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VICTOR WISHNA » Blog Archive » Letter From New York: Breaking Tradition

Letter From New York: Breaking Tradition

By the time Broadway’s latest revival of Fiddler on the Roof opened on February 26, the “trouble” had already started. In a Los Angeles Times essay, author Thane Rosenbaum had proclaimed “an absence of Jewish soul” in the new production, which stars Alfred Molina, the talented British actor of Spanish-Italian heritage, as Tevye. “The sensation is as if you’re sampling something that tastes great and looks Jewish but isn’t entirely kosher,” he wrote. The line was reprinted and amplified by New York Post columnist Michael Riedel, who started a war of words with the show’s director, Tony-winner David Leveaux, culminating in an opening-night scuffle that left Riedel on the floor.

Sounds crazy, no?

But here in our little village of New York - and particularly in the tiny, often overlapping worlds of the theatre and Jewish communities - the smallest suggestion can set off a wave of controversy. When the reviews came out the next day, every critic weighed in on the production’s Jewishness, or explicitly refused to. Most agreed with Rosenbaum’s original, non-expert opinion. “Should the entertainment entrepreneurs of Branson, Mo., ever come up with a pavilion called Shtetl Land, this is what it would be like,” wrote Ben Brantley in the New York Times. The reviews were followed by approximately 478 more commentaries and essays and - even before I realized I would be writing #479 - I had to see what the fuss was all about. Nu, how bad could it be?

After being weaned on a diet of high-school and theatre-in-the-park productions, I was excited to see my first professional Fiddler, with skilled actors and dancers talented enough to pull off Jerome Robbins’ convulsive choreography. In that respect I wasn’t disappointed (it sure looked like they were balancing those bottles on their heads - I didn’t see any Velcro). And the technological aspects were terrific (”Tevye’s Dream” looked more like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”). The music, technically speaking, was perfect. The cast was enthusiastic. Molina certainly seemed like he was trying.

But something was missing. And as I sat lamely through “Tradition” - one of musical theatre’s most rousing opening numbers - with no urge to sing along or snap my fingers, I tried to figure out what it was. When “Matchmaker” fell flat, too, I started to consider…a lack of Jewish soul? But how? Maybe it was the acoustics.

“‘If I Were a Rich Man’ was just a song,” commented a friend who had felt similar discomfort. “Kind of sad, isn’t it? It didn’t even register with the audience.” Most, like me, were probably still getting used to Tevye’s perfect diction.

That’s not to say casting was the issue, though commentators have had fun with the fact that Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava are portrayed by actresses named Murphy, Kelly, and Paoluccio. And Molina comes off as less than Zero (Mostel, who originated the role), though that’s not entirely his fault. I’m sure he did precisely as directed.

By the less-than-climactic end of Act I (The wedding was ruined by a pogrom, right? I know set pieces are expensive but shouldn’t something get broken?), I decided to abandon the expectations I hadn’t even realized I was clinging to, and tried to enjoy this Fiddler for what it is: A well-produced display of singing and dancing talent with a catchy soundtrack. As a theatre patron, I felt that was enough. As a Jew, I just wished it had felt more familiar.

On the one hand, directors reserve the right to reinvent the classics, even modern ones; in fact, it’s what they are supposed to do. And to say Leveaux’s vision doesn’t seem “authentic” is to pretend that shtetl life was just day after day of deedle-deidle, deedle-deidle, dum. If anything, by playing it straighter, this cast makes it too easy to realize that the story - like the larger narrative of Jews in Eastern Europe - is mostly tragic. The characters are more human, less stereotype.

But on the other hand… Tevye, Yente the Matchmaker, Motel the Tailor, Nahum the Beggar, even the “beloved” Rabbi - these characters are stereotypes, ones that I as a Jew might even find offensive outside the insular context of Anatevka. Here, I can embrace them. But make them too “real,” take away that protective layer of schmaltz, and the bubble bursts. A character like Yente, without the sardonic tenor Bea Arthur first gave her on Broadway or the exhaustive exasperation of Molly Picon’s screen portrayal, is worse than dull; she’s almost repellent. Fiddler, like good pastrami, needs a little fat. It may be acceptable to remove it, which may even make the whole experience healthier, but that’s not why you came to the deli.

As I left the theater, I noticed quite a number of Jewish families with young children. I overheard two sisters mimicking “Matchmaker,” while another boy asked his father if everyone had to leave because they were Jewish (I think he meant the villagers of Anatevka, not the audience). I’m pretty sure it was the kids’ first Fiddler. Like me, none of them seemed too energized by the performance, but none seemed bothered by an “absence of Jewish soul,” either.

What a shame. They don’t know what they’re missing.

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