Feting ‘Fiddler’
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Feting ‘Fiddler’

By 'Raising the Roof,' Folksbiene honors musical's first half century

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How did a poor milkman from a godforsaken mud-slicked Yiddish-inflected shtetl in tzarist Russia come to dominate stages around the world for half a century?

And why will so many Tevyas – and Goldes, and Tzeitels, and Motels, and Hodels, and Perchicks, and Chavas, and Yentas, and Lazar Wolfs – all be together on one stage at one time?

Somehow, the specificity of the musical’s time and place – a world so particularly and hauntingly late 19th century Ashkenazi that a Sephardic Jew who lived, let’s say, 200 years earlier would find it bafflingly foreign, and a modern secular Israeli would see it as anthropology – and its profound universality, which touches on themes of family and growth and loss and change and separation and abiding love familiar to everyone everywhere, combined to make magic in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

The fact that it’s a wonderful show also doesn’t hurt, said Alisa Solomon, a theater critic and Columbia School of Journalism professor who wrote about it in “Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof.”

Because of the convergence of so many things – “Fiddler” turning 50, its lyricist, Sheldon Harnick, turning 90, and the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene entering its 100th year – the theater’s artistic director, Zalmen Mlotek of Teaneck, is creating a huge semi-centennial celebration, called “Raising the Roof,” at Manhattan’s Town Hall on June 9.

“Fiddler” is about families (among many other things), and many of the actors who have been in it have created their own families through it. Ms. Solomon will talk about the play, and Mr. Harnick will reminisce. Joshua Bell will carve time out of his schedule to perform, and a klezmer band headed by Frank London will play behind him. Actors will reproduce some of the musical’s set pieces. Hearts will swell, and eyes will well.

Just as “Fiddler” brings together the universal and the specific, it also brings together two worlds that often intersect but are distinct from each other – Broadway and Yiddish culture. If those two worlds, in fact, can be thought to have had a child – brash, bustling Broadway would be the father, and then there is – oh, this is too easy! – a Yiddische mama – that child would have been “Fiddler on the Roof.”

The Folksbiene has chosen to produce “Raising the Roof” – which also is this year’s annual fundraiser – because its mission, as Mr. Mlotek sees it, is “to bring people from the outside – not from the Yiddish world – into our audience, to see the kind of work we do.” That has not always been the case. “My predecessors gave their lives for the theater,” Mr. Mlotek said. “They maintained this theater. From 1915, when it was founded, to 1998, when I took over, there was not one season without one play going on.

“When I took over, I broadened the base. I said that this is not just about theater – it is about Yiddish culture. I brought in people from the wider spectrum of Jewish life, who had a connection with Yiddish theater.”

For the gala, “we engaged two directors, Erik Liberman and Gary John La Rosa, who have had extensive experience with ‘Fiddler.'” In fact, Mr. La Rosa had worked with Jerome Robbins, who directed and choreographed the original production, “so it’s a direct connection to the original concept,” Mr. Mlotek said.

“We’re reaching out to all these artists, and their answer immediately is yes. They are donating their services, flying in from all over. There will be at least 100 people on that stage.

“Just the fact that we’re celebrating this icon of the Broadway musical under our auspices shows something about the way that Yiddish culture found its way into Broadway,” he said.

“‘Fiddler’ manages to keep running brilliantly on the tracks of both the universal and the particular at all times,” Ms. Solomon said.

Her favorite example is the wedding scene at the end of the first act. “If you stop your ears and just watch it, you will see that it is unmistakably and in careful detail an Ashkenazi Jewish wedding,” she said. “There is a chuppah, and the ring on the index finger. But if you close your eyes and just listen, you hear ‘Sunrise, Sunset.’ It’s a waltz; the song is a popular American style. The lyrics are universal.

“So if you are a Jewish audience member, you feel completely at home with what you saw; if you’re not, you are not barred from emotional entry to that scene. It is open to you – and you also see a set of charming customs.”

“Fiddler’s” creators were sure that anything that would not be immediately obvious to its audiences would be defined, Ms. Solomon continued. Case in point: the lyrics “To life, to life, l’chaim; l’chaim, l’chaim, to life.”

“Fiddler” was very much of its time and place in that “it catches some of the prominent concerns of the mid-1960s – the rising civil-rights movement, what tolerance is, what bigotry and prejudice are,” she said. And it touched as well on the new mood of rebellion among college students. “When Perchik is introduced, he insults someone,” she said. “Someone asks him ‘Where do you come from?’ and someone else answers ‘From the university. That’s where they taught him to speak like that.’

“It’s set in 1905, and it is very coherent and has integrity within that period, but it also is speaking very directly to the contemporary concerns of the 1960s.”

As she pointed out, those concerns still vex us today, so the show has aged well. At the deepest level, “It’s all about change – and that never gets stale.”

