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A legacy cut loose

Unmoored from the dark particulars of history, a new 'Fiddler' has become an Everyman saga -- and seems to have lost its soul.

February 15, 2004|Thane Rosenbaum | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — 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'

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