BWW Interview: Musical Theater Project Looks Behind the Scenes of 'FIDDLER'
In September, 1964, Broadway welcomed what was to become one of the major musical theatre events. With a score highlighted by "Sunrise Sunset," "If I Were a Rich Man," "To Life," and "Matchmaker," "FIDDLER ON THE ROOF" opened to rave reviews, sold out houses, and unbridled praise.
The path to that September day was not easy. It was marked with many naysayers who thought the plot was "too ethnic" and "lacked popular appeal." Who wanted to hear about a poor milkman, in the now destroyed "shtetl" (town) of Anatevka? Who would be interested in words of Sholem Aleichem, a writer of tales from the "old country?" Why would modern Americans want to know of archaic traditions?
The obvious answer, in retrospect, was "lots of people." The show has been produced in 32 countries and translated into 16 languages.
When Joseph Stein, Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock joined forces to write "FIDDLER ON THE ROOF," they did so "in order to create an homage to our heritage. " A heritage which included hundreds of years of Jews in eastern Europe, whose lives and way of life had been destroyed by pogroms (uprisings), forced evacuations, and ultimately by the "final solution," the Holocaust.
This was a life spent where they developed a culture of traditions, which included the way they prayed, ate, dressed, did business, got married, and interacted not only with each other, but those non-Jews who controlled the politics of the regions. They spoke Yiddish, a language that not only held words which carried their traditions, but had a spoken identifiable cadence. There was music (the haunting cantorial sounds and Klemzer melodic beats), as well as literature, and artistic styles.
These traditions are the guts of "FIDDLER ON THE ROOF," for, as Tevya, the central character, indicates, "without these traditions these people had no guidelines for how to live their lives."
There is controversy, however, over whether FIDDLER is a story of a specific group of people or whether it is a universal story. If the former, then fidelity must be paid to developing the cadence of the language, and the realism of the traditions. If the latter, re-imagining is appropriate.
George Roth, who has a long history of portraying Tevya, has some views regarding many aspects of the musical and his portrayal of the role in the upcoming concert version to be presented by Bill Rudman, artistic director of The Musical Theater Project, and the cast (Jacqui Loewy, Sheri Gross, and Jessica Cope).
As a youth, Roth played the role at his high school in Potomac, Maryland which was staged with some of the original sets and costumes from Broadway. He played it again in a "re-imagined" production at Beck Center several years ago. Of that staging he says, "I didn't think the show needed to be re-imagined." (One reviewer commented that the show was more "white bread" (the bread of non-Jews) rather than "challah" (the special bread eaten by Jews on the Sabbath.) This past summer Roth played Tevya at Porthouse. The latter performance won him the Cleveland Critics Circle Best Actor in a Musical Award, in the main because of the authenticity.
He compared Zero Mostel's portrayal, where the role was played with "shtick," with that of Luther Adler, who didn't manufacture the actions but went with the guts of a Yiddish theatre actor who understood the motivations. (Mostel was Broadway's first Tevya, in 1975. Adler replaced him when Mostel left the cast due to a contract dispute.)
Roth states in regard to the universality of the script, "'FIDDLER' is really the story of the Jews of the pale. What traditions were they singing about? The traditions that kept the Jewish people together as one. If you don't portray authentic traditions I don't know what the traditions are."
Roth, the product of Holocaust survivors, finds a great love in playing the role. He stated in a recent interview, "Actors like to be given words that expresses themselves. Tevya feels like coming home...the warmth, the humor, the writing, suit me." "I can get the rhythms, I can grow around the sound, the authenticity, it's satisfying."