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Review: Fiddler on the Roof

by Photo of Paul Hansen

The classic musical is revived on Broadway.

Review: Fiddler on the Roof

It will be another year or so before the sound of a certain old man dressed in red and his reindeer will be heard prancing on rooftops around the world, but a fiddler can still be heard on a roof at The Broadway Theatre.  Opening last month, the classic musical Fiddler on the Roof is in the midst of a Broadway revival. 

The musical centers on Tevye, a poor Jewish peasant living in Russia in the early twentieth century who has five (and as he gestures to the audience, yes, five) daughters, three of whom are of marriageable age.  Almost like the Stage Manager in Our Town, Tevye walks the audience through how the Jewish community in the town of Anatevka maintains its cohesiveness. The answer: Tradition!  Which only happens to be the name of the first song of the truly memorable score by Jerry Bock (music) and  Sheldon Harnick (lyrics).  

Fiddler on the Roof is an example of a golden period of Broadway where the best musicals had a series of songs where once you heard them, you simply could not eject them from your mind.  In addition to "Tradition," other memorable numbers include "Matchmaker, Matchmaker," "Sunrise, Sunset,"  "If I Were a Rich Man" and "Miracle of Miracles".

Premiering in September 1964,  a theme of the musical, often stated explicitly,  is that "times are changing."  The theme was especially prescient in 1964 considering the watershed of cultural change and challenge to patriarchal authority that was to erupt in the latter half of the 1960's.   Patriarchal authority is something that is dear to the heart of Tevye and he takes it as a matter of course that he should be allowed to choose, or at a bare minimum very heavily influence, the choice of spouses for his daughters.   The daughters have other ideas believing that they should be allowed (horror of horrors) to pick their own mates without the direction of their father or the village matchmaker.    There was an audible gasp in the audience at the performance which I attended when one of Tevye's daughters said that she was coming to her father to seek his "blessing" for her marriage rather than his permission.         

I overheard a comment that it doesn't really matter if the cast of a Fiddler production is good or bad, since the score is so strong it can carry a performance.  There may be a lot of truth in that statement but fortunately the current cast of Fiddler is good.    I particularly admired the relative restraint of Danny Burstein as Tevye.  To this day the performance of Zero Mostel in the original production looms large (not to mention interpretations of other notables including Herschel Bernardi and Topol). It would be so easy to sink into a portrayal that is "over the top" in an attempt to compete with real or imagined performances of yore.   Instead Burstein gives a well balanced rendition of a believable (and generally fun to be around) mensch who is concerned about his daughters' welfare and staying grounded in an uncertain world.       

Other members of the cast include Jessica Hecht as Tevye's wife Golde,  who can be aggressively and (perhaps even justifiably) sullen and explosive, but at the end of the day is resolutely supportive of her husband.  The actresses who play  Tevye's three older daughters  - Alexandra Silber (Tzeitel) ,  Samantha Massel (Hodel) and Melanie Moore (Chava) display lovely singing voices in "Matchmaker, Matchmaker."  Adam Kantor as Motel does a funny turn as a suitor who nervously tries to convince Tevye that he is the right man for his daughter, Tzeitel.    

The somewhat spare but fluid and atmospheric sets were designed by Michael Yeargan.  Directed by Bartlett Sher,  there are hints of modernity in the production as if the whole play might be something of a flashback - Tevye, for example, first appears in a contemporary parka.  But those moments are relatively brief and are subsumed in a more traditional dramatic framework. 

Another theme of Fiddler (perhaps sadly even more topical now than in 1964) is how ethnic and sectarian differences can produce a continuous simmering tension that can lead to random violence, as the Jewish minority in Anatevka is subject to the brutal whims of the "civil" authorities.    The topicality of the threat of unpredictable chaos or worse was brought home by the security inspection that the audience had to walk through to get into the theater.    

On a brighter note, as a bit of theatrical trivia,  Bette Midler made her Broadway debut back in the 1960's in the original production of Fiddler.  Beatrice Arthur of Maude and Golden Girls fame was also the matchmaker in the original cast.  I can only imagine that Arthur skillfully milked the role comedically for all it was worth.  The matchmaker in the current production, Alix Korey,  certainly has her moments, too.   

And as this seems to be the season of Star Wars, perhaps it is worth mentioning that the musical even has a connection to the space epic.  John Williams, who of course wrote the music for all seven installments of the space series, won his first Academy Award back in 1972 for his arrangement of the score for the film version of Fiddler.  The Force was with Williams even back then.  

There is no doubt in my mind that Fiddler is one of those musicals that will receive periodic and well deserved revivals for as long as there is a Broadway.   Those interested in gems from Broadway's past that continue to remain vibrant should definitely check out this production.  

Fiddler on the Roof is playing at The Broadway Theatre located at 1681 Broadway.    

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