The recent staging of the musical ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ by a group from Bangalore could not have been better timed, for it was in this month (22 September to be precise) that it opened on Broadway exactly fifty years ago, in 1964.
It was the first musical theatre run in entertainment history to cross 3000 performances. Fiddler ran for almost 10 years, holding the record for the longest-running Broadway musical until Grease came along to surpass it. It still is the sixteenth longest-running show in Broadway’s history.
Fiddler on the Roof was the first commercially successful English-language stage production about Jewish life in Eastern Europe.
It is based on ‘Tevye and his daughters’ (or Tevye the Dairyman) and other tales by leading author and playwright from the Ukraine, Sholem Aleichem (real name Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich 1859-1916), written in Yiddish and published in 1894. The musical gets its title from the painting “The Fiddler” by Marc Chagall. Chagall used the lives of Eastern European Jews as his inspiration for many of his paintings, and the fiddler was a recurrent fixture in a lot of them.
As we know so well from the musical, the Fiddler on the Roof is a metaphor for the precarious continuity of age-old tradition in the face of constant uncertainty and change. The story revolves around Tevye and his five daughters as he tries to maintain Jewish familial and religious traditions while the outside world gradually catches up with him and the rest of the closely-knit Jewish community in their village Anatevka in the Pale of Imperial Russia in 1905.
Aleichem, like Mark Twain wrote under a pen name (Sholem Aleichem is a Yiddish greeting ‘Peace be with you’, or ‘How do you do’) , wrote for both adults and children, lectured widely on tour in Europe and the United States, and their writing styles were similar. When Twain heard that Aleichem was being nicknamed “the Jewish Mark Twain” for these reasons, he retorted “please tell him that I am the American Sholem Aleichem.”
Aleichem’s narratives accurately depict the life in the ‘shtetls’ (small towns with large Jewish populations) of Eastern Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and his characters have a cheerfulness and wit (manifest so brilliantly in Tevye and his daughters) that masks a tragic side to their lives.
Aleichem suffered from triskaidekaphobia, a morbid fear of the number 13. His manuscript pages have ‘12a’ instead of 13 on the thirteenth page. Interestingly, he died on 13 May 1916. Even his tombstone avoids this number, preferring to mention his birth and death dates according to the Hebrew calendar.
When in his 20s and living in Kiev, Aleichem would holiday in the summer with his family in Boyarka, a forest resort town an hour away. There, a dairyman named Tevye did the rounds door-to-door, delivering milk and home-made cheese and butter.
Aleichem loved Tevye’s wares and later wrote that the three things he loved most in life were newspapers, dairy foods and Jews — as well as his conversation, which he would scribble, amid chuckles, in his notebook.
Tevye soon featured in Aleichem’s writing, as “Tevye the Dairyman — The Story of His Sudden Rise, Described by Tevye Himself and Dictated to Sholem Aleichem Word by Word”, later revised as “The Jackpot” or “Tevye Strikes It Rich”. It is peppered with the witticism and the ‘Tevye-isms’ that makes Fiddler on the Roof so entertaining. The real Tevye in fact wished to remain anonymous, and requested Aleichem to leave his name out whenever possible. It is truly ironic that the tables have turned completely, with Tevye much more well-known and Aleichem now consigned to obscurity in much of the world.
Several decades after Aleichem’s Tevye stories, a Soviet theatre company visited Boyarka and were so impressed by Tevye that the actors bought him a new cart and dairy equipment.
In Aleichem’s several stories featuring Tevye, Tevye’s adventures play out in real time. In these stories, Tevye gains a fortune, loses it and is subjected to a series of his daughters’ ever-more non-traditional marriages. So the story we are familiar with through Fiddler on the Roof is just the culmination of a longer saga.
Aleichem was personally witness to the pogroms that were unleashed in southern Russia in 1905, and the pogrom and the Tsarist edict commanding the inhabitants of Anatevka to leave the village in the story draw to some extent from his own experience.
He fervently championed the cause of Yiddish as a ‘national’ Jewish language and of Zionism.
The dramatisation of Tevye the Dairyman and his daughters, first for the theatre as a musical (with music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and book by Joseph Stein) and later as a film in 1971, has had its share of critics. Some feel that Tevye has been made too saccharine, too ‘sugar-coated’, in order to appeal to a wider public, especially in the US.
The musical and the film helped Aleichem’s story reach to a far wider audience than he could have dreamed, but also overshadowed his own writing.
Nevertheless, Fiddler on the Roof is emblematic of much more than just Tevye’s story. Jeremy Dauber, Aleichem’s biographer states “Forget Sholem Aleichem, there’s no talking about Yiddish, his language of art, without talking about Fiddler on the Roof. There’s no talking about Jews without talking about Fiddler.”
Bock’s music with its broad sweep of the orchestral palette is sensitively scored to bring the Jewish shtetl “to life”; the tone colour of a clarinet, a folk violin, and the Eastern European and particularly Jewish harmonies played out in lush string sound are highly evocative. The sighing pauses in the show-stopping “If I were a Rich Man” are as much a part of the score as the notes, adding to the wistful meaning of the song, a fantasy, lament, tirade and song of resignation and acceptance all in one. The quasi –onomatopoeic use of woodwinds at the precise moment that Tevye sings about the squawking of “chicks and turkeys and geese and ducks” is pure genius.
The production at the Kala Academy recently had its pluses. The main cast was well-chosen: Tevye, Golda, Mottel Tamzoil, Tzeitel, Perchik, all of whom delivered their lines really well. The Bottle Dance and Tevye’s Nightmare scene featuring Grandma Tzeitel and Frumah Sarah were cleverly staged. It was wonderful to hear ‘The Rumour’, which isn’t in the film version.
But there were huge drawbacks as well. The biggie was the use of an electric synthesizer in place of a live orchestra, which reduced the music to a real travesty. The fiddler was not up to much as well, but that didn’t really matter so much.
The whole production was rushed, as if they really wanted to shorten its length as much as possible.
This might seem like quibbling, but the mispronunciation of Tzeitel as ‘Zeitel’ when it should have been ‘Tseitel’ was jarring every time her name was mentioned, which was often.
And the very opening of the musical had the emphasis wrong when they sang “Tradition”. It should have been sung so that the first syllable of the word ‘Tradition’ was on the upbeat, and the second on the strong, downbeat ie “Tra-DI-tion”. This is how one would pronounce the word, with the emphasis on the second syllable. Instead, they chorus persisted in singing “TRA-di-tion”, with the first syllable on the downbeat.
“To Life” had several moments of dodgy intonation in the singing, especially from Lazar Wolf.
(An edited version of this article was published on 21 September 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)