It isn’t a Jewish problem, actually. What’s wrong with the new revival of Fiddler on the Roof is that it feels so un-American. Certainly, Fiddler‘s a Jewish work, derived from a European Jewish folk tradition, but it’s distinctively American Jewish in tone. The musical in general is a peculiarly American form, born from the impact of successive waves of immigrants on a constantly evolving urban culture: English, German Jews, Irish, Russian Jews, African Americans (migrating north to escape Jim Crow), Italians, Latin Americans. Every arriving ethnic group has had its effect on the musical’s tone: East European names (Molaskey, Dokuchitz, Ashmanskas) have lately been turning up on Broadway cast lists, and we can expect Haiti, Central Africa, and the Indian subcontinent to make their presence felt in due course. That’s American culture.
The concept of ongoing change through an influx of immigrants is doubly relevant to Fiddler, which not only grew out of this phenomenon but takes it as subject matter: Tevye the dairyman and his five daughters are the family that bridges the gap from the shtetl to the city, from the pre-modern to the industrial age (the family’s new baby is Motel’s sewing machine), and from the Old World to the New. This transition is fraught with pain and terror—not least the terror of wondering whether the tradition that sustains the family can survive such a barrage of changes. As a work, Fiddler reaffirms the survival, not of the literal tradition, but of its spirit: Jews watching it are by definition no longer shtetl Jews, blindly religious and helpless to fight czarist edicts, but active members of a melting-pot democracy, looking back on the path they traveled to say, “Something of this still lives in us.” Though the specifics are Russian Jewish, such feelings are universal: However different in detail, all folk cultures are the same in essence; all immigrant groups have traveled, to some degree, the same agonizing road.
This makes the survival of Fiddler‘s own tradition in the theater a question of spirit, not letter. Following the rules laid down by Jerome Robbins’s original staging and Boris Aronson’s scene plot, as previous revivals have done, was at least a handy mnemonic device; it produced a skeletal structure that could be filled with spirit, if the spirit were present. (It was at a fairly low ebb in the last, Weissler-produced, Broadway revival.) But there was and remains nothing—even granting the Robbins estate its copyright prerogatives—to prevent a production from finding new ways to animate Fiddler‘s spirit. Unhappily, what director David Leveaux and his design team seem to have striven for instead is to drain that spirit away: The new Fiddler takes place in an abstract techno-placelessness that couldn’t be anyone’s home village; you could stage a Guatemalan or Korean folk musical on it with equal lack of effect. The prop trees that dot the largely bare stage, with the orchestra visible beyond them, suggest nothing more than an outdoor band concert at a perpetually autumnal shopping mall, backed by dark wall pieces that grudgingly slide open, now and then, to reveal a bright yellow backcloth, as if sunlight were rationed in Russia. Tevye’s house has a semi-abstract roof, but no walls, much less any sense that people might live and work here: This is not a small failing in a musical whose heartbreaking last song is a list of the trivial objects and scraps of memory that people driven from their homes cling to uncomprehendingly.
What’s missing from the place is also largely absent from the performances. This likewise isn’t a matter of ethnicity. (The original cast was full of non-Jews; the current Perchik, Robert Petkoff, seems considerably more Jewish than Bert Convy ever did.) Here again Leveaux has obtruded an approach that it would be unfair to call British (though the antiseptic relations between Tevye and Golde suggest the couple in The Retreat From Moscow more than any shtetl marriage). Say rather that it comes from a current tendency in European directing, one that’s both irrelevant to the American musical and, in my view, inimical to the theater itself. This consists of downgrading or defusing all positive emotions, on grounds of sentimentality, while minimizing negative expressions to avoid melodrama. The results aren’t so much “dark,” to use the current catchword, as they are a dull gray.
With a pogrom for a first-act curtain, and a forced emigration that adumbrates the Holocaust for a finale, Fiddler didn’t need darkening in any case. What it needed was the theatricality—which Robbins had in abundance—that is the onstage expression of every group’s spirit. Leveaux eschews surprise; his pogrom staging is muddled and unfrightening, just as his version of Fruma Sarah’s entrance in the dream is wearily predictable. He tries in that sequence to put literalized images from Chagall’s paintings onstage, which only emphasizes the literal-minded, un-Chagallian feeling of the rest; he hasn’t realized that, in the world of Fiddler, Chagall is a naturalistic painter. Tevye, with his humor, his obduracy, and his delight in his own cunning, is a folk hero; the curt, downtrodden fellow played by Alfred Molina is a keypunch operator home from a hard day at the plant. It may be a truth of American history that some of Tevye’s daughters’ grandchildren grew up to be keypunch operators, but that isn’t what they go to the theater to celebrate. And it’s not what Fiddler on the Roof is about.