Does “Fiddler” on Broadway Meddle with the Shtetl?

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Danny Burstein as Tevye. Photos by Joan Marcus.

In the 51 years since Fiddler on the Roof first opened on Broadway, the tale of Tevye — author Sholom Aleichem’s questioning Jewish dairyman grappling with a changing world from his far-flung Russian home — has repeatedly proved its universal appeal.

So popular is it that the musical — with book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and original staging and choreography by Jerome Robbins — has played around the world, been turned into a successful film, been the subject of Alisa Solomon’s 2013 assessment, Wonder of Wonders, and received Broadway revivals five times, with the latest now running at the Broadway Theatre.

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As directed by Bartlett Sher and choreographed by Hofesh Shechter, this return to Tevye (Danny Burstein) and his isolated, increasingly beleaguered Anatevka is perfectly respectful. It should more than satisfy those audiences familiar (or extremely familiar?) with it as well as audiences who’ve never seen it before.

The story remains the same, needless to say. Constantly goaded by his hard-working wife Golde (Jessica Hecht), and increasingly threatened by the encroaching politics of a repressive Russian government, the poor-wishing-he-could-be-rich Tevye has three more immediate concerns — sequentially, the three eldest of his five daughters. (Interesting how in The Rothschilds, the Bock-Harnick-Sherman Yellen tuner revived earlier this season Off-Broadway as Rothschild & Sons, Mayer Rothschild handles and hondles five sons. Oh, and speaking of threes, the Harnick-Bock-Joe Masteroff tuner She Loves Me is to be revived later this season on Broadway — giving Harnick, 91, a very good year.)

Burstein and Jessica Hecht.
Burstein and Jessica Hecht (and a framing device!)

Tevye’s immediate concerns are also giving him immediate tsoris. Tzeitel (Alexandra Silber) is in love with the tailor, Motel (Adam Cantor), and decidedly not with older, wealthier butcher Lazar Wolf (Adam Dannheisser), who the matchmaker, Yente (Alix Korey), is pushing. Worse, Hodel (Samantha Massell) is falling for political agitator Perchik (Ben Rappaport), whose agitations get him sent to Siberia. Worse still, Chava (Melanie Moore) gives her heart to Russian soldier Fyedka (Nick Rehberger) and marries out of the faith by which Tevye lives moment to moment.

As all this transpires — and a fiddler (Jesse Kovarsky) frequently appears to represent survival and hope in the face of destruction — the famous score unfolds. “Tradition,” ‘Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” “Wonder of Wonders,” “To Life” are all sung and danced, and when they are — especially as vigorously conducted by Ted Sperling, all’s right with the production. The sequence in which Tevye pretends to dream that Motel is the right husband for Tzeitel (and that Lazar Wolf isn’t) proves to be a high point.

But there are changes to the show, which is to say that Sher sure has fiddled. Maybe he thought a fifth revival couldn’t just stick to the standard Fiddler on the Roof, but he has introduced alterations that may or may not sit comfortably with the most ardent adherents of the show, although those alterations will probably not irritate newcomers who won’t know otherwise.

To begin with — this is at the very beginning — Donald Holder’s lights (which are busy-busy throughout) rise on an empty stage but for a downstage-right cap on a chair. (Consult the opening of the musical Chicago for a similar look). Burstein stands there alone, but he is not yet Tevye. He wears a red raincoat and holds a book. He reads the first lines of an Aleichem tale about Tevye, and only then does he move towards the chair. He takes off the raincoat to reveal the outfit Catherine Zuber has designed for his character, puts on the cap, and, with raised arms and a strong shake of his shoulders, becomes the dominant, focal character. And at the end? It’s not a spoiler to report that the reverse takes place, and it leaves one to wonder if this framing device is a helpful addition, an unnecessary distraction or not particularly interesting one way or the other.

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The more radical changes are with the iconic choreographic contributions by Jerome Robbins. Few people familiar with Fiddler‘s history don’t know that Robbins directed and choreographed the original version. He’s always credited and in the program for this revival he’s prominent enough to receive a new credit: “Inspired by the work of Jerome Robbins.”

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But — and this is a big “but” — Shechter, the choreographer of this revival, has energetically veered away from much of Robbins’s routines. For those worried that he may have dispensed with the famous bottles-on-hats steps, worry not: he tributes the sequence. But otherwise, his dances are exceedingly, noticeably muscular. They’re undeniably exciting, too, but they do run the risk of seeming repetitious, which Robbins’ work never did.

Then there’s the absence of the influence of Marc Chagall. Earlier treatments of Fiddler certainly took their visual cue from the Chagall-ian fiddler-on-the-roof image as well as the Chagall lovers floating in the air, often representing his wife Bella and himself. Set designer Michael Yeargan suspends groups of huts, but this is a darker Fiddler on the Roof, and not without reason. It’s also one in which Tevye isn’t the only character hauling props — in his case the milk cart that often makes him seem like a Brechtian Father Courage. Many other characters are assigned to push and pull things, like the trees that nicely indicate changes of season.

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To say an impressive Tevye is crucial to any Fiddler is like saying that water must be wet. Burstein’s greatest gifts in any role are his warmth and his conviction, and for the last several years, he’s enhanced production after production in showy supporting roles, picking up five Tony nominations along the way. Well here, at last, he’s gone to the head of the class. He hits all the right notes, vocal and figurative. Only a curmudgeon would ask for more (perhaps a curmudgeon who recalls Zero Mostel’s towering Tevye back in 1964).

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Bursting also fronts a cast in which every member is up to the task. For Hecht especially — this is her eighth Broadway role — Golde is a notable change of pace. As directed by Sher, she certainly makes Tevye’s wife a tough Jewish cookie, maybe too tough, but when she gets to the poignant song “Do You Love Me?,” she’s tops. Silber, Massell, Moore, Dannheisser, Korey, Kantor, Rappaport and Rehberger all assume their roles with skill.

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One of the most intriguing aspects of any artwork is its ability to seem of the moment in whatever moment it’s on view. When Tevye and the expelled citizens of Anatevka leave their longtime home, Sher and Shechter stage a tableau that instantly conjures the refugees from the Syrian conflict now treading across Europe. If only for this reason, this Fiddler is forever.