Fiddler on the Roof is a ghost story. It’s set in a Russian-Jewish village that vanishes before our eyes — a village representing a way of life that vanished a century ago. Each time this tale of capital-T Tradition in crisis gets revived, places like the shtetl of Anatevka are hazier in our collective memory. Bartlett Sher’s lovely and poignant new production, starring Danny Burstein, now playing at the Broadway Theatre, stages this act of disappearance and in doing so brings the plight of Anatevka’s people closer to us.
Based on Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye and His Daughters, Fiddler follows struggling milkman Tevye, who just wants a rest from his hectoring wife, Golde (Jessica Hecht), and good matches for his daughters. Too bad the girls have marital plans of their own: a poor guy, a radical, even (gasp!) a non-Jew. What’s a papa to do?
That’s the thing: It doesn’t matter. Anti-Semitic violence will soon obliterate Anatevka faster than unconventional weddings possibly could. Lurking at the edges of Tevye’s world are the Constable (Karl Kenzler) and his henchmen: emissaries of the Czar, delivering warnings about the impending annihilation of every Jewish village around.
Burstein, in the role created by Zero Mostel, is an understated Tevye, if such a thing exists: lightly ironic, occasionally bashful, though still king of the one-liners, most of them lobbed directly at God: “It’s true that we are your chosen people, but once in a while, couldn’t you choose someone else?” He and Hecht deliver a gut-wrenching rendition of “Do You Love Me?” — the most endearing ode to forced marriage imaginable.
New choreography by Hofesh Shechter, inspired by Jerome Robbins’s original work, sets this production apart from its predecessors, too. You’ll recognize the hora and the iconic bottle dance, but Shechter, who belonged to Israel’s stellar Batsheva Dance Company before founding his own troupe, infuses the movement with an angular, expressionistic sensibility, stretching gestures or cutting them arrestingly short.
This surreal, elegiac quality pervades the world onstage. Sher, with designers Michael Yeargan (sets) and Donald Holder (lighting), puts Anatevka at a hazy, gray-blue storybook distance. Figures rise over the back edge of the stage or gracefully sink below it. Shtetl houses float between earth and sky — an homage to the Marc Chagall paintings that inspired the play’s title, as is the intermittently appearing Fiddler himself, an avatar of hopeless perseverance.
But even as Sher’s production pushes Anatevka farther away, he also pulls it, painfully, closer. The show begins with Burstein, in contemporary garb, stepping onto a bare stage, gazing at a worn “Anatevka” sign, and opening a book. As it ends, Anatevka’s people are scattering to Israel, Poland, America. Burstein re-enters in his modern-day parka. He closes the book, picks up Tevye’s cart, and begins to pull. He’s a descendant, back at the scene of the historical crime, stepping bodily into the past. He’s also all the refugees who are now, in 2015, fleeing the towns where their own traditions lie.
This particular move has been criticized as heavy-handed, a too-overt attempt to make Fiddler speak to the crises of our current age. But the gesture is faithful to the tale. There was never anything subtle about Fiddler to begin with — and there’s nothing wrong with remembering that our contemporary world has its own Anatevkas, crying out for redress.
Fiddler on the Roof
By Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock, and Sheldon Harnick