‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ in Yiddish, a Powerhouse of a Production
When Fiddler on the Roof premiered on Broadway in 1964 (winning 9 Tony awards) it took the theater world by storm and the larger world with gradual stealth augumenting to an avalanche of global premieres and subsequent revivals. With the original cast starring the wildly zany Zero Mostel as Tevye the milkman, the wryly funny Bea Arthur (the future Golden Girl) as Yente, and Austin Pendleton as Motl Kamzoyl, the Tailor, the production was set in humorous stone and held a warm place in countless hearts. It ran with various casts for nearly eight years, went on tour and was made into an Oscar winning film.
Since then Fiddler (Book by Joseph Stein, Music by Jerry Bock, Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick) has been in revival mostly every year either in the U.S. or somewhere in the world in high schools, colleges or regional theater. The most recent revival landed on Broadway (2016) in a stellar production starring Danny Burstein with an emphasis on the poignant issues enveloping growing populations of displaced refugees and immigrants.
Accordingly, the revivals reflect the times and the current social attitudes. Into this day that echoes anti-semitic chants, “Jews will not replace us” by white supremacist marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia and recent attacks against US synagogues, comes a revival of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish that is monolithic. The Yiddish National Theatre Folksbein’s production in Yiddish has supertitles in English and Russian. In its authenticity of language and grounding in the ethnicity inherent in Sholem Aleihem’s source material on which it’s based, the production which effuses the choreography of Jerome Robbins with Staś Kmieć’s additions, is one for the ages in its transcendent humanity and spiritual resonance.
What is it about this Fiddler that is unlike all others? Directed by the superb, insightful Tony/Oscar award winner Joel Grey, the production is a moral imperative! It is for our time and all time in its simplicity, grace and spare, unadorned beauty and emotionally taut, intimate, soul crushing power.
Grey’s vision personalizes and authenticates the complexity of faith as it moves Tevye (an unparalleled Steven Skybell) through the challenges of negotiating the daily uncertainties of life in a rapidly changing world, while retaining the core values of his religious beliefs that have been codified for thousands of years (exemplified in the gorgeous number “Shabes Brokhe” (Sabbath Prayer).
Tevye’s, is the iconic hero’s journey of life’s rhythms, of the wheel and woe and back again. By distilling the musical to its most searingly gut-wrenching, basic elements, Grey has elevated Tevye and his family to a timeless universality. With levity and poignancy Grey stirs us to empathize with the characters’ plight, as we experience the “happiness and tears” reflected throughout and especially in the song “Tog-any, Tog-oys” (“Sunrise/Sunset”). The number, rendered with sonorous beauty by Tevye, Golde (the golden, lyrical soprano Jennifer Babiak) and the company just before the Russian officials effect a mini-pogrom is a harbinger of things to come.
Tevye and his family and village speak in Yiddish though at the time in a place like “Anatevke” (Anatevka) they also most probably spoke German and Russian as well. An interesting derivation turns up in the song Tevye sings to his God, “Ven ikh bin a Rotshild”) the translation of which is “If I Were a Rothchild.” The irony of Tevye’s dreaming to be like the uber wealthy Rothchild banking family who were also Jewish is hysterical. Would he sacrifice his faith for money? Would he have to? Indeed! Skybell’s rendition of this funny, poor man’s lament to God is priceless.
The question becomes: is the Yiddish a distraction making it more difficult to engage with the characters? The irony is we pay attention because the language is unfamiliar and we must not take anything for granted. As we begin to pick up words read from the supertitles on panels to the right/left of the stage, we connect with another time and place, which materially is unlike our own, while discovering that the characters symbolically represented are like ourselves.
The supertitles in English and Russian from the Yiddish Translation by Shraga Friedman (first performed in Israel in the 1960s) reinforce our understanding along with the actors’ gestures (Skybell is particularly superb) expressions and crystal clear intentions. The ensemble is letter perfect in its portrayals. Additionally, Yiddish is one of the most onomatopoetic of languages; its very sounds convey the meanings which we counterintuitively glean. During the song and dance numbers, the plosive consonants and guttural, rolled rrrrrs express a vibrancy and excitement which adds to their energy and joy.
Of course, it helps that the actors are wholly present and “in-the-moment.” The audience can’t help but be engaged and enthralled as we employ more of our senses, so as not to miss a word or thought for fear of losing out.
Importantly, Joel Grey has brilliantly shepherded this production and has acutely grounded it in the power of fundamental principles of equanimity. We are precisely aware that the production’s underscored intrinsic values encourage all people to overcome and move through the dark times. These are the basic truths which we cling to as we live our lives in Anatevke, Russia 1905 or NYC 2019. In this essentially clear-eyed, genuine, heartfelt production, faith and love emerge like pillars of fire; they guide Tevye and his daughters, and drive the arc of the play’s development.