Addressing the charge that “Fiddler” is schmaltzy, she said that it is not. “Robbins wanted to move away from the sentimental.” The Sholom Aleichem stories upon which the musical is based are dark, but the treatment those stories had received in the 1950s had been grossly sentimental. “The first act ends in a pogrom, and the second with exile,” she pointed out.

Mr. Harnick said that when he and Jerry Bock, wrote the show’s music, they had no idea that “Fiddler” would be popular.

“We had hoped that we’d get good reviews, and run maybe for a year or two,” he said.

The two men worked separately – Mr. Bock on the music, Mr. Harnick on the lyrics – and then they’d get together in Mr. Bock’s basement studio in his house in New Rochelle. Meanwhile, Joseph Stein was somewhere else, writing the book. “When we’d finish a song, we’d call his wife, Patty, to come down so we could get her reaction. We played ‘Sunrise, Sunset’ for her. I know from experience that when I sing I don’t like looking at the person I’m singing to, so I looked away, and when I looked at her face she was crying.

“I said, ‘Is the song that bad?’ and she said ‘No. It’s very touching.'”

The same thing happened when he played it for his sister, “and then I thought ‘Wow. This must be special.'”

The first song the two men wrote for “Fiddler” was the dream song, which was based directly on Sholom Aleichem’s story; that was for a scene that they knew would have to stay in the show because it was integral to the plot. “If I Were a Rich Man” also was drawn from the stories. “There are sentences in various stories where Tevye talks about wishing he were rich, and I was able to use them. Some of his work lent itself to lyrics; for other songs I had to rely more on my own imagination,” he said.

Asked about the first Tevye, the mythic one, the extraordinary and inimitable Zero Mostel, Mr. Harnick paused and sighed. “Zero was … difficult,” he said.

“He was so imaginative, so creative, that he tended to improvise on stage, rather than doing exactly what the director had asked him to do.

“Sometimes that was fine, and sometimes it was funny, and sometimes it led to problems. Sometimes an actor would deliver a line to him, and turn around – and he wasn’t there.”

The play’s first tryouts were in Detroit. “Jerry Robbins had staged ‘If I Were a Rich Man’ so that Zero had a canister of milk with him – he was, after all, a dairyman – and at one point he raises his hands to heaven, and then, when he puts his arms down, by accident he puts one of them in the can. When he takes it out, it’s all wet, and he is just supposed to wring it out, and to look to God as if to say ‘This too you have to do to me?’

“By the third day, the song was 10 minutes longer. Zero used it as a way to show all the things that you could possibly do with that bit. He would use it as perfume behind his ears. He would use it to grease the wheels of his cart. He milked it.

“And then, on the third day, he sighs, he raises his hands to heaven, he lowers his arm into the can – and then he is in shock, because there was nothing in the can, and his arm was dry. Robbins had to do that to get him to stop.

He could endure no criticism, no matter how gently put, “but no matter what he did, audiences adored him.”

Some time before “Fiddler,” Mr. Mostel had been run over by a bus. “They took him to a hospital and he was conscious, and heard them say that they would have to amputate his leg,” Mr. Harnick said. “He begged them not to do it. He said that he was a performer, and he would be lost without it. They did save it, but after about seven months in ‘Fiddler,’ we got a letter from his doctor that said he can’t do seven performances a week, and asking if he could be in for three months and then out for three.”

Of course, that was impossible. No one would go to see a “Fiddler” headlined half of the time by Zero Mostel during the half of the time when Tevye would be somewhere else. So Mr. Mostel went out with the first national road company, where he could rest more and put less stress on his leg.

“Zero was sure that the grosses would fall after he left, but they didn’t,” Mr. Harnick said. He was replaced by Luther Adler, of the famous Yiddish stage Adlers, whom Mr. Harnick liked, and then by the man the lyricist considers to have been possibly the best of a stellar group of Tevyes, Herschel Bernardi.

Mr. Harnick is more interested in the show’s universality than its Jewishness, but he is fascinated by the way other cultures find their own specificity in it. It once ran simultaneously in London, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Helsinki, and he saw all four of those performances. “When we got to Finland, we saw that they had left out some of Tevye’s monologues” – the particularly Jewish ones – “so we asked.” The answer? “‘Well, you must realize that there are very few Jews in Finland. Maybe 4,000. So there is nothing Jewish about the show that appeals to Finns. But what does appeal to us is that this is a small country next to a large country – the Russian bear. Russia is our problem.'”

“They had cast a 6’5″ actor as the constable, and when he walked out on stage, that was Mother Russia walking,” Mr. Harnick said. “So the show had a lot to say to the Finns – but not particularly about Jews.”

Moishe Rosenfeld, the president of Golden Land Concerts and Connections, is producing “Raising the Roof,” as he has produced many other Folksbiene performances.

“It’s going to be a beautiful night,” he said.

