Fiddler on the Roof
by Eugene Paul
One of the greatest musicals in theatre history and one of the
most appealing. Bring tissues.
It says, “Anatevka”. We work out the worn Russian letters on the
sign as we wait for the show to begin.
A man walks on the stage? He looks at the sign? He checks the
old book in his hands? We’re muddled. The play’s begun because that bearded,
bald headed man, that’s Danny Burstein, the Tevye in the show. In a red parka?
There’s the roar of a railroad train – is it memory or real for this descendant
of Tevye, as he removes his parka and becomes Tevye for us, Tevye, the milk
peddler of Anatevka, already conjuring up the old village in this brutal, empty
space, already comparing its unlikely existence to a fiddler on a roof.
And there he is, our phantom fiddler, our conjuror conjured. The familiar,
plaintive strains make their magic again and Tevye is planted strong. Sure of
his foundations, his strength. Why? “Tradition!” he shouts at us. And a
multitude of villagers rises from the long ago, powerfully singing, swirling,
passionate in their fervor and belief. “Tradition!” It’s overwhelming. It’s
rousing. It’s heartbreaking. Where do we find such confident security in
tradition today? Does anything match the loveliness of Sher’s staging of the
Extraordinary Director Bartlett Sher in this unfinished
masterpiece of a restoration to the New York stage yet again has put his stamp
on one of the miracles of American musical theatre with clarity, love and
courage. Never have the songs been better. And the dances? Homage to original
director/choreographer Jerome Robbins carried to the giddiest heights by raging
choreographer Hofesh Shechter whirlingly abetted by the great Catherine Zuber
whose costumes spin added verve and passion into the dances.
Everybody in Anatevka has problems, maybe it’s the Czar, maybe
it’s their neighbors, maybe it’s grinding poverty. Tevye has a lame horse so
he’s towing his milk cart but oh, the real plight of Tevye and his wife, Golde
(simply wonderful Jessica Hecht). Five daughters. Five. Daughters. Where are
they going to find husbands for them? How? When? In Anatevka? Little do they
know Fate has already taken a hand.
And it isn’t because of Yente, the matchmaker (acidly funny Alix
Korey) who has great news for Golde: Lazar Wolf, the butcher (splendid Adam
Dannheiser) wants to get married again, he’s been a widower too long.
And he has eyes for Tzeitel (wondrous Alexandra Silber) the eldest
of Tevye’s and Golde’s girls. So he’s more than twice her age – even older than
Tevye – but he’s rich and respected and their darling daughter will never go hungry.
Reluctant Tevye needs convincing. This is the first of his five treasures –
never mind the other stuff – to be leaving their home. And in one of the most
exhilarating scenes in the entire show, Lazar Wolf gets Tevye and all the men
in the tavern drunk, including the Russians, in the ringingly exuberant paean
“To Life!”. Ah, such macho dancing!
But Fate is laughing. (Is it that fiddler?) Motel, timid Motel,
the tailor (superb Adam Kantor) has been haplessly head over heels in love with
Tzeitel and she with him but too terrified to approach Tevye even for
permission to see Tzeitl. It’s tradition: the papa must give permission, papa
must give consent. As he already has. To Lazar Wolf, the butcher.
Adam Kantor as Motel and Alexandra Silber as
Tzeitel in Fiddler on the Roof
How can Tevye untangle himself with Lazar Wolf, with his wife,
with the whole community? How can anyone? It takes a bit of doing and we enjoy
every inch, every crumb. But first, he has to summon up a nightmare. Such a
nightmare, ghastly, creepy, merry with ghosts and haunts, chief among which
Lazar Wolf’s dead wife throws the eeriest tizzies. It’s one of the best moments
in the show. Followed by another best moment: When Papa Tevye gives his consent
to Motel and Tzeitl, Motel explodes all over the stage in an ecstasy of this
miracle. Absolute standout Adam Kantor as Motel in “Miracle of Miracles” wraps
us all in his joy. (I told you, the songs are extraordinary.)
Followed by perhaps the best moment, when Tevye and Golde
communicate their love for each other across the entire stage during the
wedding of Tzeitl and Motel in the happy-to-be-sad song of songs, “Sunrise,
Sunset.” Has there been a wedding ever since without it?
Samantha Massell as Hodel and Ben Rappaport as
What should be the next blow to Tevye’s tender heart, losing his
second daughter, Hodel, (lovely Samantha Massell) is a lesson in theatrical
priorities. Hodel has fallen in love with Perchik, (stalwart Ben Rappaport) a
wandering student, an “angry young man”. (He was a fashionable character about
the time of the original show, right out of “Look Back in Anger”). But Perchik
is kind hearted. Perchik is generous, compelled to right the wrongs of the
world and willing to fight for his beliefs. His wonderful solo, “Now I Have
Everything” when he wins Hodel should be as towering as Tevye’s anthems. He has
to leave her to fight the good fight but will send for her and they will be
married. Tevye is not asked for permission. A double blow.
When he takes Hodel to the train station for her to join Perchik
in Siberia, in a prison camp, he is too heart sore to speak. Hodel sings the
beautiful “ Far From the Home I love”, as lovely a song as any in the show. But
the show’s temperature changes because Samantha Massell is making it her
moment, Broadway voice, Broadway gestures, meant to be admired, not meant to be
Hodel leaving her beloved family. We may admire but we want to care. About
Hodel. About Tevye. Certainly about Tevye.
I’ve seen five different productions of Fiddler- plus a
very Gallic iteration in Paris -- and there’s something spellbinding inn
each of them when everybody on stage cares. When they care, we care. Simple.
Marvelous. But none has achieved the intensity of the highs in Bartlett Sher’s
production. It’s in the loss of tradition as Tevye loses his daughters that
Tevye’s life is wrenched almost to the breaking point. Especially when his
marriageable youngest darling, Chava (endearing Melanie Moore) actually elopes,
marries a non-Jew, Fjedka (winning Nick Rehberger). When the Russian constable
(fine Karl Kenzler) tells them they must all leave Anatevka, Tevye himself
breaks tradition: he orders the constable off his land. Which was never his.
Which the constable knows.
The original book by Joseph Stein based on the Sholem Aleichem
stories sees few amendments. The original songs by Jerry Bock and Sheldon
Harnick seem shiningly eternal, more lustrous than ever, the original Jerome
Robbins direction and choreography enriched, deepened, humanized by director
Bartlett Sher and his inspired choreographer Hofesh Shechter. Sher’s long time
collaborator, gifted set designer Michael Yeargan, has underestimated the
jarring impact of the sheer mechanistic exposure for flying his folklore
settings. Most of us prefer remaining in the tale as it is told.
I know I’ll see it again.
Fiddler on the Roof at the Broadway Theatre, 1681
Broadway at 53rd Street. Tickets: $55-$199. 212-239-6200 2 hrs 30
min. Open run.