REVIEW: “Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish” shines again Off-Broadway
This review is adapted from an earlier review.
“Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish”. Sounds crazy, no? But last summer, here in our little village of Manhattan, National Yiddish Theatre Folksbeine mounted the American premiere of the Yiddish language version of this internationally-beloved musical that was first performed in Israel in 1965, one year after the Broadway premiere.
You may ask: fresh off revivals in 2004 and 2015, did New York really need another “Fiddler”? That I continue to answer with one word: yes!
The “little production that could”, a most unlikely hit, played to sold out audiences and extended several times at the Museum of Jewish Heritage downtown before closing in December and reopening at Off-Broadway’s Stage 42 in midtown back in February.
The enduring and crushing relevance of this musical as a story of a persecuted people fighting to maintain the integrity of their traditions in the face of violent intolerance and the liberal sweep of progress makes it both timeless and heartbreakingly timely. I checked back into the show shortly after the move uptown, and am delighted to report that it remains a special treat.
Under the glorious helm of director Joel Grey—a Tony, Golden Globe, and Academy Award winning actor—“Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish” (technically, “Fidler Afn Dakh”), with English and Russian supertitles, breathes fresh life into a treasured property from the golden age of musical comedy, forcing audiences to interact anew with what is now one of the most well-known and performed musicals of all time, and providing, in return, a host of vital performances and resonant insights.
It is, in short, a revelation. And, in many ways, completes a circle more than a century in the making.
“Fiddler on the Roof” is based on “Tevye and his Daughters” (1894-1914), a collection of short stories by towering Yiddish literary icon Sholem Aleichem (1858-1916)—the “Jewish Mark Twain”. Aleichem’s stories concern the poor but faithful Jewish milkman Tevye and the tsuris caused by the independent aspirations and non-traditional romances of his six daughters in their small shtetl-village on the outskirts of turn of the century Tsarist Russia.
Songwriting duo Jerry Bock (composer) and Sheldon Harnick (lyricist), who had already penned “Fiorello!” (1959) and “Tenderloin” (1960), astutely believed that Aleichem’s stories would make for a compelling musical. For Harnick in particular, as the son of Jewish immigrants to America, “Fiddler” was a special project giving him the opportunity to reach back to the soil of his ancestors, pay tribute to their lives, and preserve their voices—especially in the horrific wake of the Holocaust.
The team famously wrote over 50 songs for the show, only 15 of which would make the final cut. While collaborator Joseph Stein wrote what I consider to be a perfect book for “Fiddler”—which, contrary to suppositions at the time, contains none of Aleichem’s translated words—it is director/choreographer Jerome Robbins who did more than anyone on the original creative team to ensure Jewish history and spirit was accurately captured, while also ensuring “Fiddler” was not just a provincial Jewish story for Jewish audiences alone, but rather a larger work that spoke to universal themes and experiences of all people.
The original draft of “Fiddler” opened on Tevye’s family furiously preparing for the Sabbath meal that figures in the second scene of the final script. Robbins, who a season prior had engineered “Comedy Tonight” as a knockout, substitute opener for “Love Is in the Air” in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”, worked his magic once again, pushing the team to elevate the story and give it a proper, global foundation established from the very first lines and notes.
As lore has it, in every production meeting, Robbins would ask: “what is the show about?” Answers containing plot points were derisively discarded (he was tough to work with). Nothing satisfied him until finally one day, in a burst of frustration, Sheldon Harnick shouted: “Tradition! It’s about tradition.” And one of the best and most iconic opening numbers in Broadway history was born—one that not only establishes the key characters and their connection to the larger world, but also and, most importantly, bridges their connection to the audience. With one song, Robbins ensured that “Fiddler” would be a show in which everyone could see themselves, their family, and their tradition.
The Robbins imprint looms large over “Fiddler”, not only in its original construction, but also in its execution. Despite the radical linguistic twist of this production, it still retains strong shadows of Robbins’ brilliant dances, here re-staged by Staś Kmieć, an expert in Polish folk dance and culture and veteran of seven productions and over 1,600 “Fiddler” performances as a performer and director. In addition to the dances, fervently performed by the cast of 26, Mr. Kmieć worked closely with Mr. Grey to infuse movement throughout the show, which becomes all the more important to the storytelling given the baked in language barrier for audience members.
