I’ve had Fiddler on the Roof on my mind quite a bit lately. This will come as no surprise to those of you who know I’m currently in the chorus of a community production of this renowned musical at Charlotte’s JCC. (By the way, Limited tickets are still available for this weekend, Dec. 14 & 15!) What fun it’s been performing again (after a long hiatus) and witnessing the depth of talent in our community – people who perform on stage with passion and conviction– while doing something entirely different from their daily, working lives. In between reviewing lyrics and dance steps, I’ve often found myself reflecting on the significance of this show.
There is something special about this story that, at first glance, may seem so specific that it could only speak to a very narrow segment of the population. But in fact, its specificity in describing the changes that take place to Tevye the milkman’s family, devout Jews living at the turn of the 20th century (i.e., around 1905) in a tiny, fictional shtetl in Imperial Russia, easily lends itself to exploring broader lessons about human nature.
I’ve long loved the music from this show, with songs that so perfectly evoke the melodies of the Jewish people that they have practically become ubiquitous at contemporary Jewish celebrations. The music has a familiarity that makes it sound totally authentic and appropriate, even with its relatively new origins (50 years is a blink of the eye in the scheme of Jewish history!)
Years ago, I attended a Jewish wedding in Brazil and the band started playing “Sunrise, Sunset” to the crowd’s delight (“Is this the little girl I carried, is this the little boy at play? I don’t remember growing older, when did they?”) While amusing to hear a Brazilian group performing it, the selection didn’t shock because this show has become such a part of Jewish popular culture.
But even in non-Jewish circles, the music and lyrics, transcend. My French, Catholic mother-in-law knows the words well to “Si j’étais riche,” the French version of “If I were a Rich Man,” Tevye’s fantasy about how wonderful life would be if he had money. The song made Ivan Rebroff (who played the role of Tevye in the Parisian production of Un Violon sur le Toit) a celebrity in France, and, subsequently was adapted by other singers, notably several women. Here’s Dalida, the Egyptian-born superstar of the ’60s, singing a slightly feminized : “Si j’avais des millions” (“If I had millions”).
In college, my favorite research paper (Geek alert! Does anybody else have a “favorite” research paper?) explored the stories of Shalom Aleichem, several of which were the inspiration for Fiddler on the Roof, and compared them to historical record. I wanted to know if the sometimes amusing, sometimes heartrending tales of Aleichem were based in fact. Indeed, according to my findings, they were. It was exciting to see how a fiction writer could capture the essence of his time and see beyond the everyday–distilling it for the benefit of future generations.
For me, the best musicals take such words, sketches of characters, and situations and breathe life into them. Somehow, the musical genre effectively captures what words alone cannot do. When the music and lyrics meld perfectly together, they add another dimension to storytelling. Add to this dance and costumes, and the characters come alive. The brilliance of the musical theatre genre, of course, is that it combines words, music, and dance to give us something greater than the sum of its parts.
There are some, of course, who don’t see or are unwilling to accept the power of musical theatre to tell a story. These are the people who sooner or later say, “Listen, I just don’t buy that people sing and dance while they walk down the street.”
To them, I say: You are fools. I know plenty of people that sing and dance their way through life!
Even if you don’t personally know one of these musically-inclined people, open yourself up enough to think of it as a form of expression – like a painting, a ballet, a rock song or a film. If you suspend your disbelief, you can be emotionally touched in ways that you knew not were possible. Fiddler on the Roof is an exceptional piece of theatre, weaving a storyline that is engaging, personal, full of joy and sorrow.
My husband remarked the other day that he believes it captures the struggle of dealing with change better than any other show he’s ever seen. Indeed it strikes a very strong chord in this regard and should be considered among the best works of musical theatre precisely for this reason. While great musicals often explore the difficulties of confronting change as disparate cultures or customs clash, Fiddler does it exceptionally well.
Over the course of the show, we see Tevye’s transformation from a man steeped in “Tradition” to one who can accept some, if not all, modern change. By following the trajectories of his three oldest daughters, we see how Tevye’s world is changing, and even crumbling, around him: daughters breaking with centuries of tradition, choosing the men they will marry, rejecting long held customs and beliefs, and confronting the “outside” world. In the end, the fact that Tevye cannot change his ways or prejudices entirely is logical and realistic.
“How can I turn my back on my faith, my people?” he asks himself. “If I try and bend that far, I’ll break.” It falls to his children and children’s children to do what he cannot do. This tension between the generations is real and we see it and hear of it everyday, if we pay attention.
Think of today’s headlines: the passing of Nelson Mandela, who spent his life trying to change the minds and hearts of his countrymen; the overwhelming differences of public opinion among younger and older generations regarding same-sex marriage; students rioting against military rule in Egypt; North Korea’s Kim Jong Un executing his uncle; civil war in Syria; anti-government protests in the Ukraine; and the list goes on. Life is all about generational change – often for better and sometimes for worse.
One more thing. Even while speaking of the broad relevance of this show, I must admit that it was a recent personal discovery that has affected me most of all. In the midst of his regular route knocking various books and documents off a bookcase, my one-year old son unshelved a forgotten manila envelope with a family history enclosed. It included a copy of notes from my grandfather’s cousin describing life in Latvia in the early 1900s:
“…One winter, news came from the government that we had to leave Alt-Oytz within twenty-four hours…. A big captain and other policeman came in looking for people without a permit and wanted to know why my father was there. You were allowed to be in Korlandia for twenty-four hours as a visitor, and my father told them he came for the market on Tuesday and was leaving on Wednesday. They took him to the police station anyway. My aunt ran to the rabbi to complain, and, after much negotiation, the police let him go with orders to leave town immediately…”
Another page of family genealogy, compiled by a distant cousin describes my great-grandfather’s sister:
“The Rothauses had arranged a marriage for Celia, but she insisted on marrying a soldier, Joseph Klein. (Joseph had deserted from the Czar’s army.) My mother, Johanna, Celia’s first born, said that when the Czar’s soldiers rode in to terrorize the people, Celia would hide with her in the basement and sing a Yiddish song, ‘Raisins and Almonds,’ very softly, to keep her quiet so they wouldn’t be discovered.”
I can almost hear the plaintive notes of a violin spiraling down from a rooftop, a lot closer to home than I ever imagined.
Fiddler on the Roof, book by Joseph Stein, based on the stories of Shalom Aleichem; music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick.