New-ish, But Still Jew-ish: Fiddler Breaks Tradition

Concerning the controversy over whether David Leveaux’s revival of Fiddler on the Roof at the Minskoff Theatre is Jewish enough, may I ask everyone to remain calm while we remind ourselves of the most important thing:

Tradition, tradition …. Tradition!

Tradition, tradition …. Tradition!

Who day and night

Must scramble for a living

Feed a wife and children

Say his daily prayers?

The papa, the papa …. Tradition!

The papa, the papa …. Tradition!

The family battle in the musical itself is, of course, between Papa-otherwise known as the warm-hearted traditionalist Tevye, who must surely be the most famous Jewish milkman in the world-and his three pretty, modernist daughters. I imagine that, by now, more or less everyone knows Fiddler backwards. “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 …. You may ask, why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous? We stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in a word …. Tradition .”

Enough with the tradition already! On the other hand, if you’re a Jew of a certain age-from before, say, bar mitzvahs served sushi-you’ll probably be able to recite by heart “Sunrise, Sunset,” Fiddler ‘s beloved song for every haimeshe bar mitzvah and wedding:

Sunrise, sunset

Sunrise, sunset

Swiftly fly the years

One season following another

Laden with happiness and tears .

Say what you like about Tevye and his nag of a wife, Golde, but they like a good cry.

Then again, a pogrom happens in Fiddler , forcing Tevye and his family to flee Anatevka. As Tevye puts it in one of his comfortingly kitschy dialogues with God, “I know we’re the chosen people, but once in a while could you choose someone else?”

It’s hokum, isn’t it? Sweet, folksy hokum. Tevye’s fortune-cookie wisdom belongs to pure showbiz sentiment-and how could it be otherwise? We’re on Broadway! It’s a show ! How else, I ask you, could a pogrom take place in a musical?

When the Russian tormentors wreck the wedding of Tevye’s lovely daughter to the nebbishy tailor, their leader, known as the Constable, apologizes for it. “I am genuinely sorry,” he tells Tevye. “You understand?” Even when he orders Tevye off his land, he apologizes for it! “I have nothing to do with it, don’t you understand?”

Was ever a pogrom so mild and even hopeful? (Tevye leaves Anatevka for the Promised Land of America.) But were ever Nazis as nice as the ones in The Sound of Music ? Nothing has ever been particularly authentic in Fiddler , including its showbiz shtetl -“the cutest shtetl we’ve never had,” as Irving Howe wrote disapprovingly of the musical when it first opened to acclaim in 1964. (But Howe was virtually alone.)

A year or two before Fiddler opened, another hit show on Broadway, the British satire Beyond the Fringe , had the young Jonathan Miller parodying Jews. Dr. Miller-who’s currently in town directing King Lear -was the only Jew among the show’s gifted quartet, all of whom had just graduated from Oxford and Cambridge. (The others were Alan Bennett, Dudley Moore and Peter Cook.) “I’d rather be working-class than a Jew,” announced Alan Bennett.

“Good Lord, yes-there’s no comparison, is there?” said Dudley Moore.

“In fact,” Mr. Miller replied, and his response became famous, “I’m not really a Jew. I’m Jew- ish …. “

That’s Fiddler on the Roof . It isn’t the real thing. It’s Jew- ish . It seems to me that every Jew in the show is a glorious showbiz cliché, including its parodiable “wise” old rebbe. Irving Howe believed its popularity among American Jews was a case of “unearned nostalgia” for a Jewish past they had forgotten. But as musicals go, it also happens to be a pretty good musical! And it’s the last that Jerome Robbins-greatest of them all-choreographed and directed for Broadway.

True, one more rousing rendition of “If I Were a Rich Man” and I might shoot myself. But whatever its showbiz schmaltz, Fiddler has achieved such folkloric appeal in the last 40 years that to mess with it in any way is to tamper with a holy text. In her recent Talmudic discussion about Jewish culture and Fiddler in The Village Voice , Alisa Solomon wrote with amusing irreverence about the show’s place in ancient Scripture:

“Nowadays lesbians get married under the chupah, boys talk baseball at their bar mitzvahs, and Passover Seders proclaim the rights of Palestinians. But one Jewish text has remained resistant to renovation, with strict prohibitions against any alterations … Call it the 11th Commandment: Don’t fuck with Fiddler .”

True! (as the current uproar proves). Yet the criticism that Tevye is played by a non-Jew, Alfred Molina, leaves me incredulous. I don’t remember any fuss when Antonio Banderas, a Spaniard, played Guido, an Italian, in Nine . Actors act , and Mr. Molina is a very fine actor. He isn’t Zero Mostel or Topol; nor is he trying to be. But where is it written that only a Jew can play a Jew? If that were the case, Laurence Olivier, the son of a priest, wouldn’t have given us his memorable Shylock, and Nathan Lane, a Catholic, wouldn’t have been able to play Max Bialystock.

“The sensation is as if you’re sampling something that tastes great and looks Jewish but isn’t entirely kosher,” wrote Thane Rosenbaum about Fiddler , sparking the entire controversy in the Los Angeles Times . Now forgive me, but what kind of name is Thane for a nice Jewish boy?

No relation to Thane of Cawdor, I trust. And who would our self-appointed supervisor of the laws of kashrut , Thane Rosenbaum, prefer to see as Tevye-Jackie Mason?

Apparently, the Fiddler revival doesn’t seem Jewish enough to some. It never was Jewish enough, but let that pass. On my desk is a photograph of my grandfather, who came to England from Eastern Poland at the turn of the century. To my delight, Grandpa Motl is dressed as he always dressed: formally, in a winged collar and pinstripe suit with spats, and he’s carrying a gold-topped cane. I loved that man. He looks like a typical Edwardian gentleman who just might be a stage-door Johnny. (The spats and cane!) In fact, he was a devout Jew who spoke Hebrew and Yiddish, kept a strictly kosher home and prayed three times a day at the synagogue all his life. I don’t think Grandpa Motl would have cared too much for the fakery of Fiddler , though he was known for his remarkable tolerance. He tolerated me.

But if you’re going to revive Fiddler for what seems like the hundredth time, you either stage it as a museum piece to pander to the traditionalists, or you upset the milk cart by trying to breathe new life into it, as Mr. Leveaux has boldly done here. There’s only so much he can do with a beloved war-horse, however. Mr. Leveaux-the distinguished British director of Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter, as well as of the recent Nine and a particularly memorable production of Electra a few seasons ago-has honestly re-investigated the sacred Fiddler text and made it, if not new, new -ish.

The set, for one pure, beautifully lit thing, banishes the Chagall-inspired clichés of the original production to free the stage and create its own fairy-tale convention. Placing the orchestra onstage shocks us at first, but it has a cooling effect that also breaks with the past and takes us into unexpected territory. Some were scandalized when Peter Brook’s production of Carmen put the orchestra onstage, too. But like Fiddler , the device shakes up our comfortable expectations, bringing fresh eyes to a battered old classic.

Mr. Leveaux and his creative team aren’t nuts, however. They’ve re-created most of Jerome Robbins’ fantastic choreography (except for the “Matchmaker” scene). We can’t have a Fiddler without the bottle dance during the wedding, and we don’t. There are times when the new production is almost too refined and pretty, as if it needs roughing up a bit to let fly. But I think Mr. Molina and company do very well, thank you. The point is, you might find yourself pleasantly surprised by this sacrilegious Fiddler , which will be the first time anyone’s been surprised by it in 40 years.