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Howard Sherman: I was ‘meshugeh’ to think I didn’t need to see Fiddler in Yiddish

Steven Skybell and Jennifer Babiak in Fiddler on the Roof (A Fidler Afn Dakh) at Stage 42 in New York. Photo: Matthew Murphy
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While it was preceded by Jerry Herman’s Milk and Honey by three years, Fiddler on the Roof is widely acknowledged as the first truly significant Broadway musical with a Jewish-themed story. And such a hit it was: while Milk and Honey played 543 performances, a very good run in the early 1960s, Fiddler was a smash, playing for 3,242 shows on Broadway, spawning national tours and international productions that continue to this day, and five Broadway revivals.

Though Jews had been writing Broadway musicals since the art form’s earliest days – with Irving Berlin and the Gershwin brothers among the early successes – it wasn’t until well after the Second World War that musicals about Jews were considered mainstream enough for the theatrical mass market.

The current Fiddler on the Roof revival in New York, which reopened last night a few blocks off of Times Square, is distinctive for being performed in Yiddish, the very language most characters in the story would have spoken – and the language in which the Sholem Aleichem stories upon which the musical is based were written. That this mainstreaming of a Yiddish production is happening a century after the heyday of Yiddish theatre in New York is rather remarkable.

Originally produced in 2018 by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan, A Fidler Afn Dakh is already a genuine hit, extended multiple times over six months before its move uptown. Now ensconced at the 499-seat Stage 42, this Fiddler is making a bid for an even wider audience.

While New York’s Orthodox Jewish community no doubt includes numerous Yiddish speakers, the show’s schedule includes Friday night and Saturday matinee performances, which are strictly off-limits to the devout. So the production must reach past Yiddish speakers and solely Jewish audiences, as so many past productions have done successfully.

That this mainstreaming of a Yiddish production is happening a century after the heyday of Yiddish theatre in New York is rather remarkable

Given that Fiddler has been in a hit in countless languages around the world, there is no reason why this foreign-language version of an American adaptation of old-world stories shouldn’t play to a range of patrons who can follow it via surtitles in English. Indeed, many non-Jews may not need any translation for some of the songs, such as now-standards including Sunrise, Sunset and If I Were a Rich Man.

After all, if US patrons at the Brooklyn Academy of Music could watch Ivo van Hove’s production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, written in English but performed in Dutch, why should a Fiddler translated into a culturally and historically authentic Yiddish pose any problem at all?

The company of Fiddler on the Roof (A Fidler Afn Dakh). Photo: Matthew Murphy

The authenticity imparted to a musical familiar for half a century argues for the benefit of seeing other shows either in their original language – or in the language appropriate to their setting. The US needs more Molière on its stages in general, and why not in French? What about more Chekhov in Russian? And what might Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures or Passion reveal to us in Japanese or Italian respectively?

The Yiddish Fiddler, in its largely archaic tongue, also serves to remind audiences of how this 50-year-old musical remains startlingly current, sad to say. With anti-Semitic incidents in New York having markedly increased in the first two months of 2019, the pogrom that ends the first act resonates much as it must have in the post-Holocaust 1960s, especially as director Joel Grey’s staging emphasises that it was more than just the disruption of one wedding. The forced displacement of the entire village that ends Act II has ever-present echoes in Europe and the US today.

Fiddler was the first adult theatre show I ever saw, at the age of seven. I played Motel the Tailor in an amdram production nine years later, and have seen the show many times since. I thought I needed another Fiddler – and one in a language in which I know few phrases – like a lokh in kop (a hole in the head). As it turns out, I was meshugeh – and you can look that up for yourselves.

Fiddler on the Roof review at Menier Chocolate Factory, London – ‘Trevor Nunn’s tight, trad revival

This week in US theatre

Co-produced with WP Theater, Hurricane Diane at New York Theatre Workshop is the story of the god Dionysus, taking human form to recruit followers among housewives in New Jersey. Madeleine George’s play opens Sunday under the direction of Leigh Silverman.

Boesman and Lena, Athol Fugard’s 1969 drama about two refugees in South Africa, gets a rare NYC revival from Off-Broadway’s Signature Theatre Company, in its ongoing exploration of Fugard’s plays, opening Monday under the direction of Yael Farber.

Marys Seacole is the latest work from Jackie Sibblies Drury, the author of We Are Proud to Present a Presentation… and Fairview, debuting Monday night at Lincoln Center’s LCT3 under the direction of Lileana Blain-Cruz. It’s the story of a Jamaican woman told across multiple times and places.

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is blended with a story set during the Blitz in the new musical Alice by Heart, inaugurating the new mainstage of MCC Theater Off-Broadway on Tuesday. With a book by Steven Sater and Jessie Nelson, and a score by Sater and Duncan Sheik, it’s the newest work from the duo that created the musical Spring Awakening. Nelson directs.

“Before we can save the world we have to save each other” reads the tagline promoting Superhero, the new musical by John Logan and Tom Kitt. Opening Thursday at Second Stage’s Off-Broadway venue, it’s directed by Jason Moore with a cast that includes Kate Baldwin and Bryce Pinkham.

Yael Farber: ‘Directing is asking people to run full speed into a wall with you’

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