Fiddling With Fiddler

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

In his current musical, Caroline, or Change, set in Louisiana in 1963, Tony Kushner also tracks Jewish desire for merging ethnic tradition with principles of American democracy: The Gellman family's chirpy Hanukkah song morphs right into "America the Beautiful." A fan of Fiddler, Kushner sees it addressing the anxieties of second- and third- generation immigrants who were laboring to put distance between themselves and the poverty they came from, at the same time as they were beginning unapologetically to claim a particular identity in the American context. "It's Jewish dialectics," he says with a shrug. "The dramatic gesture of the show is that there are two sides to every question."

Critics charged, however, that by Americanizing Tevye, Fiddler delivered an ersatz Jewish experience. In a famously furious 1964 review in Commentary, Irving Howe railed, "American Jews suffer these days from a feeling of guilt because they have lost touch with the past from which they derive, and often compound this guilt by indulging themselves in unearned nostalgia. The less, for example, they know about Eastern European Jewish life or even the immigrant Jewish experience in America, the more inclined they are to celebrate it."

That inclination may be even greater today, when many more American Jews know the words to Fiddler's curtain-raiser, "Tradition," than know the prayers and practices that once constituted that tradition. Indeed, for the longest time, Fiddler was the obligatory reference point for any image of Yiddishkayt. Lorin Sklamberg, the lead singer of the rocking roots band the Klezmatics, remembers "living in dread that someone would ask me to sing 'Sunrise, Sunset.' "

But in what turns out to be its most dialectical gesture of all, Fiddler also made it possible for Jewish artists—and others—to stake out more complicated and edgy depictions. Playwright Donald Margulies, whose works often address the sticky underside of comfortable Jewish American life, has recently adapted Sholem Asch's once censored God of Vengeance, recuperating its underworld of Jewish pimps, petty crooks, and prostitutes. The Klezmatics draw huge audiences for music tripping out into modal territory that Fiddler's score could only hint at. "A Yid-oid work like Fiddler held open a space that allowed waves of new Yiddish culture to happen later," says experimental-theater maker Jenny Romaine.

Nowadays, "If I Were a Rich Man" is sampled into hip-hop tunes, and a block away from the Minskoff, The Producers blows a raspberry to Fiddler. As the chorus vine-steps across the stage and violins saw away, Nathan Lane as Max Bialystock throws his arms toward the heavens, tilts his head back, and jiggles his belly. He then shoves away the image of Tevye (and of Zero Mostel, who also originated the role of Bialystock in Mel Brooks's 1968 film) with a get-outta-here wave of his hand. Of course the gag also pays homage. You can't kick up a goose-stepping can-can to "Springtime for Hitler" without first bidding a tuneful farewell to "underfed, overworked Anatevka."

The makers of Fiddler understood this principle when they pulled a song from the show during out-of-town tryouts in 1964 because it made the audience uneasy, as Harnick recounts on a "bonus track" of a recent release of the original cast recording. The wry and pointed song—whose sensibility seems closer to Kushner's or Romaine's than to Fiddler's—imagines what will happen when the messiah finally arrives. One verse goes, "When messiah comes he will say to us, I was worried sick if you'd last or not. And I spoke to God and said, Would that be fair, if messiah came and there was no one there?"

Forty years after Fiddler first brought an image of the annihilated world of Yiddishkayt onto the popular stage, such a mordantly comic question is no longer taboo. So why is there still no room for it?

Leveaux insists that the song doesn't fit "for purely structural reasons," but there's another explanation: The cultural work that Fiddler might perform today cannot accommodate such irony if it is going to recall us to a gentler and more generous image of ourselves. The Jewish oppression that Fiddler dared to represent in 1964—just when the civil rights movement was showing its muscle—connected Jews sympathetically to the struggle of African Americans. Too often today, invocations of Jewish suffering are insular, used to justify aggression—just ask Prime Minister Meir in Golda's Balcony, who blusters self-righteously for 90 minutes every night up the street from The Producers.

I like to think that the nostalgia Fiddler stirs up today is more salutary—speaking to Jewish yearning for the more liberal and expansive ethos that once defined us. Leveaux says he doesn't mind if the audience sings along. I, for one, fully expect to. And to have a good cry.

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