It’s hard enough to revive a musical that didn’t work the first time; that’s why John Doyle’s new version of The Color Purple is rightfully such a sensation. But it may be an even harder job to revive a musical that works quite well, has already returned repeatedly and successfully, and is much beloved as is, or was. That last sentence is basically Bartlett Sher’s calling card — he directed the recent Tony-winning revivals of South Pacific and The King and I — but it is even more so the dilemma he faced in staging the new Fiddler on the Roof that opens tonight at the Broadway Theatre, where the 1964 original ended its run in 1972. That he has made of it a show that feels entirely fresh and specifically engaged in the world of 2015, without wasting the gift of its innate beauty and huge emotional power, is another reason for celebration in a season strong with them.
Part of the difficulty of Fiddler, which like the great Rodgers and Hammerstein shows is a larger work than our familiarity with it might at first let us see, is finding the right lens. (The 2004 revival, directed by David Leveaux, seemed to peer at the Jews of Anatevka as if through Chekhovian pince-nez.) The Sholem Aleichem stories on which the musical is based were written between 1895 and 1915, around the time of the events they describe, when all across the Pale of Settlement the threat of revolution was destabilizing the traditional life of shtetl Jews; in 1905 a wave of pogroms and decrees from the czar completed that destabilization by forcing them out. That’s when Fiddler is set as well, but by 1964, it was impossible not to view the story through the smoke of the Holocaust: We knew that some of the characters we had grown to care about would make it to America or Palestine and survive, but that others would not. There was also the lens of Jerome Robbins, who conceived, directed, choreographed, and overlorded the original production, and whose estate has mostly maintained his vision in subsequent Broadway iterations. Brilliant as that vision was, it was a very specific and overbearing one, the result perhaps of his own internal struggle. (He was born Jerome Rabinowitz.) And, hard as it is to imagine now, the Broadway environment of the time made such sad and foreign material very risky: a risk that Robbins and the musical’s authors — the book is by Joseph Stein, the score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick — did everything in their power to ameliorate with showbiz know-how. For this they were rewarded with a hit, yes, but also with the scathing disdain of the Jewish intelligentsia, which considered the musical a schmaltzy embarrassment, a betrayal of history, and a misrepresentation of Aleichem’s work. Philip Roth called it “shtetl kitsch.”
Roth wasn’t a very enlightened theater critic — around the same time, he gay-baited Edward Albee for his “ghastly pansy rhetoric” — but it’s true that Fiddler sanitizes its main character, Tevye the dairyman, making a warm paterfamilias out of a character who, in the Aleichem, is an insufferable pest and a neglectful, guilt-ridden father. (The musical does not include, for instance, the story of the daughter whose suicide might easily have been prevented if he weren’t so passive.) On the other hand, a musical is not a literary work; by its nature it distributes the point of view and the means of expression. Characters seen only through Tevye in the original, which is told as a series of highly unreliable letters and monologues, are inevitably brought to life in scene and song. I submit that the difficulty Roth and the others had with Fiddler was not that it falsified Aleichem, which was going to happen no matter what, but that it feminized him. In building up the roles of Golde (Tevye’s wife), Yente (the local matchmaker), and three of the daughters, Stein rather brilliantly made rich characters out of anecdotes, and balanced the drama. He also developed a latent theme of the material into an overarching point: That if it is necessary to have traditions it is just as necessary to break them. Robbins then borrowed a symbol from Chagall to nail that theme down and provide the title.
But time has blurred a lot of that invention and artistry; oldcomers may too easily slip unawares into habits of seeing that were established on first contact with the material decades ago, and newcomers may have no lens to view it through at all. What Sher has done to address these problems is modest in both senses of the word. A small frame, taking up less than a minute of running time in total, has been placed around the proceedings to orient our perception of it. It’s not too much of a spoiler to reveal the opening half of that frame: Danny Burstein, who plays Tevye, first appears as a contemporary guy in a red parka at the Anatevka train station, with a guidebook (or is it the Aleichem?) in hand. Immediately, and without any changes in the ensuing text, we understand that we are directly connected to the story, not only by our national history of immigration — is the man possibly visiting the home of his grandparents? — but also by the current refugee crisis in much the same part of the world. (Aleichem’s characters lived near Kiev, in what is now Ukraine.) That’s all it takes to reanimate the story; it’s not an idealized portrait of poor folk, or a shtetl soap opera or even a Jewish Passion. It is a look at the forces, both internal and external, that force people to leave what they love.
In order for us to freshly engage with those people, Sher has done two other important things. One is the hiring of the Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter to rework most of the dances (with the Robbins estate’s permission). These are more authentic and thus more unfamiliar, with an aggressive, almost coarse manner and a different vocabulary of rotated arms and upraised hands. (The dancers often look like they’re screwing in light bulbs.) The famous Bottle Dance is rethought, with bravura additions. Robbins fans needn’t worry; he’s still fully baked into the show; Michael Yeargan’s set design references the floating Chagallesque set pieces of the original, and the staging of some numbers (especially the seven-minute opening, “Tradition”) is merely Robbins’s architecture with new décor.
What feels like a departure — and this is Sher’s second major adjustment — is the acting style throughout. It starts with the hiring of Burstein and, as Golde, Jessica Hecht. These are not comic personalities like the original stars, Zero Mostel and Maria Karnilova, but more-or-less singing actors whose approach to the material is only slightly heightened from what it might be if it were not a musical at all. Burstein makes of Tevye’s waffling, weasel qualities something more than just amusing patter; they are character faults masquerading as philosophy. The growing inadequacy of that philosophy in dealing with the blows the show rains down on him makes this Tevye perhaps a more tragic figure than usual — a reading Burstein is fully able to sustain. And Hecht is just about as unhoneyed as a Golde can be without turning Fiddler into The Real Housewives of Anatevka; she is our reproach for enjoying the dreams and evasions of her shlimazel of a husband. The rest of the cast (reduced from 43 to 32) is likewise working in crossover mode, with sufficient panache to sell the material and sufficient seriousness to make it worth the selling. Sher sets the stakes so high right from the beginning that Alexandra Silber, as Tevye’s oldest daughter, Tzeitel, is in tears before the start of “Matchmaker, Matchmaker.” Similarly, Alix Korey makes a particularly hilarious, and heartbreaking, Yente.
By the time Sher closes his frame you may well be (as I was) a mess of tears. There is emotion everywhere you look and listen in this Fiddler, and in exposing it the production offers the strongest possible rebuke to the 1964 criticisms. Not that it isn’t funny and gorgeous and even creepy — get a load of the butcher Lazar Wolf doing Sweeney Todd, and Fruma-Sarah’s Nosferatu fingers. But what Sher and Shechter and the rest of the creative team have focused on is the human story of separation: of man from homeland no less than of child from parent. If that’s kitsch, I’ll eat my yarmulke.
Fiddler on the Roof is at the Broadway Theater.