He places “Fiddler in the Roof” in the context of the world out of which it grew. “It’s about the eastern European experience,” he said. “It’s not just about Yiddish culture, although that is central to us at the Folksbiene. It is also about the life, the ethics, the relationships with the neighbors, the thousands of years of diaspora that Jews live through, that is so central to who we are as Jews and as people.

“Nothing else before, no piece of art, had brought that to the whole world as ‘Fiddler’ does.

“Yes, there is Chagall,” he added. “But that’s why ‘Fiddler’ included Chagall.” (The musical’s title is taken from a painting by Marc Chagall that shows a violin player precariously keeping his footing on a roof as he plays his instrument; it’s all about balance, as always both particular and universal.)

“It’s a major part of the modern American Jewish experience,” he continued. “Nothing else that was presented artistically ever captured such a tremendous part of the American Jewish consciousness. It was ubiquitous when it was on Broadway, and the film, and all the revivals! Whenever it travels, it sells out.

“Tevye was a wise working man who struggles with good and evil, who struggles with choices and struggles with love versus tradition.” As it was then, so is it now.

Joanne Merlin was the first Tzeitel, the oldest daughter.

“‘Fiddler’ was very meaningful to me, because my parents both were born in Russia,” she said. “My mother came over here as a baby, but my father was born in a shtetl, and my grandparents had lived there all their lives.”

Of the actors in the original production, “only Tevye and Lazar Wolf and I were Jewish,” she said. “The rabbi and the innkeeper were too, and a lot of the smaller parts, but I think it’s important for people to know that.

“These are actors. Hamlet is very rarely played by a Dane.

“Jerry Robbins was very fastidious about teaching us all the history of the Jews in Russia, we went to an Orthodox wedding, and he brought in all kinds of resource material,” Ms. Merlin continued. “The dancing was based on authentic chasidic dancing.

“When we opened in Detroit, we thought that once the Jewish audience all has seen the show, it will close. We had no idea of the universality of the piece. But it’s played in 28 languages, all over the world, and for a long time it was the longest-running show on Broadway.”

Mr. Robbins had pursued Ms. Merlin – who at the time did not realize how well she could sing – for “Fiddler,” and later he uncovered her nascent talent as a casting director. That happened because Ms. Merlin, then the mother of two young children, was about to leave the show, and suggested her own understudy as a permanent replacement although the casting director did not think it was a good idea. Ms. Merlin prevailed, and her understudy got the part.

Who was that understudy? Bette Midler.

Erik Liberman is a co-director of “Raising the Roof.” He had toured with the show before making his Broadway debut in “Love Music,” and when he was asked to be in the gala evening, “I had so many ideas about what could possibly make this evening incredibly memorable and historic that they asked me if I could come aboard as one of the creators,” he said.

“We decided that we wanted it to be the largest reunion possible for the people who created these roles, so we went on a major investigative hunt for them. We found people who are retired, or in their 90s; we found everyone who is alive and well and kicking. Some of them made their Broadway debuts as little children and some in their 40s.

“We are creating this as a testament to the timeless and ongoing nature of this show. It is a gift that keeps on giving.”

Mr. Liberman said that before he first was in “Fiddler,” in 2009, “I hadn’t even seen the show. I was the only person alive who hadn’t seen it.

“I remember my grandparents telling me about escaping the pogroms, but I didn’t understand. It wasn’t until they had passed and I did the show that I felt that I could truly honor their memory.

“The gift that the show gave me was the chance to understand myself as a link in a chain.”

He is excited about the guest performers, who include Topol, “who hasn’t been back on a New York stage in 24 years,” Jerry Zaks, and Andrea Martin, along with many others. “We are reuniting three trios of sisters – from the Broadway run, the film, and the 1981 Lincoln Center revival,” he said. “There will be three Motels and five Yentas.

“We have been collecting anecdotes from all of them,” he continued. “We are releasing them as part of our social media campaign.”

That campaign will be on Facebook at folksbiene and on Twitter as @folksbiene.

“When Hal Prince,” the original producer, another huge Broadway name, “didn’t think the show would do well, because it hadn’t been lifted to that universal level, he said that the only person who could do it was Jerry Robbins,” Mr. Liberman said.

“Jerry kept asking Joe Stein and Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, for months, what the story is about. They kept saying it’s about a milkman. They were going for plot rather than thesis.

“And then one of them finally broke through, and he said that it was about the dissolution of a way of life. And then Jerry rendered it into something that anyone could identify with. That was his gift.”

Raising the Roof
Who: The Folksbiene Theater and many Fiddler alumni

What: A performance celebrating “Fiddler on the Roof’s” 50th anniversary

Where: Town Hall, 123 West 43rd Street, Manhattan

When: Monday, June 9, at 7:30 p.m.

For tickets: 212-213-2120, ext. 203

For more information: www.nationalyiddishtheatre.org

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