Everyone has a Fiddler on the Roof story. Mine goes back to when I was about 7, at my cousin’s wedding when his bride walked down the aisle to the strains of “Sunrise, Sunset.” Even then I thought it odd that a treacly song from my parents’ record collection would take prime importance at such an occasion. Here’s another: One-time Broadway dancer and now choreographer Parker Esse’s Fiddler tale is one of his first jobs. At 15, he was hired for Galveston’s summer stock company because, a tall drink of water, he looked older and could dance. Theater historian and scholar Alisa Solomon’s story dates back to the 1960s in her parent’s Chicago living room. As an about 8-year-old, she fondly recalls dancing to the vivacious voice of Zero Mostel – the original Tevye – and the rest of that first Broadway cast recording, played on the family phonograph.
Oddly, the one person I’ve met in researching and writing this piece who doesn’t have a Fiddler story is Molly Smith. And she’s directing the 50th-anniversary production.
Fiddler on the Roof opens this week at Arena Stage in the District, not far from where the musical previewed at the National Theater in the summer of 1964 prior to its Broadway opening. Back to Molly Smith who said, “I’ve never seen the show … not even the whole movie.” Really. Hard as it is to believe that anyone, especially someone who has spent a career in the theater directing musicals hasn’t seen Fiddler, Smith pointed out: “Don’t forget I moved to Alaska with my family when I was about 16,” where she mostly remained until taking the helm of Arena in 1998.
So wait a few weeks and Smith, too, will have a wagon-full of Fiddler tales to tell. She, like so many before her, has found universality in the specificity of these rich stories of a shtetl-dwelling Jewish family in the Russian Pale of Settlement circa 1905. That’s part of the reason this much-produced Broadway musical has something to say for each generation that discovers it anew.
“This is a story of a specific family and the shtetl in which they lived, but,” Smith said. “It is a completely universal story. Every person who experiences it naturally believes that it is also the story of their family.” The book by Joseph Stein nimbly follows a milkman, his wife and five daughters through conflicts, first loves, mature love, rebellion and, ultimately, expulsion, setting them adrift toward a new world and a new century.
For Columbia University theater scholar and former Village Voice theater critic Alisa Solomon, Fiddler had a special meaning, particularly for the mid-century Jewish American and other audiences who first experienced it. “It didn’t teach [Jews] what a certain kind of Orthodoxy might look like,” said the author of Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ “because it’s not an authentic representation of halachic life.”
Solomon continued: “It did something historical and affective for a generation that had moved away from its old country heritage: [providing] a way to embrace that heritage and be proud of it without exacting any demands on us.”
The musical is ultimately about tradition and change, and Solomon pointed out that the conceptual shift American Jews made as they assimilated from Torah-centered Judaism to looser traditions is fundamental to the way the musical is understood and why it’s so loved within the Jewish community. Solomon noted one of the integral lessons Fiddler imparts: “This is an image of how our grandparents practiced and lived their Judaism. Our lives are different but this is where we came from, and it is something beautiful we should hold on to.”
Holding on to tradition is choreographer Parker Esse’s main job in resetting the dance numbers for Arena’s in-the-round theater. “Robbins’ choreography is part of the fabric of this production. That’s the key and he’s a genius, why mess with it,” the 6’4” choreographer said last month after an hour-long session staging Tevye and Fyedka as they learn to dance together in “To Life,” a number where the encounter with Russian Cossacks is emblematic of the shifting reality of Tevye’s life.
For major productions of Fiddler, the Jerome Robbins Estate requires that the choreography remain true to Robbins’ original, so much so that a manual of the steps is sent out for the choreographer to follow. This is Esse’s second time choreographing the musical this year, but his first time in the round. And he’s sticking with tradition. What, he noted, would Fiddler on the Roof be without the bottle dance, and the opening folk dance-infused “Tradition”? “By reading through his manual,” Esse explained, “I can get inside Robbins’ brain and see what he was thinking by how the different shapes and steps reveal his ideas.”
In creating the dances, there are numerous accounts of how Robbins, with the help of Devora Lapson, a Jewish dancer with ties to the Orthodox and chasidic communities in Brooklyn, would attend weddings to observe how Jews danced. The famous bottle dance is an example of material Robbins drew directly from chasidic Jewish weddings.
Esse was a bottle dancer in his very first Fiddler back in Galveston when he was 15. “It’s such a tradition. … At a wedding you can see if there’s a new bottle dancer and then an experienced bottle dancer,” he said. “In my version there are no tricks to the bottle dance which heightens the tension.” That means no velcro, no magnets, no fake bottles. “It’s a real bottle pushed down into the hat and you’ve got to balance it and dance. It’s thrilling … and scary … .” Esse said.
The twists and turns Fiddler on the Roof has made over its past half century are a remarkable testament to the creative team of Robbins, lyricist Sheldon Harnick, composer Jerry Bock and librettist Joseph Stein in breathing new life into the masterful Tevye stories of Sholem Aleichem.
Smith spoke last month between rehearsals and production. She envisions a new 21st-century generation making Fiddler its own and seeing their own stories in this evergreen tale.
“Fiddler on the Roof” is onstage Oct. 31-Jan. 4 at Arena Stage in the District. Tickets, at $50-$99, are available by calling 202-488-3300 or visiting arenastage.org. Post-show conversations with artists take place Nov. 13, 18, 19, 25 and Dec. 10.