During the course of the play Tevye learns ancient faith and modern love are not mutually exclusive; they are one. Steven Skybell’s Tevye (Skybell’s is an inspired, precise, brilliant portrayal of the witty journeyman) exercises faith daily in his discussions and personal relationship with God. Love, Tevye discovers by witnessing how it blossoms in his daughters’ lives and marriages. In a touching moment that lingers with sweetness Skybell’s Tevye and wife Golde (Jennifer Babiak) sing about what love is in their personal relationship. “Libst Mikh, Sertse?” (Do You Love Me). They discover that they have been bonded in love which has provided the security and contentment which helps them weather a hardscrabble existence, partners to the last.
Both faith and love embody the instrumental forces which drive the uneducated milkman and his family toward hope despite uncertainty. By the conclusion of the production, we understand that only with faith and love can they confront the anti-semitism of the Russian Orthodox community which fearfully has expelled them. Only with faith and love can they move on stoically without bitterness, believing that it will be better in their new home in America because they have each other. And Tevye, by keeping his fervent relationship with God, will continue to keep his balance as “a fiddler on the roof” despite the precarious times they will face in the new world with possibly more persecution and discrimination.
Wisely, Grey strips all unnecessary elements that Fiddler on the Roof might represent as a “Broadway show,” and solidifies the themes and alternating tenor and moods of laughter and sadness with a minimalist set, whose backdrop of parchment and cloth panels retains the most important word in the play and the only word which is not in Yiddish.
It is in Hebrew, painted in black Hebrew letters across the central banner. And it symbolizes what in effect Tevye looks for when he talks to an invisible God whom he must believe hears him and through received wisdom, answers Tevye. It is the Hebrew word signifying The Torah, God’s truth, God’s guidance to navigate a world which is in constant upheaval and is often hostile. It is particularly during intimate and animated discussions with God that Skybell’s Tevye depends upon his faith to provide the enlightenment he needs to make the right decisions for himself and his family. Every one of these discussions Tevye has, we believe that he believes God listens. These conversations imply the depth and irrevocability of Tevye’s faith and are a crucial part of the profoundness of this production.
But faith is a private matter between a man and/or woman and his/her God. So Tevye to explain himself in communal terms that relate to the society in which he lives, employs the simile to explain how he withstands his hard scrabble life. He does it precariously like “a fiddler on the roof” while conveying a bit of his own musical identity. And he’s able to stand living on the edge because of “one Torah, one God, one word…tradition.” As the ensemble joins in the song”Traditsye” we are introduced to Tevye’s ethnic cultural folkways that have existed in Anatevka for generations. We presume these “traditions” are reflected in The Torah.
Interestingly, during the course of the play, we, Tevye and the community learn that the folkways of Anatevka are not necessarily God’s ways of the Torah. In fact, they can be abused and lead to misery, as even Yente implies with her unhappy marriage and as we discover with the other unhappy marriages in the village, i.e. Leyzer-Volf’s marriage to Frume Sore who was a bitter woman. In fact, we and Tevye learn there can be happiness in marriage if there is love. And that is what God is all about.
As Motl (the fine Ben Liebert) suggests with wisdom given to him by Tsaytl (Rachel Zatcoff), “even a tailor deserves a little happiness.” Tevye after an enlightened discussion with God, and his daughter and Motl, throws off a stubborn adherence to Anatevka’s folkways, and follows a greater wisdom and acceptance because he loves his daughter and wants her to be happy in her marriage to a man she loves.
Reinforcing that love is God’s way, Motl’s faith is strengthened. Having the courage to stand up to Tevye and step out in faith for Tsaytl’s hand is miraculous, like the Biblical miracles (manna in the wilderness, etc.). He sings the vibrant “Nisimlekh-Veniflo’ oys” (Miracle of Miracles), the greatest miracle being that God has made the way for him to marry Tsaytl, serving as a beacon of light for the rest of the town.
To assuage and convince Golde of the rightness of this decision, Tevye has “Der Kholem” (The Dream). With the skills of this adroit company, in one of the marvelous highpoints of the production. Frume Sore is a larger than life spirit, a fiend (on stilts) with oversized body looming in a shrouded, wild costume, witchy hands, wild hair and exaggerated, ghostly make-up. She is wonderful and the company echoes her screams and questions with humorous frightfulness. As Tevye recounts the dream and the ensemble enacts it, Frume Sore portends a curse on Tsaytl if she marries Leyzer-Volf. It is so horrifying, Golde wants her daughter to avoid any curse; and receive the blessing her sweet spirit ancestor bestowed on the marriage. In this incredible scene, the traditional folkway of the matchmaker making a match is vitiated and love becomes the preeminent value.
