On the Other Hand: Sex, Death, and Fiddler on the Roof

“I’m not trying to make a statement about it, but art can help us imagine it, and I would love it if families left the theater debating it.” — Bartlett Sher, ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ Gets a Debated Update (The New York Times, Michael Paulson)

What an invitation.

It’s been said before that all plays are about sex and/or death. A theory difficult to disprove. Arguably, Fiddler on the Roof, a masterfully written musical exploring the stories of Tevye the Dairyman, is focused on the latter of the two. Death, however, in this new Broadway production directed by Bartlett Sher, seems more cozy than unsettling.

In the darkness of a train station clearly marked “ANATEVKA,” a man in a red jacket stands, reading from a book. As he paces, a familiar violin cry is heard in the distance. Hearing this, the man removes his coat, unravels his tzitzit, and places a kippah on his head. This man, we soon learn, is Tevye.

So who is this man in the red jacket? A descendant of Tevye’s learning his family’s history? The modern-day Jew facing oppression and retracing his origins? How, in fact, does this man connect to this story?

A fiddler, perched cautiously on a house, floats up and into the flies.  Following a stirring rise from the depths of the Broadway Theater, this town of Anatevka joyously celebrates the traditions they have kept for so long. Later the fiddler returns, Peter Pan-style, flying down from the rafters and deftly defying gravity back up across the stage.

How are we, as an audience, truly to understand the instability and unknown fate of this fiddler on the roof if he is gracefully able to soar across the stage?

This sense of fear, impending danger and mortality, is completely lost by the time we arrive at the final song, “Anatevka.” As the citizens of the village gather their belongings and take their lives elsewhere, the man in the red jacket returns, replacing Tevye in the circle. The fiddler returns for one last moment with this man, before they both make their sullen exit.

It is this stability and this comfort that might just negate the purpose of Fiddler on the Roof. By showing that there is some sort of foreseeable future for these people and this broken family, Sher has removed the death of Anatevka, and thereby the death within the play. Here, Anatevka will surely live on, as will Tevye and his daughters. Don’t believe me? Ask the man in the red jacket.

Herein lies the problem. It is hard to surmise a reason for an audience to feel “comfortable” with Fiddler on the Roof. If the theatre’s job is — as Cesar A. Cruz so wisely put it — “to comfort the disturbed, and to disturb the comfortable,” why has Mr. Sher demonstrated that there is no reason for us to fear for Tevye and Golde? By removing the elements of the unknown from the ending, this Fiddler does not pack the punch that it leads up to. Its moments of joy and celebration are revelatory explosions of dance and culture, and the dismantling of a family is a complex conflict portrayed at its best by a stunning cast supported by an equally stunning orchestra. But how, in this little town of Anatevka, are we to believe that everything will end up just fine?

These must not be the same Jews forced out by the Tsar into the world that would turn against them in under 30 years.

Right? Of course, right.

Fiddler on the Roof
Book by Joseph Stein; music by Jerry Bock; lyrics by Sheldon Harnick; based on the Sholom Aleichem stories by special permission of Arnold Perl; original Broadway production directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins; originally produced by Harold Prince; directed by Bartlett Sher; choreography by Hofesh Schechter; music director/new orchestrations by Ted Sperling; sets by Michael Yeargan; costumes by Catherine Zuber; lighting by Donald Holder; sound by Scott Lehrer; hair and wig design by Tom Watson; dance arrangements by Oran Eldor; music coordinator, David Lai; associate director, Tyne Rafaeli; production manager, Hudson Theatrical Associates; associate producers, John Frost and James Forbes Sheehan; fight director, BH Barry; production stage manager, Bess Marie Glorioso; company manager, Alexandra Agosta; general manager, Richards/Climan, Inc. Presented by Jeffrey Richards, Jam Theatricals, Louise Gund, Jerry Frankel, Broadway Across America, Rebecca Gold, Stephanie P. McClelland, Barbara Freitag & Company/Catherine Schreiber & Company, Greenleaf Productions, Orin Wolf, Patty Baker, Caiola Productions, the Nederlander Organization, Gabrielle Palitz, Kit Seidel, TenTex Partners, Edward M. Kaufmann, Soffer/Namoff Entertainment, Healy Theatricals, Clear Channel Spectacolor, Jessica Genick and Will Trice. Ongoing at the Broadway Theater, fiddlermusical­.com. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.
At this performance (December 27th, 2015): Danny Burstein (Tevye), Jessica Hecht (Golde), Jenny Rose Baker (Shprintze), Adam Dannheisser (Lazar Wolf), Hayley Feinstein (Bielke), Mitchell Greenberg (Yussel/Nachum), Adam Kantor (Motel), Karl Kenzler (Constable), Alix Korey (Yente), Samantha Massell (Hodel), Melanie Moore (Chava), Ben Rappaport (Perchik), Nick Rehberger (Fyedka), Alexandra Silber (Tzeitel), Michael C. Bernardi (Mordcha), Adam Grupper (Rabbi), Jesse Kovarsky (The Fiddler), George Psomas (Avram), Jeffrey Schecter (Mendel), Jessica Vosk (Fruma-Sarah), Lori Wilner (Grandma Tzeitel), Aaron Young (Sasha), Jennifer Zetlan (Shaindel) // Villagers: Eric Bourne, Stephen Carrasco, Eric Chambliss, Jacob Guzman, Reed Luplau, Brandt Martinez, Sarah Parker, Marla Phelan, Tess Primack, Austin Goodwin

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