How much symbolism can one musical carry?
“Fiddler on the Roof” is more than 50 years old by now, and according to Zalmen Mlotek of Teaneck, the artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, there hasn’t been one day of those five-decades-plus when there hasn’t been some production, at some level of professionalism (or not), in some more-or-less obscure corner of the world.
It’s universal! It’s particular! It’s about Jews! It’s about everyone! It’s about community! It’s about exile! It’s about parents and children! It’s about love! It’s about the lack of love! It’s about the deliberate snuffing-out of love! It’s about arranged marriages! It’s about love matches! It’s about intermarriage! It’s about life! It’s about death! It’s about Cossacks!
Not to be too portentous, it’s about the human condition — with singing and dancing, sometimes with performers wearing really great, really high leather boots.
Now, from the company’s still-fairly-new home, right beside the always stirring green bulk of the Statue of Liberty, her torch ever high even when the poem at her base is honored only in the breach, the Folksbiene, under Mr. Mlotek’s direction, is going to present “Fiddler” in Yiddish. In some ways, it will be a return to the musical’s roots, which are deep in the Sholom Aleichem Yiddish short stories that gave birth to the show’s characters and some of its plotline.
The production right now is closer to the dream of its producers than it is to a polished, finished product; the Folksbiene is looking for a director, and then casting will begin. There is a deadline, though — Mr. Mlotek plans to open the first preview on July 4, because there is that glorious and stern symbolism pushing down on him, inspiring him.
“The journey to decide to do the play came first, of course,” he said. “When we think about a Jewish play or a Jewish musical in English, of course ‘Fiddler’ is the show that immediately comes to mind. That’s because of its genesis in Yiddish.”
That’s true for everyone, but it’s particularly true for him. “Since it was first produced in Yiddish in the 1960s, in Israel, it always has had a special place in my heart.”
He was able to hear that early production, he said, “because my family would get the latest recordings from Israel in Yiddish.” His parents, Joseph and Eleanor Chana Mlotek, were preeminent Yiddishists, so when something happened in the Yiddish theater, they knew about it.
“Fiddler” was a natural show for Israel. “It was 1966, and it was barely 20 years since the Shoah,” Mr. Mlotek said. “Israel was full of Yiddish-speaking survivors and their children, so you could imagine how much of a hit it was, not only in English and in Hebrew, but also in Yiddish. It was successful to the point where they produced an LP” — that’s a long-playing vinyl record, children — “and it’s still available, and easily downloadable. It’s a wonderful recording, and it’s one that’s stayed with me for all these years.”
So now “Fiddler” is a natural for the Folksbiene, but it is also the largest and most ambitious production the company, which is building on the success of its first production in its new home, “The Golden Bride,” in 2016, and last summer’s “Amerike: The Golden Land,” has ever mounted.
“It’s still within our off-Broadway and nonprofit status,” he said. “And we are counting on the support of our community to understand that we are reaching even higher than we have reached in the last few years.”
The theater at the museum seats 400 people, “but by the time we are finished with the stage and the pit, it will hold more like 350,” Mr. Mlotek said. He assumes that the cast will be about 25 actors, and the orchestra will have about 12 musicians. That’s about half the number that a Broadway stage would hold, but it’s huge for the Folksbiene. It’s somewhere on the cusp of large and intimate. “And that’s the beauty of it,” Mr. Mlotek said.
The Folksbiene will use the original Yiddish “Fiddler,” the same one that the Israelis used half a century ago (and of course as always it will use supertitles). It was translated by Shraga Friedman, who was born in Warsaw in 1923, survived the Holocaust, “and made a career for himself in Israel as an actor, director, writer, and translator” until he died there in 1970, Mr. Mlotek said. He translated into both Hebrew and Yiddish. He must have been extraordinary; to be a Polish-born Yiddish speaker-turned-Israeli fluent enough in English to be able to translate the tongue-twisters of, for example, “My Fair Lady” into Hebrew is rare.
