It is a ‘fantastic night out’, insists the theatre’s artistic director. Gemma Bodinetz is right, of course, but it is easy to see how those unfamiliar with Fiddler on the Roof might take some convincing. The first act ends with a pogrom, the second with the village’s Jews being expelled from
the country. This doesn’t immediately suggest an evening of joyous, life-affirming entertainment.
‘It’s the story of people being forced to leave their homes by the powers that be, and that scenario, sadly, is still playing itself out all over the world today. But it’s also about family and joy and love and it has terrific songs,’ says Bodinetz. It opens the first season of Liverpool Everyman’s new repertory company later this month.
Loosely based on short stories by the Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem, Fiddler on the Roof — the title comes from a recurring image in the paintings of Marc Chagall — is set in a shtetl in tsarist Russia in 1905. Tevye, an impoverished Jewish dairyman, is struggling to come to terms with the fact that a way of life unchanged for centuries is ending amid mounting harassment by the Russian authorities. Each of his three adult daughters, Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava, moves progressively further away from the cultural and religious traditions that are Tevye’s bedrock. Chava’s transgression is, in his eyes, a betrayal.
The cast of the original Broadway production thought it would have limited appeal. ‘We all thought it was going to close after the Jews had seen it. We thought it was a show for Jews,’ remembers Joanna Merlin, who played Tzeitel.
Yet even before the end of the opening number on the first night in September 1964, the actors knew they had a smash hit on their hands. They were dead right. Fiddler on the Roof ran for more than 3,200 performances, making it the longest-running Broadway musical at that point, and paid back more than $1,500 for every dollar invested in what was initially thought to be a risky venture. It won nine Tony awards in 1965 and has been revived on Broadway five times.
New York Times theatre critic Clive Barnes wrote of the first revival: ‘The book, the music, the lyrics are absolutely perfect. There is not one song — and in this it is like the only other “perfect” musical, My Fair Lady — that you would consider being changed.’
There have been four West End productions, 15 in Finland and it is huge in Japan, where its depiction of intergenerational conflict and the erosion of tradition strikes a particular chord. The librettist Joseph Stein liked to tell the story of attending an opening of the show in Tokyo at which the producer said to him: ‘Tell me, do they really understand this show in America? It’s so Japanese.’
The original Broadway version was still running when the 1971 film was released. Directed by Norman Jewison — he believes the studio offered him the job assuming, incorrectly, that he was Jewish — it was the second-highest-grossing movie of that year, scooping three Oscars. It made a star of its Tevye, the Israeli actor Chaim Topol, who had played the role in the West End and who would, after the film, play it in countless more productions, giving his last performance as recently as 2009.
‘Part of the genius of the show is that this bleak material has a certain uplifting feeling to it and that comes partly from the original stories, which achieve an amazing balance between being utterly despairing and having a kind of bittersweet humour,’ explains Alisa Solomon, author of Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof.
Fiddler opened at a propitious time, with many of its themes chiming with the political concerns of the day. Just two months before the first night, the Civil Rights Act had outlawed racial and religious discrimination. ‘All of the show’s creators were liberal and very alive to the civil-rights movement,’ says Solomon.
As rehearsal exercises, the director Jerome Robbins had members of the cast improvise scenes of racial discrimination in the American South. And by sticking it to the patriarchy, Tevye’s daughters were in step with the second-wave feminism that was just beginning to hit its stride.
Then there were the songs created by composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick, genuine earworms suffused with echoes of klezmer and Jewish liturgical music: the rousing ‘Tradition’, ‘Matchmaker’, ‘If I Were A Rich Man’ and ‘Sunrise, Sunset’ among them.
The show’s appeal was universal — or almost. Not everyone succumbed. Novelist Philip Roth, for example, dismissed it as ‘shtetl kitsch’.
‘There was plenty of that sort of reaction from scholars, Yiddishists and people who rejected musical theatre as middlebrow just on principle,’ says Solomon.
‘This “shtetl kitsch” idea — you can’t really refute it. A Broadway musical version of the Tevye stories does not have the layered ironic intricacies of the literary masterpiece that Sholem Aleichem wrote, and yes it’s a vision of the shtetl that is simpler and a little cheerier than actually existed but so what? It’s not making a claim to be a documentary. You don’t look to Guys and Dolls for an anthropological description of New York City. Fiddler is a great show with terrific songs and a compelling story.’
In the musical, the fiddler on the roof symbolises life’s uncertainties and hazards, but in the 53 years since first venturing up on to his precarious perch he hasn’t put a foot wrong.