These last few years certainly have been a master class in the relationship between things changing and things staying the same.
Take, for example, the Yiddish “Fiddler on the Roof.”
The production was created by the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene, opened in 2018 to rave reviews at the Folksbiene’s home, the theater at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, and played there, to sold-out audiences, for six month. Then the production moved off-Broadway, to Stage 42. After almost a year there, it closed, in January 2020; plans called for the company to perform first in Los Angeles, and then in China. At the same time, the Folksbiene’s artistic director, Zalmen Mlotek of Teaneck, was in Australia. He was working on finding a new cast that would play for six weeks in the Sydney Opera House, and then for another six weeks in Melbourne.
“We had cast the whole company except for Tevye — we hadn’t found the right one — and I came back in early March of 2020. And you know what happened. It was that week. That exact week.” That was the start of the pandemic in the United States. “People already were wearing masks in the airport,” Mr. Mlotek said. Had his tickets been a day later, he’d have been stuck in Australia.
Instead, he came home and watched the theater world wither, redefine itself, somehow keep going, and now, slowly, carefully, come back to life. As for the Folksbiene, “two years after pivoting to being an online company, and producing programs that have had close to half a million hits all over the world, we went live again, first with the opera of the ‘Garden of the Finzi-Continis,’ and then with ‘Harmony,’” Mr. Mlotek said.
“And we realized that Yiddish really is the center of our mission.”
That’s why this production of Fiddler is so powerful, he said. “There is an indescribable authenticity that we have managed to produce, with these 25 American-born, non-Yiddish-speaking, incredibly talented actors, who studied and practiced and rehearsed, over and over and over again, to get the right inflection, the right accent, so the sound was as authentic as possible.”
Audiences can feel the authenticity, even if they couldn’t tell a perfect accent from one invented on the spot. And even though Fiddler was written in English, the stories behind the musical, by Sholem Aleichem, were Yiddish, as is the sensibility, then and now.
All this adds up to the news that Yiddish Fiddler will open again off-Broadway, in the New World Theater, from November 13 to January 1. “We want to give New York audiences another chance to see this work that took the world by storm,” Mr. Mlotek said.
“Fiddler on the Roof” is over 50 years old now, and its status as a classic has become clear. It’s of its time — both of the time when it is set, around the turn of the 20th century, and the time it opened, in 1964 — and it’s timeless. Its extreme specificity paradoxically makes it universal. The idea of Fiddler as kitsch has come and thankfully gone. So now, it’s going to be back in this new world.
The issues in this new world to some extent have changed, although perhaps it’s more realistic to say that some issues have been swapped out for others, but they’ll return. It’s more a circle than a straight line.
The museum where the production opened is all the way downtown in Manhattan, so far south that it’s on New York Harbor; you can see the Statue of Liberty from some of its windows. That made particular emotional sense when one of the day’s most contentious issues was immigration. That’s receded somewhat, replaced by the virus, and also by revolution, insurrection, political violence, and the kind of uncivil civil struggles that can tear both countries and families apart. That, too, is in Fiddler.
The production itself will be basically unchanged, Mr. Mlotek said. The legendary actor Joel Grey once again will direct, and most of the original cast also will return. The stripped-down visual intimacy will remain. The New World theater is small, like Stage 42 and the one at the museum, although each is configured differently. The two off-Broadway theaters seat slightly larger audiences. Minor adjustments might be necessary. But the affect remains intimate.
Mr. Mlotek is sure that there still is a big audience for Fiddler in New York.
“The word of mouth for Fiddler was incredibly strong,” he said. “The one refrain I kept hearing was ‘I didn’t want to come to see another Fiddler, and I knew I wasn’t going to understand it.’ And then they came, and they saw it, and they were blown away by the power and the poignancy.
“One of the exciting things that we hope we can do this time around is connect with educational outlets, like middle schools and high schools and colleges and Hillels,” he continued. “We are raising money so that we can help subsidize tickets. That’s a new thing.
“It’s mostly for Jewish students, but at the same time it’s important for non-Jewish students to get a taste of Jewish culture, and also to see the importance of antisemitism and the question of what it means to be a refugee. What it means to be displaced from your home. Sadly, those are two relevant issues today.”
He also hopes to be able to work out a relationship with the New York City public school system, but “we’re still in the process of figuring that out,” Mr. Mlotek said. “We have a study guide, and we also can offer pre- and post-show conversations about the issues in the show with one of our staff.”
He thinks that the show’s Yiddish will not prove to be a barrier for newer, younger audiences. “For one thing, it’s all subtitled,” he said. “And it is an opportunity for people who have never heard Yiddish, or who have never gone to a show or an opera in a different language to experience that. Hopefully they will be familiar enough with the story and songs to be able to follow along. And when they listen to the Yiddish and see the subtitles, they can pick out a word or two.”
Fiddler’s power also is in its focus on the relationships that are at its heart. Four years ago, when he first saw the concept underlying the set design, Mr. Mlotek was taken aback, he said. “I thought to myself, ‘That’s it? That’s the whole set?’ And then they explained to me why they felt that this was the strongest way of presenting it.
