Fiddling With Fiddler

Can the Broadway Revival of Everyone's Favorite Jewish Musical Ignore Today's Radically Different Cultural Context?

For thousands of years, Judaism has remained constant in its adaptability, as Talmudic disputatiousness and contemporary needs have urged multiple reinterpretations of ancient scripture. Nowadays lesbians get married under the chuppah, 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 to the practice it originally laid out. Call it the 11th commandment: Don't fuck with Fiddler.

Since Fiddler on the Roof's blockbuster debut in 1964, subsequent stagings have been guided in every detail by a famous production book—commonly referred to as its "bible." For the revival starring Alfred Molina that begins previews at the Minskoff this week, at least some of the show's sacred precepts have been tossed aside. The director, David Leveaux—whose Bosnia-inflected Electra came from London to Broadway in 1998 and whose frothy version of Tom Stoppard's Jumpers may arrive later this year—is keeping his plans close to the vest. All he would reveal in a recent interview is that he's maintaining Jerome Robbins's original choreography but changing some staging. Fiddler was one of the first musicals to use a turntable, but that is hardly revolutionary anymore. "We are responding to a different theatrical language now," Leveaux explains. "We can be more evocative rather than representational." Still, he promises that the audience will feel "their Fiddler is taken care of."

But no matter how faithful Leveaux stays, his production can't help taking on radically new meanings. "So much has changed since Fiddler responded to issues at stake in the American Jewish community in the '60s," says Jeffrey Shandler, a professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers. "Ours is a post-Seinfeld era. We've got much more complex and forthright statements about Jewishness in popular art that might make Fiddler look quaint. But this is also a provocative moment to bring the show back in terms of what is going on politically."

The primary audience to whom Fiddler originally spoke—American Jews in the throes of upward mobility and dispersion from concentrated urban communities into the goyish suburbs—no longer needs to stake a claim to an ethnic past nor be assured of being fully American. The grandchildren of Tevye no longer dream of becoming rich men (and women) in "a big tall house with rooms by the dozen." In vast numbers, they're there. And more and more of them are voting Republican. A few even have a hand in shaping Bush's bellicose foreign policy.

Fiddler evokes pogroms in which Jews were taunted, humiliated, and dispossessed of their lands by state authorities. But the image of Jewish powerlessness represented—even celebrated—in Fiddler was turned on its head only three years after the musical's debut, when Israel captured the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and other territories. "Until the Six Day War," says Shandler, "it was Fiddler that was the source of public Jewish American pride." In the contemporary context, Tevye's tenderness, comically puffed-up patriarchalism, and clash with modernity take on a new kind of nostalgic appeal: Fiddler works to remind Jews of our bygone innocence.

The impact of the world created by Joseph Stein (book), Jerry Bock (music), and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) on America's sense of Jewish history can hardly be exaggerated. As Shandler puts it, Fiddler "offered everybody—Jewish or not—the zeyde (grandfather) they'd like to think they would have had." Never mind that Anatevka, the show's fictional shtetl, has more in common with Brigadoon than with any real Jewish community in the Pale of Settlement at the turn of the 20th century. Or that a sizable minority of American Jews comes from Sephardic and Arabic cultures, where Yiddish is as foreign as Chinese. In the popular American imagination, Fiddler defines the mythic Jewish past.

Jews had long been visible on the Broadway stage—from the hugely popular intermarriage comedy Abie's Irish Rose and all its imitators in the 1920s to The Diary of Anne Frank in 1955 and the cheery Zionist musical Milk and Honey in 1961. On television, the J-word thrived as early as 1949, as The Goldbergs crossed over from radio to become one of network TV's first sitcoms.

But the Y-word was something else. Images of Eastern European Jewry flourished exclusively in the Yiddish-language theaters popular with the immigrant generation; on the Great White Way, Jews had to be white, not green. Responding to a dawning post-Holocaust consciousness, Fiddler was the first big work of popular culture to call forth the Old Country with affection, evoking the richness of a vanished world.

It succeeded, writes the Yiddish literary scholar Seth Wolitz, because it was able to "fill the needs of Jewish cultural adaptation." Imposing enormous changes on the plot and tone of the Sholem Aleichem stories on which it was based, Fiddler made what Wolitz calls "a gigantic substitution": American ideals of individual rights, progress, and freedom of association were presented as also Jewish—except that in Anatevka they were thwarted by oppression. In the golden land of America—where, contrary to Sholem Aleichem, Tevye is heading at the play's close—these Jewish values would at last find full expression. Thus the show can end on the tragic note of dispossession and still feel hopeful.

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