The original Broadway production of the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” – which ran for a then-unprecedented 3,242 performances and earned nine Tony Awards – is celebrating its 50th anniversary. A revival, the show’s fifth, is planned for later next year.
Set in 1905 in the underfed and overworked Russian village of Anatevka, “Fiddler” tells the tale of Tevye the dairyman, his wife Golde and their five daughters scraping a living and keeping faithful to their heritage in a time and place where indifference turns to hostility and hostility leads to relocation.
It is generally agreed that no creative work by or about Jews has won the hearts of Americans as thoroughly as “Fiddler.” Through this musical adaptation, Sholem Aleichem’s stories, first published in 1894, became accessible to a wider, non-Yiddish speaking population of Jews and gentiles.
But there are those who believe that this tale of Jewish resistance has been watered down for the Broadway stage.
In her recent book “Wonder of Wonders,” Alisa Solomon recalls how backers of the musical worried that it would be “too Jewish” for tourists. In response, the depiction of Eastern European Jews took on reassuring stereotypes that “preserved our heritage not so much in amber as in schmaltz.”
Ruth Wisse, Yiddish and comparative literature scholar, wrote in Mosaic magazine that much of the Jewish identity of Tevye – the personification of shtetl nostalgia – was sacrificed in an effort to universalize, dramatize and popularize our ethos. At the conclusion of the original stories, for example, Tevye‘s narrative ends on a note of fatalism as he wanders off into the distance; in “Fiddler,” he and his family head off for a new life in America.
“The authors of ‘Fiddler'," she noted, "took the stuffing out of the derma.”
In the 2004 revival of “Fiddler,” a non-Jew – Alfred Molina – played the hallowed leading role. One reviewer referred to the show as “Goyim on the Roof” and wondered if the musical could get any less Jewish.
Yes it could. Recently, Silhouette Productions performed “Fiddler” at the Shore Cultural Centre in Euclid. There was one Jew in the 37-member cast of community players and none on the production team.
How gentile was this production? Silhouette Productions featured “Dinner and a Show” packages at Vittorio's Buon Appetito and Mama Catena’s Italian restaurants. The Irish American Club East Side offered an unlimited brunch before the final Sunday matinee performance.
Perhaps the best litmus test for how much Jewishness resides in the bones of “Fiddler” is that which remains intact in an amateur production of it. So I went. And I took Alan Lettofsky – Rabbi Emeritus at Beth Israel, The West Temple – with me.
Rabbi Lettofsky was educated at Brandeis University, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and Yale University, and served on the faculty of Siegal College of Judaic Studies, Case Western Reserve University, and John Carroll University.
As expected, there were aspects of Jewish ritual that went unrealized without a Jewish presence on the production team.
Tevye, not Golde, lit the candles during “Sabbath Prayer” while each member of the community walked down the theater aisles holding a candle as if in a Christmas pageant. The prayer over Motel the tailor’s new sewing machine was performed with hands clasped and heads bowed. One young cast member crossed himself out of habit before realizing, half-way through, the error of his ways.
As can happen in any community theater production of a large-scale musical, there was some inattention to detail that resulted in the further secularization of “Fiddler.”
The painted scenery representing Anatevka, for instance, depicted a bucolic pine-covered landscape with A-frame houses that more closely resembled Vail in the off-season than a shtetl under siege. Few men who lived there had beards and all wore aprons with tassels rather than four-cornered tallit kattans with tzitzit.
Although much of the show’s religious window dressing fell by the wayside, composer Jerry Bock’s lovely klezmer-infused music and Sheldon Harnick’s poignant lyrics proved impervious to change.
The Shore Cultural Centre was saturated with sounds associated with Judaic tradition and spirituality, from the joyous freylach rhythms of "To Life" to the melancholic violin solo that is the show’s recurring theme. The audience was moved to tears during “Sunrise, Sunset” and, again, in “Far From the Home I Love.” Me too, but I was too embarrassed to look over and see what was going on with Rabbi Lettofsky.
“Fiddler’s” core Jewishness, it seems, is something heard and felt rather than seen and staged. As such, it can be recognized and replicated, even by well-intended but Semitic-lite players.
There are plenty of reasons to celebrate the 50th anniversary of this musical. Its indestructibility, like the Jewish spirit reflected in its songs, is certainly one of them.
Cleveland Jewish News entertainment writer Bob Abelman takes a closer look at Jewish artists, their work and issues of interest.