Fiddler on the Roof, the world-famous musical adaptation of the stories of Sholom Aleichem, opens with the glorious song, “Tradition”, which proudly announces the subject of the musical story about to unfold.
The dean of American theater critics Harold Clurman explains what is meant here by “tradition”:
“This tradition, which might superficially be taken to comprise little more than a set of obsolete habits, customs and pietistic prescriptions, is in fact the embodiment of profound culture. A people is not cultured primarily through the acquisition or even the making of works of art; it is cultured when values rooted in biologically and spiritually sound human impulses, having been codified, become the apparently instinctive and inevitable mode of its daily and hourly conduct. Sholom Aleichem’s characters are a concentrate of man’s belief in living which does not exclude his inevitable bewilderment and questioning of life’s hardship and brutal confusion.”[i]
The musical is “traditionally” associated with the famous Marc Chagall image of a fiddler hovering in the sky above a Russian house. The image was found in the Moscow State Yiddish Theater’s 1921 Sholem-Aleichem one-act plays featuring the dairyman Tevye because Marc Chagall designed the stage settings which included the now famous image of a fiddler.
The tradition linking Sholem Aleichem and Marc Chagall gave birth to the musical’s title “Fiddler on the Roof” and became the central metaphor for designer Boris Aronson’s historic stage designs.
So it is not surprising, that in a musical about the demise of tradition, director Barrie Kosky eliminates that traditional metaphor. Fittingly, he replaces it with an image of himself as a young boy skateboarding after a violin lesson , who finds a wardrobe, appropriating the idea from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion,,the Witch, and the Wardrobe. As the young Kosky (Drake Wunderlich) plays the violin, the boy doesn’t enter into the wardrobe for Narnian adventures, the wardrobe empties itself onto the stage and the entire shtetl of Anatevka appears before our eyes.
In Kosky’s Anatevka he is the fiddler, popping up randomly through out the action, like a bad penny. Kosky’s touch with this trope is the production’s only flaw. As with the Japanese concept of Wabi,Kosky’s imperfection serves to magnify the brilliance of the unflawed musical.
The casting of the musical could not be better. Tevye is not a larger than life show business name, like Zero Mostel, whose theatrical personality can carry any show. Rather This Tevye is a masterful singer-actor named Steven Skybell, who presents the hero as a real man of a real time and of a real place , grappling with the challenges of change. Mr. Skybell finds genuine pathos and the genuine humor without any schtick. His is a textbook musical comedy performance, probably one of the finest you will ever have an opportunity to see.
The legendary Jerome Robbins choreographed the original Fiddler on the Roof. Who could possibly guess that this Fiddler on the Roof would feature dancing which would cause Mr. Robbins to jump onto his seat and cheer and applaud! Credit choreographer Otto Pichler and revival choreographer Silvano Marraffa with some of the most imaginative, disciplined, and enthusiastic dance I have ever seen. The dancers need to be recognized – Carl Ponce Cubero, Shane Dickson, Derek Ege, Michael Fernandez, Marcus Hardy, Christopher Kelley, Drew Lewis, Michael Francis McBride, Alex Meeth, Tyler Okunski, Oz Shoshan, Mateus Sobral Barbosa Da Silva, and James Monroe Stevko. Their work is magnified by the powerful sounds of the supplemented Lyric Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Kimberly Grigsby and chorus master Michael Black.
The costumes by Klaus Bruns look as if they had been swept up off of Ellis Island. (The covid masks are again out of place . Why couldn’t turn of the century bandanas have been used instead, if masking was necessary?) The set by Rufus Didwiszuz is composed on old aged wardrobes piled onto the stage turntable t create an evocative and flexible machine for stage composition and picturization. The mood is effectively produced by lighting designers Diego Leetz and Marco Philipp.
Tevye’s family is very strong bothas actresses and singers. Debbie Gravitte plays the devoted Golde, Lauren Marcus the feisty Tzeitel, Austen Danielle Bohmer the bookish Hodel, Maya Jacobson the smitten Chava. Adam Kaplan plays Perchik, the idealist whose fate will be to support a regime whose primary program is the eradication of all tradition. Michael Nigro plays the dashing Russian Orthodox Christian Fyedka. David Benoit offers a zesty Lazar Wolf. Chicago’s own Bill McGough gives the feeble Rabbi some spunk.
Wabi included, you will probably never see a better Fiddler on the Roof.
