Special edition blog from New York City
Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish
Whilst I normally only write about the history of theatre in Manchester, on a recent visit to New York, I was lucky enough to go and see several shows but the one that resonated the most, was Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish. I was lucky enough to see this production at the 350 seater Stage 42 theatre, which surprisingly had a 12 piece live band and a cast of 26 artists. This is a much larger cast and band than many other Broadway shows.
Because this production is in Yiddish, you actually feel like you are being transported back in time to life in the Russian shtetl (village) of Anatevka in 1905. When the actors auditioned for the show the majority of them had no experience with the language. Of the 26 cast members, only three spoke Yiddish fluently. Another nine had some experience with the ‘mama loshen‘ (knowledge of the odd Yiddish phrase), but everyone had just one month to memorize the entire script.
As part of the auditions actors had to prove they would be able to learn Yiddish quickly. Those called in for auditions were given 24 hours to memorize a recording of a song in the Yiddish language. From the 2,500 applications, 26 actors were chosen for the production. Once the cast was chosen, each member received a recording of his or her lines and songs in Yiddish in addition to private language coaching.
A little shtetl in Russia
Whilst I have seen Fiddler on the Roof in Manchester before seeing it in New York was quite different. Not only because I was in The Big Apple but because, as mentioned above, the production was also spoken and sung in Yiddish, the traditional and historic language of Eastern European Jews, other wise know as Ashkenazi Jews. This unique approach to telling the story of Tevye and his family, made it much more realistic, as at the time of Anatevka existing, Yiddish was the language the people spoke. And if that wasn’t enough, this production also had English and Russian subtitles to help the likes of you and I enjoy and understand this moving story.
The history behind the creation of Tevye’s story into worldwide musical
As someone who doesn’t speak Yiddish (though I know a phrase or two), or Russian, I thought I’d share some thoughts on this unique production.
The musical and film were based on based on stories that were written in Yiddish by Sholem Aleichem.
Set in Russia, Fiddler on the Roof tells the story of the people of Anatevka. Despite not knowing fluent Yiddish or Russian, it was incredibly innovative and inspired to experience the production in the language of those who’s story it was telling. Interestingly, Fiddler on the Roof was first performed in Yiddish, in Israel in 1965, but only ran there for one month.
Author, Sholem Aleichem wrote short-story masterpieces about the affable dairyman, Tevye, which were eventually turned into the musical and film we all know as Fiddler on the Roof. The great Yiddish actor-manager Maurice Schwartz, adapted the stories for his 1939 film version of “Tevye der Milkhiker,” where he himself, starred as Tevye. Maurice Schwartz added scenes that stressed the anti-Semitism of the surrounding Ukrainians as well as Tevye’s despair over his daughter Chava’s elopement with a Russian soldier. Below is a clip from the 1939 film.
The famous song “If I Were A Rich Man,” had its words altered in all Yiddish versions to “Ven Ikh Bin A Rotshild,”. This was done because the Rothschild’s were a very wealthy, internationally famous Jewish family, that at the turn of 20th Century, everyone knew of and aspired to have their wealth. Also interestingly, Sholem Aleichem wrote one story called “If I Were A Rothschild.” With both of these facts, it made sense along the way for someone to change the lyrics from ‘If I was a rich man’, to ‘If I was a Rothschild.’
A few emotional moments
For me, there several touching moments in the show.
The first, was the very moving scene as Teyve asks his wife Golda, if she loves him. I personally found this scene incredibly moving of such humble people in such a time of hardship and basic living.
I also had a lump in my throat and a few tears in my eyes, as I watched the scene where daughter Chava, tells her father Tevye, she is going to marry Fyedke who isn’t Jewish – but a Russian Soldier. She tells him this knowing that due to the traditions of their culture and religion, it will break his heart; and that their bond as father and daughter will be destroyed. For Tevye, her decision to marry Fyedke will be the ultimate betrayal to their family and roots.
Emotional and very intense.
Directed by Joel Gray
When Zalmen Mlotek from the Folksbiene, asked if Joel Grey would like to direct “Fiddler On The Roof” in Yiddish. He told them that he doesn’t speak proper Yiddish, he speak’s his father’s ‘Mickey Katz Yiddish’. Despite this, how could he say no? I’m very pleased he didn’t. Joel Grey is a big part of a true showbiz dynasty.
His father Mickey Katz was a Jewish comedian and singer who originally played with Spike Jones and the City Slickers. He made so many wonderful records with lots of Yiddish words in them and I can’t help but wonder if this had an influence on Joel’s decision to direct the version of Fiddler that I had just seen.
His daughter Jennifer Grey who grew up surrounded by show business with both her grandfather, father and mother, Jo Wilder, all stars in their own rights. Jennifer Grey is most famous for playing ‘Baby’ in the iconic film ‘Dirty Dancing’
Thankfully, the 80+ year old Joel Gray directed this musical production with a golden touch. On researching him, I found out what a fascinating man he is, and from quite the entertainment dynasty. Joel Gray is part of three generations who have been in musical theatre.
Joel Gray himself is world famous as an actor, singer, dancer, director, and photographer. He is best known for portraying the Master of Ceremonies in both the Broadway show and the film ‘Cabaret’.
The Fiddler on the Roof cast from New York City
The actors who really made Fiddler their own were Steven Skybell as Tevye – a graduate of Yale School of Drama who has appeared at the Globe theatre in London. His portrayal of Tevye is so good and exciting and his humility is totally believable.
Jackie Hoffman is hysterical as Yente, the matchmaker who sneaks food into her pockets and seems to forget herself. Hoffman’s timing was perfect and she delivered classic lines which simply made the audience fall in love with her character. Hoffman is clearly an accomplished actress and has is a regular artist on both Broadway and US television.
In The Dream scene you will enjoy creepy masks and a fantastic performance by Jodi Snyder who played ghost of Frumme Sora the deceased first wife of Leyzer Wolfe. Interestingly Jodie Snyder as Frume Sora sits atop some anonymous soul’s shoulders for the role, making Frume Sora quite literally larger than life. She’s hilarious and scary, ludicrous and yet somehow absolutely convincing. If she visited your dreams, you wouldn’t let your daughter marry Leizer-Volf, either. Despite being dead, at risk of losing her precious pearls and vengeful to the point of murder, seems to have a great deal of fun haunting Tevye and Golde.
Jennifer Babiak portrayal of Golde is superb. She provided a comic counterbalance to Tevye along with the maternal affection of a true ‘Yiddisha Mama’.
Ben Liebert as Motl played the part to perfection. He starts out as a meek mild young man frighted to ask Tevye for permission to marry his eldest daughter, Tsaytl. Eventually his character evolves as life does alongside him.
Whilst I have highlighted some cast members who impressed me, all of the cast were outstanding and I would like to end this blog by saying that the whole cast brought the show to life. As one would say in the show and in Yiddish they brought it all to life – to life ‘le chaim!!’.
Back to Manchester’s history of theatre
So in summing up, as I go back to my research on the history of theatre in my beloved Manchester, if you’re visiting New York and looking for theatre with a difference I whole heartedly recommend going to see Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish.
You will laugh, cry and smile and on leaving the theatre, you will not be able to help yourself from saying a little prayer for the characters and the life that they find on their journey after Anetavka.