NEW YORK – “Fiddler on the Roof,” is back at the Broadway Theater on Broadway and 53rd Street.
At the ripe age of 52, it is still a superior musical. The original “Fiddler” debuted in 1964 and ran for 3,242 performances, and in 1972, while at the Broadway Theater, it became that era’s longest-running show.
There have been five revivals of “Fiddler,” and this incarnation by director Bartlett Sher is an evocative production of “Fiddler on the Roof” for our times. He has put together a large, talented ensemble cast that delivers Joseph Stein’s fine retelling of Sholom Aleichem’s humorous stories with lovely, familiar songs by Jerry Bock and appropriately zesty lyrics by Sheldon Harnick.
There is a full cycle of dances by Hofesh Schechter, some new, some inspired by the show’s original director-choreographer, Jerome Robbins.
There are no stars in Mr. Sher’s production. No larger-than-life behemoth performances like Zero Mostel gave when he first played Tevye in the original production, or (Chaim) Topol, who played the role in the 1971 movie version.
Here, we have Danny Burstein as the milkman Tevye, who is an expert musical actor, but not a star. Mr. Sher takes this fact into consideration by presenting Mr. Burstein in the musical’s first scene not as Tevye, but rather with an “everyman” approach: he is an American tourist alone on stage wearing a red parka, on a visit to the Russian village of Anatevka.
He begins reading Sholom Aleichem’s book about the town: “A fiddler on the roof sounds crazy, no? But in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple time without breaking his neck. How do we keep our balance? That, I can tell you, in a word – tradition!” Mr. Burstein takes off his parka and he suddenly becomes Tevye, the milkman, as the stage fills with all the ordinary citizens of Anatevka singing the musical’s opening number named, of course, “Tradition!”
One of the special things about this musical is that you don’t watch “Fiddler on the Roof” as a spectator. You become a participant. You are drawn into it, thanks mainly to Mr. Stein’s carefully crafted book. You live intently with Tevye and the citizens of Mr. Aleichem’s tiny Russian village. It’s a bustling place, full of life, gossip and little and big sorrows.
Like all of his neighbors, Tevye is bound by traditions that are not, in 1905 Russia, likely to disappear. But Tevye’s daughters (three are of marriageable age) and their suitors force him to face the new times, the new needs, with good humor and eventually love.
Tevye gets little help in solving the dilemma that any man with five daughters and no son is likely to have. Tevye does get assistance from God, or at any rate, he consults God. Nobody has ever complained to a friend in heaven at the top of his voice. He shouts up to the sky about his poverty, “I realize it’s no shame to be poor, but it’s no honor, either.” The inference is obvious. God had better do something about it.
His wife Golde (Jessica Hecht) has a sharp tongue, but she is prudent and reasonable. When Golde appears during one of his heavenly colloquies, Tevye has to break it off. But he hasn’t finished, and he lets the Lord know “I’ll talk to you later.”
As Tevye, Mr. Burstein carries on the dialogues between earth and heaven with a mixture of respect and rebellion, with enormous warmth and humor. He and God are on familiar terms, and any theologian watching “Fiddler on the Roof” would surely be persuaded that they are both privately proud of their friendship.
Tevye doesn’t always consult the Lord in crisis. When three of his daughters, one after another, reject his commands and insist on marrying men they love, he falls back to the word “tradition,” which the musical is all about.
Things are changing in Anatevka; when his oldest daughter Tzeitel (Alexandra Silber) marries a local tailor, Motel (Adam Kantor), the police infiltrate the wedding and break up the celebration, threatening the revelers, ultimately ordering all of the village citizens to sell their homes and get out of town.
Mr. Sher has recently helmed new versions of such American musical classics as “South Pacific” and “The King and I.” Here, he uses the same set and costume designers and though both are talented artists, they seem to have a conventional approach to the material. I missed the originals: the colorful Chagal-fantasy approach of Boris Aronson’s Anatevka settings and Patricia Zipprodt’s vibrant take on Russian peasant clothes of the period.
What is most touching about Mr. Sher’s production is the immediacy he brings to “Fiddler.” In its last scene, when Tevya and Golde are off to America with their two unmarried daughters, following their neighbors who are also leaving Anatevka, it recalls last fall’s images of the miles of Syrians swarming through the roads of Europe, all searching for a new home. The emotion of that scene had an electric effect on the audience the evening I saw the show. You could feel the welling of their reaction rolling out over the theatergoers in attendance.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.