This production clearly makes a distinction between faith of the Torah and folkways of Anatevka. Grey beautifully effects this through lighting, Skybell’s forceful discussions with his God, the sets (the backdrop panels) and the staging. Tevye’s faith and relationship with the God of The Torah who gives enlightened wisdom is not the same as the ancestral cultural folkways of Anatevka which have sprung up and been integrated from the surrounding society for economic purposes.
The learned Pertshik (the wonderful Drew Seigla) infers that love supersedes the matchmaker Yente (the wry, saleswoman of unappealing spouses-Jackie Hoffman). The Rabbi indirectly affirms this at the wedding at Tevye’s insistence by wisely not ruling on it. Nevertheless, the underlying message is that matchmakers are not in the Torah; God puts love in the hearts of people for each other. Tevye later confirms for Pertshik’s future marriage with Hodl, the old ways don’t apply as he evokes the metaphor of Adam and Even whose matchmaker was God. Another tradition that has little to do with the Torah is mixed dancing. Petshik dances with his beloved Hodl declaring it is not a “sin” which the Rabbi confirms. It is not in the Torah (the guide). And the men and women dance inspired by Tevye and Golde to initiate the dance which begins and incredible dance celebration at Tsaytl’s and Motl’s wedding.
Grey’s genius in selecting the painted Hebrew word “The Torah” as the focal point of the setting is so logical it’s breathtaking. The symbolism is magnificent. Not only is Tevye guided by his faith in God during trying times when the traditions they have followed for centuries are being overthrown by modernism. We, likewise, are being instructed in Tevye’s trials of faith. We, too, receive the wisdom he gains after he wrangles with God over vital decisions concerning his daughters’ marriages.
Indeed, this overarching theme of The Torah, God’s guidance, is present throughout as the panel never moves, never is taken down. That is why when the Russian constable comes in and his officers wreck the celebration and one of them tears the panel with the word Torah, it is horrifically chilling. To not be able to actively practice their faith threatens their ethos; they will be evicted. But why stay in a place tears out the very fabric of who they are? Though in the next act the panel has been sewed where it has been ripped, “the handwriting is on the panel.” The warning the constable has been giving to Tevye is coming to pass. And not even Khavele’s (Rosie Jo Neddy) relationship with Russian Orthodox Fyedke (Cameron Johnson’s dancing is spectacular) can save Tevye and the community from eviction.
This blow to his relationship with God, Tevye cannot brook. That his daughter would be with one of that faith is a death. This is not a custom, this goes much deeper and is a great trial. However, Goldie and his daughters will work on him, as is obvious when they say goodbye. Meanwhile, the dance sequence as Tevye mourns the loss of Khavele in the song “Khavele” (Khavele) is beyond poignant.
Every decision Grey has made informs the profound themes in this work and emphasizes what is vital for life to thrive despite loss. This is exemplified in the simple, uniform, dark tables and chairs which structure the scenes in Tevye’s home, the wedding hall, Motl Kamzoyl’s shop, the Russian/Jewish mixed cafe where Tevye meets Leyzer-Volf and they sing the marvelous “Lekhayim” (To Life, Lekhayim) and the Russians join in with vigorous, athletic dancing that is so joyful and celebratory, that for a tiny moment we actually think that the Russians and the Jews can have peace. Also the accoutrements-props, like candles, a washbasin, drinking glasses, the milk pales and cart-without a horse, etc., are used to round out the action when needed.
The message is clear. The material objects of life are movable and transient. The Torah, God’s guidance is forever for those who seek it and believe they receive His answers, as the vibrantly alive, humorous, enthusiastic “man for all seasons,” Steven Skybell’s Tevye believes he does.
Another superb element of this production is the use of the lovely fiddler portrayed by Lauren Jeanne Thomas whose portrayal is not to be underestimated, but is beautifully soulful and evocative. When Tevye is having a crisis and must go to his God for a talk, the nimble, sylph-like graceful Der Fidler (Lauren Jeanne Thomas as the fiddler) leans in slyly, sweetly and dances around Tevye as her playing soars with the poignance of the melody of “Traditsye,” as the music swells with the custom which is falling away. These moments are absolutely heartbreaking for Tevye must call upon his faith to guide him through the uncertainty, confusion and darkness. And of course as they leave Anatevke singing their song about a place they’ve identified with and can do no longer, Tevye motions for the Der Fidler to go with them. The customs of the Russian village they leave behind. But The Torah, God’s guidance is with them forever.
The production is a spiritual revelation that is extraordinary and miraculous. Special kudos to the orchestra, conducted by Zalmen Mlotek and Associate Conductor Andrew Wheeler. Just wow.
Posted on May 22, 2019, in NYC Theater Reviews, Off Broadway and tagged Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish, Jerome Robbins Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock, Joel Grey, Sheldon Harnick, Stage 42, Steven Skybell. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.