A legacy cut loose

Special to The Times

There was a time, a biblical 40 years ago, when Tevye the milkman, seen through the eyes of a Broadway audience in “Fiddler on the Roof,” was representative of the Jewish everyman. An impoverished shtetl dweller, filled with fantasies of becoming rich, he was ultimately helpless against the combined forces of persecution and encroaching assimilation. After all those sunrises and sunsets, Tevye’s traditions eventually toppled under the weight of modernity and the social upheavals of the new world.

Today, however, when most people think of Jews, Tevye would not immediately come to mind. Indeed, the world of the European shtetl, with its deprivations and insularity, isn’t recognizably Jewish at all. For many people, Jews are now mainstream, and their culture is as ubiquitously American as a bagel.

And that perhaps is one of the most interesting challenges that face Broadway’s latest production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” which opens at the Minskoff Theatre on Feb. 26, with Alfred Molina starring as Tevye, the role originated by Zero Mostel. The show that received nine Tony Awards in 1965, including best musical, and ran for 3,242 performances (at the time a Broadway record), now returns with a sparkling fresh look, a young vibrant cast, even a new song in Act 2 -- but in some profound, perhaps even intentional way, an absence of Jewish soul.


Although the acting is energetic, the staging is creative and the set design is a show in itself, this musical for the new millennium isn’t your grandmother’s “Fiddler.” The sensation is as if you’re sampling something that tastes great and looks Jewish but isn’t entirely kosher.

Perhaps that’s not the production’s fault as much as it is a reflection of how well, and quickly, the Jewish immigration saga in America was transformed from one of despair to one of reinvention. When the play first opened, Jews were unfamiliar to many Americans. And a great number of Jews were themselves either immigrants from Europe or first-generation Americans whose parents had accents that resonated with nostalgia for towns not unlike the fictional Anatevka.

Essentially, the musical, set in Russia nearly 100 years ago, told the story of Tevye and his efforts to preserve his Jewish traditions while marrying off his five daughters. For Jews, it evoked memories, a sentimental inkling of the shtetl once removed. At the same time, it taught the rest of America -- and later the world -- where many Jews came from, what they looked like, what they believed in and why they had to leave.

So soon after the Holocaust, “Fiddler” and “The Diary of Anne Frank” (both the actual diary and the 1950s Broadway play) showed Jews as living especially harsh, claustrophobic lives -- trapped in an attic or hemmed within a village, always a hairbreadth away from a pogrom. It was through these haunting images that many Americans first became introduced to Jews.

Paradoxically, four decades later, the revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” brings to mind a different impact -- and set of contradictions. Jews today, surely in America, are regarded as fully emancipated and in no way helpless and defenseless. Indeed, the common portrayal of the Middle East is one in which the Israelis are perceived as being quite capable of taking on and defeating the czar’s army any time.

And Jewish culture has become abundant in American life. Many have danced the hora at some Jewish ceremony, and klezmer music has morphed into a subgenre of American jazz. The pop singer Madonna, while not a Jew, contributed to a growing awareness of Jewish mysticism through her spiritual flirtations with the Kabbalah. The depiction of Jewish characters seems to be unending on television (“Seinfeld,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Will & Grace,” “Friends”). There was recently a Jewish vice presidential nominee. And perhaps most significantly, intermarriage -- the break from tradition that Tevye feared most -- is no longer perceived by most Jews as an unforgivable and annihilating act of ethnic dilution.


Given this immersion of Jews in American culture, it should come as no surprise that the new-look Tevye doesn’t have to be played by a Jewish actor (Molina’s background is Spanish-Italian), as if Tevye is now a universal paradigm of every persecuted, over-labored working stiff and not some artifact of vanished European Jewry.

For this reason, what was once exotic and tinged with terror may now come across to audiences as being wholly unfamiliar. It’s not the concept of a fiddler on a roof that is so strange but rather the anomaly of who are these people on stage and why do they keep referring to themselves as Jews?

Musical’s ‘universal values’

Interestingly, that the original production educated the world about Jews was more of a coincidence than a master plan. Apparently it was never the intention of the creators to bring a Jewish story to Broadway. In fact, the show’s producers jokingly feared that the run would last only so long as there were Hadassah women in the audience, people who grew up reading Sholom Aleichem’s Yiddish stories about Tevye and his uneasy relationship with the outside world.