(According to a 2012 story in Haaretz, Mr. Friedman, working with Dan Almagor in 1963, translated “The Rain In Spain” into Hebrew with these lines: A Hebrew equivalent eluded Almagor until his co-writer Shraga Friedman proposed the following: “Barad yarad bidrom sfarad ha’erev” — literally, “Hail fell last evening in southern Spain.”
“It’s a genius solution because it fits the music perfectly, conveys the same general idea of the original phrase, and allows Eliza’s pronunciation to ultimately morph from the deep gutteral “R” to the rolling “R” sound that defined elevated Hebrew at the time, thus demonstrating her progress,” the story’s writer, Brian Schaefer, wrote.)
“The Yiddish translation of Yiddish is so rich!” Mr. Mlotek said. “It is not literal, which makes it much more interesting. Here is a survivor who came from a religious home, looking at this text, and translating and refining the Yiddish. And of course because Yiddish is so infused with Hebrew, that it is a beautiful blending of a real authentic Yiddish spoken at that time.”
He gives one example, the song “If I Were a Rich Man.” Shraga Friedman used Sholom Aleichem’s version, “If I Were a Rothschild.” (It’s so easy to hear Zero Mostel rolling that rich word around his mouth and easing it out with ironic awe.)
So it seems as if maybe this production will lean away from the universal and into the specific, doesn’t it? No, not really, Mr. Mlotek said. “We are not going to do anything different with the material. We are going to present ‘Fiddler’ as Jerome Robbins directed it, as Joe Stein and Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock wrote it, as Harold Prince produced it. We are going to present that version, which became so ingrained in the consciousness and in the hearts of thousands and millions of people around to the world to audiences today.”
But — but — but. “But by bringing it in Yiddish, it brings it that much closer to the original conceit of the writer, Sholom Aleichem.
“When the Japanese produce it” — as Japanese companies famously have done — “they always say that we can’t believe that it was in English. That’s because they hear it as a statement about Japanese family relations and culture and sociology.
“In some ways, as my executive director says, we will be bringing ‘Fiddler’ home because we are presenting it in the language that Sholom Aleichem originally wrote the stories.”
Tickets for the “Fiddler” preview will go on sale for museum and Folksbiene members on` February 12; on that day the Folksbiene also will present a concert of early Yiddish theater and vaudeville music.
Chris Massimine is the Folksbiene’s CEO. As many people wonder but most likely few are impolite enough to ask, Mr. Massimine is not Jewish. He is, however, in love with the Folksbiene, whose administrative ladder he climbed inexorably and very quickly, and whose mission resonates with him.
“The Folksbiene is the last one standing of the Second Avenue theaters,” he said. “And it is both the longest consecutively producing arts institution in the United States and the oldest continually operating Yiddish theater in the world.
“I love the theater, and I also find that the Folksbiene is a cause that resonates with me.”
Why is the Folksbiene putting on a Yiddish-language “Fiddler”? “It was a natural thing to do,” Mr. Massimine said. “It was taking a show that was derived from the culture and the language and the stories of Sholom Aleichem and giving them a homecoming.” It wasn’t any one person’s idea, he said, but had been floating unmentioned in the Folksbiene’s air for some time. “And finally some one of us spoke it, and said that this is the right time to do this, and it made sense. It’s so right and so rich and so different.”
Why is it right? “It was targeted to the times it was written in. The story that we have is culturally specific and universally resonant. It is a story not just of tradition and change but of survival. People from all over have had all these challenges. Everyone at some point or other has been removed from their homeland and had to deal with a shifting world.
“And of course as the National Yiddish Theatre we are part of the Immigrants Rights Coalition, and I have just been named its chair,” he continued. Immigration is an emotionally contentious issue now; the Folksbiene was a theater for immigrants, and that truth remains, even as the complexions and ethnicities and backstories of the immigrants change, and as the Statue of Liberty no longer lights the way to their first steps on American soil.
Immigration, and the emigration that necessarily precedes it, are complex and emotionally demanding and draining experiences, Mr. Massimine said, and “Fiddler” gets it. “When people think about ‘Fiddler’ they think that it’s all joyous, but it’s not,” he said. “It’s a cautionary story, and it has much darkness in it. That’s the exciting thing.