“It was about not competing in the mind’s eye with what people had seen on Broadway or in the movie. It was to focus on the power of the relationships between the father and the daughters and the mother and the daughters. It was to get to the heart of the story, and about falling apart and holding onto tradition.
“That speaks to the universality of the piece.”
Mr. Mlotek retold the story of the Japanese production of Fiddler. “The actors said that they couldn’t believe the play is popular in America, because it is so deeply Japanese.” And it’s even more deeply human.
Steven Skybell — a Texas-born Jew who learned Yiddish as a young man but is not a native Yiddish speaker — will reprise his role as Tevye. It’s a role that he cherished, and that he’s thrilled to go back to.
In a twist, though, he’s going back to it twice.
Before he returns to New York to rehearse his role as Tevye in Yiddish, he’ll spend six weeks at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, playing Tevye in English for the Komische Oper Berlin. (That’s Berlin’s comic opera.)
“There’s an Australian gentleman, Barrie Kosky” — a Berlin-based, highly respected, deeply creative opera and theater director. “We had a Zoom session the other night, and he told me that he is Jewish and his family is from Eastern Europe. They fled the pogroms and made their way to Australia. One of his final projects at the Komische Oper” — where he was based until earlier this year — “was an amazing production of Fiddler. That’s what they’re bringing to the Lyric Opera.
“In Germany, the musical was presented in German; in Chicago, it will be in English. Barrie is absolutely determined to reinvestigate the great book that Joe Stein wrote. These characters are so deep, so real, so authentic.”
There are many differences between the two productions.
To begin with, the Chicago version will be much, much bigger in scale. There’s an ensemble of nearly 100 actors, singers, and musicians, “so ‘Sabbath Prayer’ will be supported by all those voices, and so will ‘Sunrise, Sunset,’” Mr. Skybell said. “I believe that they will be adding some more music to ‘Anatevka.’ I am so very excited about it.”
The house can seat 3,276 audience members.
The look won’t be entirely different, Mr. Skybell continued. “I think that in its own way, this production will be minimalistic visually, and as bare as it can be.” Of course, a bare stage looks different with 25 actors than with 125 on it.
“It will be much grander musically and scenically. I know that there will be a snowstorm. Those sorts of scenic elements are something that an opera company can do with greater ease.”
But the big challenge will be the language.
“I had to put the Yiddish into my muscle memory, because it’s not the language that I communicate in daily,” Mr. Skybell said. “I knew that as an actor, the slightest distraction, anything, a cellphone going off, could derail my Yiddish. So I really hammered it in.
“So now I am finding that my brain goes back to Yiddish.
“The real challenge for me will be when we are done with the English Fiddler, and a week later I start with the Yiddish one. I don’t dare prepare for the Yiddish one while I’m performing the English one.
“That would be a recipe for disaster.”
Mr. Skybell thought about the differences between the English and Yiddish Fiddlers.
“When I was first working on the Yiddish version, years ago, I realized that in some ways I prefer the Yiddish. When Tevye cites the Toyreh, it is so much more meaningful than the Good Book that he talks about in English. Does any Jew anywhere in the world say Good Book? But as I prepare for the English, I feel the depth of Yiddish coming back into the English for me. I am able to retain some of the quality of the Yiddish, even when it’s in English.”
In some ways, the two versions were aimed at different audiences. “The original creators were intent on making Fiddler as ecumenical as possible,” Mr. Skybell said. “The original ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ famously has only three words of Yiddish — mazal tov and l’chaim.” But remember when it was written, he added. “Whether that was a right decision or a wrong one, it was daring for them to make a Jewish musical in the first place.”
So, Mr. Skybell, what is the message of “Fiddler on the Roof,” in either language? In any language? The end is dark, but is there hope mixed in, or is that wishful thinking?
“That question keeps coming up,” he said. “I want to reinforce that the musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” in Yiddish and in English, is about the joyous troubles of a family, about getting daughters married, and about how love can be expressed in a family, as well as about global issues.
“Fiddler always was meant to have great entertainment value, as well as a great heart.” And it succeeds at that, he said.
He returned to the question of hope. “A Holocaust survivor came up to me and asked me if the musical is positive or not. Is it hopeful or not hopeful?
“In the final gesture, Tevye beckons the fiddler. The gesture says ‘Come along with us.’ What does the fiddler represent? Is it tradition or Jewishness or the shtetl life?
“I said I thought the gesture says ‘We will not abandon you. We will take you with us. To me, that is positive. The gentleman disagreed with me, and I take his point too.
“When I first saw Fiddler, as an adolescent, it seemed like a happy ending. Tevye is going to America. He could be my grandfather. But the truth is that he was forced out of his home. He has to leave people behind. He has to turn his back on the place that was his whole life.
“We can’t just gloss over that.
“But the thing that I love about the character of Tevye is that he just bounces back. The final thing he says is, ‘Come, children, let’s go.’
“That is the key. Just put one foot in front of the other. Keep your connection to God, to your spiritual life, and have your family with you.”
To learn more about the Yiddish-language “Fiddler on the Roof” presented by the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene, go to the company’s website. Learn more about the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production here.