“We didn’t want the show to only play to Jews, and, at the same time, we had no ambition to teach the world about Jews,” says Sheldon Harnick, the musical’s award-winning lyricist. “We worked very hard to concentrate on universal values. Ultimately it was a story that just happened to be about Jewish people. What ‘Fiddler’ did was show that basically Jews are just like everybody else.”

Similarly, those responsible for this new production are not trying to accentuate the Jewish dimension of the story. And there is absolutely no fear of being unable to locate an audience that understands the historical and cultural significance of what’s happening on stage. The musical has already proved that there are no inside Jewish jokes or parochial ideas that Gentiles might miss.

“ ‘Fiddler’ speaks to a lost world,” director David Leveaux says. “But it is a land that you would recognize if you dreamt it. In theater, fundamental human questions such as these can’t be limited to a historical Jewish experience or claim that the experience was unique to Jewish culture. Although specific to a world and a local reality, it is a channel to a wider truth.”

The impulse to universalize is great -- perhaps too great. We see this all the time in art, where a faithfulness to a particular truth is often sacrificed to some greater moral vision. In “West Side Story,” we learn little about the hardships that led to the creation of these dueling ethnic gangs. What’s more important is that eternal love will ultimately triumph over rival antagonisms. In “Oklahoma,” the stark experiences of ranchers and farmers who settled the wide-open prairies is stampeded by the more sanguine observation of how beautiful a morning it is.

Similarly, if you can gently extract the Russian Revolution and all that grim, inhospitable back story -- in essence, if you can ignore the particular Jewish historical dilemma -- Tevye’s struggle, as a father of five daughters, is one that is easily universalized because it crosses all cultures. Indeed, the recent British film “Bend It Like Beckham” is a reworking of the basic “Fiddler” themes. The same could be said of the surprise box-office hit “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” In each, vulnerable communities with long memories of grievance clasp tightly to their traditions. They do so because, at bottom, it is what anchors them to this ever-shifting world. Yet the grips are begrudgingly loosened -- daughters are permitted to surrender to their passions, and outsiders are sometimes allowed in -- all of which unleashes a new set of fears, and possibilities.

“Tevye realizes that what he is accepting is the antithesis of his tradition,” Leveaux says. “But he also knows that it is the only way that his family can survive. He concedes because ultimately nothing is more important than the profound love that he has for his daughters.”

Yet Tevye reminds us in Act 2 that if he should bend too far, he might ultimately break. Some traditions, after all, are not negotiable; some truths simply can’t be forgotten. The consequence of bending too far is delivered as a cautionary note, the avoidance of the extreme contortion that is ironically intimated in “Bend It Like Beckham.”

We live in a time when it is fashionable to celebrate in our uniqueness and to respect our cultural differences. The melting pot is no longer the model for healthy integration. Yet at the same time it is politically incorrect to “dis” others with unsportsmanlike end-zone celebrations. This presents a contradictory challenge, because honoring a cultural tradition without rendering it exclusive and exclusionary is difficult. In art, we have come to learn that the story of where we come from doesn’t necessarily have to be authentic so long as it is user-friendly.

In the case of this new “Fiddler,” the physicality of a lost world is magically recalled through costuming and stagecraft, yet somehow the great inner world of the shtetl -- the very mood that is created not by music but by accents, not by lighting but by darkened, fragile souls -- is somehow obscured, presented as far more distant than it already is, as if that world itself was never actually inhabitable. And because it is an authentic expression of American musical theater (as opposed to the way Yiddish theater often treated similar themes), the overall experience is more uplifting and therefore largely untrue.

“It’s not really an accurate depiction of the shtetl,” Harnick says. “It’s more like having false memories of a longing for community.”

“Fiddler on the Roof” may have inadvertently begun as a modernist work of multicultural art. Today, however, amid so many other multicultural offerings, it has been adopted, recycled and deracinated of its uniquely cultural imprint.

It may have reached the widest of possible audiences by universalizing its message (unfortunately the same could be said of “The Diary of Anne Frank”), but in doing so it may have also overshadowed the inherent tragedy of Anatevka, with all those uprooted lives, and traditions that never made it through Customs.

The musical that its producers at first feared no one would come to see because it would be tagged as “too Jewish” eventually captivated the world and became a fixture of the lore and repertoire of American theater. Now, 40 years later, after having successfully maximized its universal appeal, the question, ironically, is whether “Fiddler on the Roof” simply isn’t Jewish enough.

Thane Rosenbaum wrote the novels “The Golems of Gotham” and “Second Hand Smoke.”