The action of the Fiddler is set at a critical moment: the nineteenth century begins to lose its teleological moorings as society embraces Individualism, iconoclasm, overt sexuality, and materialism. The authority of God faces challenges by both personal authority and psychological conviction.
The audience or Fiddler witnesses a profound change in how people, in this case the people of the small Anatevka – representing all of Western civilization -, think about the world, how they imagine it to be, how they act instinctively in relation to it. According to philosopher Charles Taylor, the mimetic view of the world- one fixed by the creator God who has given it and requiring humans to discern and conform their actions to that meaning – begins to crumble as the poietic view assets itself –a view of the universe as composed of raw material from which each individual is free to create his or her own meaning.[ii]
Our hero , Tevye the Milkman, stands at the crossroads of time, still defending the teleological view , while his family and their friends head off toward a poietic world, rejecting the traditional interest in communicating with the eternal creator God.
“A culture survives principally …by the power of its institutions to bind and loose men in the conduct of their affairs with reasons which sunk so deep into the self that they become commonly and implicitly understood.”[iii]
Tevye fights a losing battle. He violates the rules of matchmaking by breaking his deal with Lasar Wolf. He crumbles in the face of his love for his daughter. He cannot maintain his “you are dead to me” – the keriah[iv] position with regard to the daughter marrying a gentile.
And his children are even worse. They do not see tradition as the way a loving God protects his people from harmful choices. Rather they see tradition as oppressive of their individual right to choose happiness over obedience. Whereas Tevye sees a “no” as a loving, protective response to his daughters, they see it as an irrational and mean-spirited one. Obedience to God and his traditions, for Tevye and his world, was the only route to security and happiness. For Tevye’s children, obedience is merely an ancient, old-fashioned roadblock to happiness.
Tevye’s daughters and their mates represent the new “psychological man”, distinct to the old “teleological man”, which would come to populate the twentieth century and beyond. Each psychological person has his own way realizing our humanity. No longer does one view include everyone. Psychological man’s life mission is to discover, create, and live out his own happiness, rather than surrender to the traditional model imposed by the God of history.
In the new world there is no place for the traditional God, no place for the traditional family. Everything is ad hoc and TBA. Goldie ends the play with a prescient warning: “Behave yourself! We’re not in America yet!”, suggesting that unimaginable temptations and choices await to harm them even more once they get to the Land of Freedom.
Interestingly, the first sound film, The Jazz Singer (1928), based on Samson Raphaelson’s play of the same name, picks up the same theme once the immigrants are in America. Like Tevye, Cantor Rabinowitz cannot keep his child, Jackie, in the family tradition. And like Trevye, he finds the keriah -“I have no son” ineffective.
In American, Tevye and countless other immigrant fathers will discover many, if not most, traditional beliefs and practices ineffective. Their world, and now our world, is one of moral instability and volitivity. The “fiddler” has not only fallen off the roof, but he has been tarred and feathered.
Tevye’s descendants live in a world in which all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character. The word of God, so previous and defining to Tevye, is seen as the nothing more than the language of personal preference based on nothing more rational or objective than primitive sentiments or outdated feelings.
The cultural institutions in which traditions had found sanctuary for the transmission and preservation – universities, libraries, even churches – now seem devoted to the opposite—to the subversion, destabilization, and destruction of the culture’s traditions.
They are, in the words of Phillip Rieff, creating not a culture but an anticulture, called such because of its iconoclastic, purely destructive attitude toward all that the traditionalists hold dear. While traditions may may to the wayside, God’s promise remains:
“Do not fear, for I am with you; do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.” ~Isaiah 41:10
Hurrah for the Lyric Opera for recognizing Fiddler on the Roof’s place in an opera House. To say that Fiddler on the Roof is not an opera betrays a lack of operatic knowledge.If “opera” can encompass idioms as diverse as Vivaldi’s and Mussorgsky’s, Fiddler is not even a stretch.
i] “Fiddler on the Roof” by Harold Clurman in The Collected Works of Harold Clurman, edited by Marjorie Loggia and Glenn Young. New York: Applause Books,1994., p.559.
[ii] Charles Taylor. A Secular Age. Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2007, pp. 171 -72.
[iii] Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud. 40th anniversary edition, 1966, ISI Books, 2006, p. 2.
[iv] Keriah substitutes cloth for the ancient custom of tearing the flesh and the hair which symbolizes the loss of one’s own flesh and blood in sympathy for the metaphorically deceased (Deuteronomy 14:1-2).