Irving — Fiddler on the Roof, the justifiably much-honored musical by composer Jerry Bock, lyricist Sheldon Harnick and playwright Joseph Stein, opened the season in a marvelous production at Lyric Stage in Irving. The reason for this excellence is the equally effective collaboration of producer Steven Jones and music director Jay Dias. Here is why: Dias takes a musicologist’s approach to these big production musicals, digging out the original orchestrations, and Jones has the wisdom to back him and fund the 34-piece orchestra required. Few, if any, companies do this. Elsewhere, a couple of overworked instrumentalists and a synthesizer suffice, but nothing can come close to the sound of Lyric’s orchestra coupled with a fully staged musical.
The production itself is worthy of Dias’ efforts. In an era of updates, director Len Pfluger stays true to the original, set in the hardscrabble Russian שטעטלm (shtetl or small town) of Anatevka in 1905. As in most musicals set in a historical setting, such as in The Music Man’s River City, it is so cleaned up as to be quaint. At the time of the premiere (1964), its bucolic picture of rural Russian Jewish life at the turn of the century, based on the story Tevye and his Daughters by Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich, known by his nom de plume Sholem Aleichem, was nearly as foreign to American Jews as it was to the rest of the country.
The story is so well known that be doesn’t bear rehashing here. In short, Tevye the milkman uncomfortably finds himself in a world that is changing around him as his daughters wed husbands that are progressively more troublesome.
The set looks vaguely familiar and so generic that the one Russian spire painted on the horizon looks silly. Even if it existed, you would never have seen it from that village anyway. However, it serves the purpose and, like Jones, we would all trade a fancy set for a few more violins.
Costumes are serviceably appropriate. The chorus shines and Ann Nieman’s recreation of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography remains undimmed. Accents are mishmash.
Jerry Bock’s wondrous score has some songs that could be transported to any ol’ musical, but most of the score brings the joys of Jewish klezmer music to a wider public.
With its modal harmonies and mostly minor overtones, klezmer tries to imitate the singing and wailing of the human voice. The famous clarinet slide that opens Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue comes right out of klezmer. In addition to the clarinet (here played by Christy Springer), the band usually has an accordion (played by Mary Medrick), a singer, a violinist (the fiddler on the roof), a bass or cello and some kind of drum. Frequently there is a dulcimer (here a mandolin/guitar/lute played by Maristella Feustle). Dias restores all of this original instrumentation to the performance.
The show rests on the weary shoulders of the much put-upon Tevye and Jason Kane rises to the occasion in the grand tradition of all of those that have inhabited this tour de force of a role. He is on stage for almost the entire show and he commands the stage for every moment. His singing voice may flag here and there but his characterization never does.
Leslie Alexander’s Golde perfectly captures the patient exasperation that is the birthright of every Jewish Mother. The voice she uses is wonderfully irritating but her inner warmth always comes across.
The rest of the cast is equally strong. The daughters, Tzeitel (Katie Moyes Williams), Hodel (Mary McElree) and Chava (Jād Saxton) all have excellent singing voices and create very different characters. The three can all be easily distinguished from body language alone.
The collection of husbands that so baffles Tevye are up to the task.
Seth Womack plays Tzeitel’s Motel as a nervous wreck that cowers before Tevye even speaks to him. Anthony Fortino takes a completely opposite track as Hodel’s Perchik, bristling with idealistic bravura. Chava’s Fydeka announces himself with a brilliant tenor voice worthy of the opera stage and plays the conflicted Cossack with a touching shyness and remarkable respect for her family and situation. Cheers also go to all of the supporting characters, without whom this village would not exist. Violinist Steven Beall wanders around the stage as a Greek Chorus, representing “tradition,” invisible to everyone until the very last moment.
Lyric’s production is excellent all around, but it warrants some reflections on the bigger issues Fiddler on the Roof raises to modern audiences.
First: Music Theater International offers an 18-piece and a 10-piece reduced version. The also offer something called OrchEXTRA (be afraid, very afraid). This is how they describe it:
“Many organizations interested in producing musicals don’t have access to enough musicians to make up an orchestra. OrchEXTRA was developed to assist these groups by providing the missing instruments needed to realize a full Broadway score, while at the same time encouraging all available musicians to participate.”
While they laudably do not exclude “available musicians,” it is Dias’ research of, and return to, the original full orchestration that sets Lyric Stage apart.
Second: The big surprise in viewing this remarkable musical on Saturday evening was to discover that it is as much about marriage, and how it fits into society, than it is about the Jews in Anatevka. This is a subject that is right out of today’s headlines. Do we as humans, endowed by our creator with those famous Unalienable Rights, have the right to marry whom we choose, even if it flies disruptively right in the face of the “Tradition” of the opening song?
When his oldest daughter, Tzeitel, refuses the arranged marriage and begs to marry for love to the tailor Motel. Unheard of. When his next daughter, Hodel, pledges herself to the radical Perchik, he is horrified as his tattered “tradition” is further shredded. When his next daughter, Chava, elopes with the Catholic Cossack Fyedka he is pushed past his breaking point. His “NO” is resounding with finality. But when the townspeople are exiled at the musical’s bitter ending, he grumbles a grudging “God Bless You” to the couple he knows he will never see again. It is a crumb, but worth the whole loaf of the bread of approval to the couple.
What would have been his reaction if Chava had married a woman? Oy Vey! Flabbergasted doesn’t do it justice. It would have been so far out of his experience and set of common denominators that she might have well have married a Martian and flew off in a spaceship.
Today, only Orthodox Jews ban same-sex marriage and many same-sex Jewish couples stand under the chuppah (traditional marriage canopy). While there are contemporary Tevyes, of all religions and beliefs, that leave that “God Bless You” unuttered, more parents today move past the window that Tevyes of the past opened to approval and inclusion into the family.
Third: The other issue that runs through Fiddler is the treatment of the Jewish communities throughout history, but specifically the harassment that started to raise its ugly head at the turn of the century. It was not much of a step from the expulsion that takes place at the end of the musical to Hitler’s unimaginable horrors.
The so-called May Laws introduced by Tsar Alexander III of Russia in 1882 banned Jews from rural areas and towns of fewer than ten thousand people. They stayed in effect until 1917, no matter that they were ruinous to the Imperial economy. In 1904, the Rothschild banking firm cut Russia off from the funds it needed for the war against Japan while the New York banking firm of Kuhn-Loeb & Co. New York gave the Japanese all the credit it requested and then some.
At the end of the show, Hodel goes to Siberia to care for her arrested husband. Chava and her husband Fyedka are leaving for Krakow, disgusted by the forced relocation. Motel and Tzeitel go to Warsaw, Poland, but plan join the rest of the family when they have saved up enough money. As Tevye, Golde and his two youngest daughters leave the village for America (to Golde's brother).
At the very end, the fiddler is finally recognized. Tevye beckons with a nod, and the traditions follow them out of the village. True, traditions will always be important, but they’re going to have to morph as society moves forward.