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Fiddler on the Roof

Last night, a friend and I looked in on the revival of Fiddler on the Roof at the Minskoff Theatre. In my view, Fiddler is one of the great Broadway masterpieces of the twentieth century. It has seldom been equaled, and it has never been surpassed. The current production is in many ways problematic, but the material is indestructible, and despite whatever quibbles I may have, it still moves an audience as few shows can.

Like all great art, Fiddler succeeds on many levels. It is, of course, a compelling story, full of vivid characters and emotional situations that strike us as intimately personal and genuine. But it is also about the end of a civilization. Within a generation, Russian Jewish villages like Anatevka were obliterated. Fiddler ends with its characters’ hopes of making it to America, but we know that not all of them did. Those not fortunate enough to make it out of Europe most likely fell victim to Stalin’s pogroms or Hitler’s gas chambers. Fiddler’s characters don’t know what the future holds for them, but we do, and it is not a pretty thought.

Fiddler is also about the conflict between tradition and modernity. At the center of it is Tevye, as orthodox a Jew as any, but also curiously open-minded. Fiddler opens with a solo violin:

It’s no accident that this is the daughters’ theme from “Tradition” (“And who does mamma teach…”). It’s their rebellion against tradition that animates the story. The theme is repeated, with the pappas’ theme against it in counterpoint:

How many people have listened to this opening without realizing that it’s a musical evocation of the conflict between daughters and fathers?

Fiddler ends quietly, with a repeat of the daughters’ theme, but the meaning is ambiguous. Are we meant to feel optimism for the future, or to be in tears for what has been lost? Perhaps it’s a bit of both. In the current production, the fiddler hands his violin to a small boy, who bows and leaves Anatevka, while the fiddler stays put. The message, at the very least, is that the tradition is now in the hands of a new generation. But the audience knows of the coming cataclysm that the little boy does not. He seems to leave the stage happy, or at least hopeful. Can we share his dreams? I am unable to.

Alfred Molina got mixed reviews for his Tevye, but he’s had four months to grow into the role. As now presented, it is a warm, sensitive, naturalistic portrayal — unlike Zero Mostel, whom I never saw, but whom I’m told was a larger-than-life storybook character. I thought Molina was a bit too ingratiating in “Tradition.” There was a “please love us” attitude that, had it persisted, would quickly have become cloying. But after that number, Molina settled in for a more nuanced performance that quickly won me over.

Most of the men get high marks, although John Cariani’s stammering impersonation of the tailor Motel was a one-joke performance that outwore its welcome.

None of the women’s roles really worked. Tevye’s five daughters seemed interchangeable, and I had trouble telling them apart. Randy Graff’s Golde lacked warmth, and Nancy Opel’s Yente seemed more Shaker Heights than Shtetl.

The production credits David Leveaux as director, with choreography still credited to the original director, Jerome Robbins. Exactly how much Robbins is left I can’t say. The big production numbers (“To Life,” “Sabbath Prayer,” Tevye’s Dream, “Sunrise, Sunset,” the bottle dance) all worked well. “Far From the Home I Love” had a simplicity that made a direct emotional connection, but elsewhere the production had a clinical chill that failed to find the soul of the story. Three of Tevye’s daughters fall in love, and not one of their relationships was believable. The problem was at its most obvious during “Do You Love Me?” Tevye and Golde stood fifteen feet apart for the entire number, never making physical contact — or indeed, even eye contact. When the answer to the question posed by the song is “Yes,” it would seem obvious that this staging was monumentally misguided.

These misgivings aside, Fiddler is still a can’t-miss proposition. I had my doubts about this revival, given all I had read, but I was glad I saw it, especially for Alfred Molina’s Tevye, which is worth the price of admission.

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