“We are bringing back home something that is historically contextual, and that brings us back to the story at a time when it’s more necessary than ever to have this kind of response.”
Mr. Massimine’s path into the theater was unusual.
“I am from Franklin, which is in between Princeton and New Brunswick, and here’s the thing,” he said. “My senior year of high school, in 2003, I was the class president. And our treasury had been robbed — you put the money you collected in water jugs then, you didn’t have a bank account, and someone went off with it — and it was my responsibility, so I had to come up with a plan.
“I had been a company management fellow at the Brook Arts Center in Bound Brook — essentially I was learning the ropes of theater operations. So I said, ‘We have to do something, so let’s put on a show!’”
He was in the right place. Before it was turned into the arts center, the building that housed it “was a performing arts space, and the first midnight theater that showed ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show.’ It was the first theater in the country, even before it started in the Village.
“So I said okay. It was the first year after the Broadway production celebrated some kind of anniversary year, so I went to the owner, and said ‘I want to put on the Rocky Horror Picture Show. They hadn’t done it for a couple of decades — the theater kept flooding, so they had sold it.
“So I said, ‘Okay, let’s try it,’ and before I knew it I’d produced my first Equity show, I produced my first benefit, and my senior class didn’t have to raise a cent ever again.
“At the ripe old age of 18 I got my first chops with a professional theater.” Did the adults around him help? Not so much, he said.
So from that experience Mr. Massimine went to NYU, where he had planned to become a biochemical engineer, and actually began the coursework in that field. But how are you gonna keep them down in the lab, once they’ve produced a show? He was bored, and switched to dramatic literature, much to his parents’ dismay. It was a far less practical major. Next, he got a masters’ from NYU in comparative literature. “That’s another reason I really love the Folksbiene,” he said. “When you study comparative literature you are looking at things in more than one language, and you can see the differences. You can look at the original and the translation and see how different they are.”
After he completed graduate school in 2006, the enterprising Mr. Massimine went on to work in advertising and then in video games; he met a lot of people, made a lot of connections, and eventually started his own marketing and communications firm. “I did that for about a month before the Folksbiene grabbed me,” he said. Three people made three different imploring phone calls, asking him to interview there. He did, he was hired, he accepted, and he moved up and up and up.
“I love it,” he said. “It is near and dear to my heart. And the people I work with — they are my second mispocha.”
Mr. Massimine is Italian Catholic. “There are so many similarities” to Jewish culture, he said. “It is such a rich, wonderful, welcoming culture. And that culture paired up with performing arts, and with the fact that it is a real cause — it is a language and a culture that is thriving now, thank goodness, but it is always on the brink of not knowing what comes next.
“Preserving it is important, and I feel like I’ve found a cause,” he continued. “It’s important because if we are going to know where we’re going we have to know where we came from. And the origins of this theater are important to me — it was the first theater of social change in America. It represented the immigrant masses who came here. It represented women when women were not allowed to go out unchaperoned. It represented the gay and lesbian community when they were not allowed to come out. And then it represented the people who those in government refer to as the others.
“This was the first progressive theater, and that is something that demands both memory and praise.
“The culture behind it is so open and so rich and so lively and so giving. Coming here was a no-brainer for me. I was sucked in immediately.”
Mr. Massimine is always moved by the Statute of Liberty; he is so moved, in fact, that he detours from what would be a more direct route so that he can see it on his way to work. “It is a reminder of all the freedoms that are supposed to be inherent in this country,” he said. “‘Fiddler’ is even more relevant now than ever, because we are in a state of crisis, with things seeming to change all the time, with no reason.
“This time now is in many ways parallel to the time of ‘Fiddler,’ with the relocations, the desolation. It is important for me and my staff, for many of us, to look at that beacon of hope, and realize that there still is hope.
“This is not a time to back down. It is a time to be unified and engaged for change, and we are the first theater of social change. This is not something we do out of necessity. We do it out of duty.
“For 103 years we have spearheaded something, and we will do it for the next 103 years. We can perform in front of a group that can foster and lobby for change.
“We are the voice of the people.”