Fiddler On the Roof is one of my favorite musicals. I have seen it three times, every production identifiably unique. Here now are my “Three Fiddlers.”
“Fiddler” Number One:
Broadway – 1964.
Fiddler On the Roof was a revelation to me when I saw its original production. As with most out-of-town aficionados of Broadway musicals, I was introduced to Fiddler via its original cast record album.
And I did not care for it.
The songs were individually undistinguished. This disappointed me because Fiddler’s composer/lyricist team of Bock and Harnick had previously written Fiorello!, the first musical I ever saw on Broadway, and I loved it. (They have a minor character in Fiorello! named Mrs. Pomerantz. Although it is possible they changed the name when I was not in the audience, replacing it with somebody else’s who was.)
Unlike musicals I greatly admired, like My Fair Lady and West Side Story, the Fiddler On the Roof melodies lacked individualized impact. It was only when I attended the live production that I realized they were supposed to.
Fiddler On the Roof was the most totally integrated musical I had ever experienced, the story, the show’s songs and its dances blending seamlessly, delivering a colorful collage of imaginative wonderfulness, evoking the ethnic cohesiveness and imminent danger in the fictional turn-of-the-(20th)century Russian village of Anatevka. Hearing the songs in their appropriate contexts washed away the inherent difficulty I had found missing in the album. They embedded impeccably into the production.
The original Fiddler On the Roof starred Zero Mostel, an inimitable “Force of Nature”, whose natural instincts got the most out of the show’s “book”, written by Joseph Stein, a respected alumnus of Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, arguably the greatest comedy/variety television series of all time.
“Funny” wrote it. “Funny” understood what they were going for. And “funny” played the comedic “moments” to the hilt. That’s “Funny Cubed”, spelling a hilarious evening (or matinee) in the theater.
I could say more, but I’ll move on.
The “Final Bow”, when the dancing “Circle of the Community” opened up, revealing Zero Mostel, gyrating toward the audience in ecstatic “If I Were A Rich Man” exuberance, elicited roars of approval, and, for a few of us, tears of exultation and delight.
Goose bumps. And I can still feel them.
“Fiddler” Number Two:
Michigan City, Indiana - Mid-1990‘s
The “Canterbury Players” were doing Fiddler On the Roof, and our family, visiting in the summer, dutifully attended, along with a handful of local members of the theatergoing community, the less-than-“sold out” audience – tops – thirteen people, outnumbering the cast, but just by a little.
Comparing the two “Fiddler” experiences:
Small town productions must be forgivingly evaluated. (Although a Michigan City presentation of The Pirates of Penzance was as rewarding as any show I had seen anywhere.) This production’s list of cast members included – according to the program – an optometrist, a schoolteacher and the assistant manager at the Michigan City Denny’s.
And they acted their hearts out.
I am a sucker for people putting on shows because they love to, not because there’s a William Morris agent sitting in the audience. This “Canterbury Players” production would be no steppingstone to glory. It was a limited run in a beloved musical and then back to reality, testing for nearsightedness and ushering customers to their tables.
They knew that and they didn’t care. Tonight, they were in show business.
Complete with the inevitable “glitches”.
One of Fiddler’s recognized highlights is the exhilarating “Bottle Dance”, in which, during a Jewish wedding celebration, the male villagers of Anatevka – at least the more coordinated ones – place empty liquor bottles on tops of their ceremonial black hats, the participants lock arms, executing a sequence of synchronized movements, the bottles remaining unbelievably on their heads.
In Michigan City…. they did it their way.
To avoid the inevitable “accidents” certain to plague non-professionals, the bottles were glued to the tops of the dancers’ hats. The hats themselves were kept in place with the help of visible rubber bands fastened tightly under their chins.
And then they danced.
Unfortunately as they proceeded, the bottles slid progressively towards the sides of their heads, winding up hovering above their ears, at a forty-five degree angle to the floor. The bottles should by rights have fallen off. But the glue and the rubber bands kept them incongruously in place.
We bit hard on our lower lips, applauding appreciatively at the finish.
They were trying so incredibly hard. And being only Jews in the audience, they appeared desperate for our approval.
“‘L’ki-yim!’ Was that right?”
What else could we tell them? This “Fiddler” was all they had.
“Fiddler” Number Three:
Broadway – June 3, 2016.
A longstanding criticism of Fiddler On the Roof is that it is an essentially lightweight confection, its smattering of “significance” providing the obligatory “weight.”
I don’t agree.
At the center of Fiddler On the Roof is a reverberating question:
“How much can you compromise your deeply held beliefs before it’s ridiculous and there’s nothing?”
This question is so universal Fiddler On the Roof has played to enormous success in dozens of countries, including Japan, hardly a hotbed of Jewish… I mean, do they have any there at all?
Every culture experiences longstanding traditions threatened by “modernizing change.” With that conundrical issue at its core, Fiddler On the Roof is determinedly more than sitcomical fluff.
To combat this shadowing criticism and bury its maligned “Borscht Belt” ancestry, the current production of Fiddler opts for a conceptual ambiance that’s intended to be “darker” and “more consistent with reality.”
At the steep cost of the majority of the “funny”.
The Michigan City version was funnier. (Ba-dump-bump! Without any apologies. I shouldn’t even have used brackets.)
The acting was polished and professional, the choreography injecting an entrancing mystical quality. The show’s jokes, however, now embedded in the agony of Jewish oppression provide emotional resonance but quieter laughs.
The Result: A Fiddler On the Roof dramedy. With an emphasis on the “dra.”
Consider “Tevya’s” curtain call bow:
No emerging triumphantly from the “circle.”
No jubilant cheers from the audience.
No appreciative tears.
Delivering a skilled but unspectacular “Tevya” (played by Danny Burstein), less a dominating superstar than a simmering potato in a communitarian stew.
A Humble Warning: When you add “depth”, keep an eye on what you’re giving up.
I once saw an iconic performance.
And watched bottles riding sidesaddle on the “Bottle Dancers’” heads.
That’s enough, isn’t it?