Musical comedy is the most irreducibly American delivery system with which to tell any story. And yet, by using the 1965 Yiddish language translation by Shraga Friedman, “Fiddler” suddenly feels like something foreign. That removal calls for re-examination, a disruption of complacency in the audience’s pre-existing relationship with the property that produces subtle, but revelatory results. What might be perceived as a “language barrier” is also an invitation to lean in, see, hear, feel, and understand more.
The first time I saw this production I kept waiting for there to be an “ah hah!” moment in which I would be struck by the force of the novelty. Instead—only interrupted by intermission and audience etiquette—upon both viewings I was slowly overcome by power of the linguistic construct, and the quietly transformational effect it has upon the material.
I am not Jewish, but even I can sense the authenticity of the sound and emotion brought to the fore by using the language native to the story, especially as interpreted by Friedman’s text, which is exactly that: an interpretation, not a literal, word-for-word translation. For example, Tevye's famous soliloquy, “If I Were A Rich Man”, becomes “If I Were a Rothschild”, a Yiddish expression and allusion to another well-known Aleichem story.
In another notable shift from the typical “Fiddler” experience, the actors, under Mr. Grey’s incisive and never-showy direction, do not play the material for laughs. Instead, they confidently let the intrinsic humor of Joseph Stein’s brilliant book and Sholem Aleichem’s stories speak for itself. There is no easy preening. This allows for the now well-known characters to be grounded, well-rounded sketches of real people speaking in the tongue with which they would have in 1905 Anatevka.
The evident focus of Mr. Grey’s work is in the relationships between the characters, keeping their hearts ever-present but also unearthing their baseline tenacity, one required by the fraught reality of their milieu. This is never more true than with Steven Skybell’s performance as Tevye.
While typically portrayed as a harmless teddy bear under the command of his wife and daughters, Mr. Skybell more accurately plays the role with a solemnity and intensity—and dare I say, even notes of menace—that give his performance a depth of richness and humanity I have never experienced in all my many viewings of “Fiddler”. His Tevye is unquestionably the head of the home. He is funny when called for, but he is no clown, and when necessary, he is stern and fearsome.
The balance of the company—none but three of whom knew Yiddish before this production—is sharp, offering their own fresh takes on well-worn lines, scenes, and songs, avoiding a lazy slouch into musical comedy stock. Perhaps the greatest achievement of this “Fiddler” is how new it feels.
Today, as a proliferation of DNA testing satisfies our genetic curiosities, our shared humanity is increasingly recognized and valued—not the least of which includes our common roots in the Middle East and Africa. “Fiddler” speaks to that commonality and will always be relevant because it is also, at its core, about human progress. To answer Robbins’ question once again: it is about the clash of tradition and modernity, a conflict that is ever-present in our lives and in our world, and likely—hopefully—will never be extinguished, for it is the only way in which mankind evolves for the better. Progress, though not always temporally inevitable, is ultimately certain.
It is hard to exit the theatre without thinking of the myriad ways in which Tevye’s Anatevka is not so different from our America. Clashes of “tradition” and progress abound across almost every social cleavage imaginable, and Anti-Semitism is once again shamefully on the rise in reaction. When white supremacists brazenly marched in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, their chant was chilling and unforgettable: “Jews will not replace us.”
Both in Robbins’ original production and in Mr. Grey’s reimagining, “Fiddler” opens and closes with the inhabitants of Anatevka moving in a circle. That metaphor is no mistake. And a visit to this “Fiddler”, a “tradition”, has never been more important.
Bottom Line: Now Off-Broadway, National Yiddish Theatre Folksbeine’s glorious production of “Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish” breathes fresh life into a treasured property from the golden age of musical comedy, forcing audiences to interact anew with what is now one of the most well-known and performed musicals of all time, and providing, in return, a host of vital performances and resonant insights. It is, in short, a revelation. See it, or regret it.
“Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish”
422 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036
Running Time: 3 hours and 15 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: February 21, 2019
Final Performance: January 5, 2020