy-klahoma!
Oy-klahoma, O – Y – K - L - A - H - O - M - A / Oy-klahoma!"
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3 or visit cjn.org/Abelman. 2019 Ohio Society of Professional Journalists best critic.