Now we have another game-changer in town.
This season the term has often been bestowed on HAMILTON. But it applies equally to director Bartlett Sher’s exciting new vision for FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.
The 1964 Tony-winning classic was always a musical play (as opposed to a musical comedy), but never more than it is now. Joseph Stein’s book stressed that “Times are changing” and Sher has caused a change in FIDDLER, too, making an already potent story far more involving.
We see that this will be a more honest FIDDLER as soon as Tevye the milkman delivers his fourth line, when he describes life in Anatevka by saying “It isn’t easy.” Zero Mostel, the original Tevye, and those who have followed have tossed off this remark to get a laugh. When Danny Burstein’s Tevye says it, we hear in his voice and see in his face the years he’s spent struggling to make ends meet and inevitably finding out that they don’t. He learned long ago and time and time again that life indeed “isn’t easy.”
The next scene is even more galvanizing. Tzeitel, Tevye and Golde’s oldest daughter, hears that Yente the Matchmaker is on her way to their house. Usually Tzeitel responds with annoyance: “Why does she have to come now? It’s almost Sabbath.” Here Alexandra Silber says the line with genuinely panic in her voice, for she’s looking for any excuse to keep the matchmaker away. Tzeitel is as frightened as a criminal when he hears the police coming up the stairs for him.
This urgency makes solid sense. Tzeitel’s in love with Motel, but in this 19th century world, she cannot choose the man she’ll marry; her father will decide for her. But as long as the matchmaker hasn’t come to call, there’s no immediate danger, so until a bargain is sealed, Tzeitel and Motel can live in hope. Now with Yente about to knock on the door, Tzeitel falls into deep despair in front of her two younger sisters Hodel and Chava.
Although Hodel usually uses a matter-of-fact voice when she decides “Well, somebody has to arrange the matches. Young people can’t decide these things for themselves,” Samantha Massell says it in sympathetic and conciliatory fashion in hopes of soothing her sister’s deep wound. “Matchmaker” comes close to becoming – well, a cheer-up song.
That is, until Tzeitel introduces her sisters to reality. When she tells them that either of them may wind up with an old or grossly overweight man, she sings it far more soberly than we’re accustomed to hearing it. The young sisters more greatly fear their possible fates. Sher always raises the stakes.
So Tzeitel is insistent that Motel ask her father for her hand now. Her insistent hectoring shows us that she’s her mother’s daughter. For Jessica Hecht’s Golde is one tough matzo. And yet, she and Sher manage to suggest that Golde didn’t start out this way, but has become a scold as a result of being constantly poor and overworked. Her only hope in life is that her daughters will have better lives, so when she hears that wealthy butcher Lazar Wolf wants Tzeitel, Hecht’s Golde comes alive for the first time.
Lazar is usually played as someone who literally expects to do business with Tevye when asking for Tzeitel. Sher and Adam Dannheisser deepen the man by making him as nervous as a teenage boy confronting his girlfriend’s father for the first time.
Lazar needn’t have worried. “It’s a match,” Tevye tells him, and Burstein adds a casual hand-wave, as if to say, “She won’t do better, anyway.” Thus Sher underlines that so this isn’t a big issue for Tevye who was raised to believe whom you marry isn’t important,
When Tzeitel is told that she’s been promised to Lazar, she doesn’t immediately lose control as we usually see in FIDDLER productions. Here she tries to be brave, forces a smile and breaks our hearts in the process. Tzeitel knows what’s expected of her: any marriage in this culture is automatically considered a blessing. But the poor lass can only keep up this ruse for a few moments and then the tears flow. Although Tevye does relent, Sher isn’t above having Tevye make her feel guilty for forcing him to break an agreement.
And yet, at the wedding, there’s a lovely moment when Tzeitel looks directly at her father and puts her hand over her heart. The gesture shows her love and gratitude for making this once-seemingly impossible event happen.
During “Sunrise, Sunset,” Sher isolates Tevye and Golde from the wedding guests and staring into each other’s eyes. We see that this new-world marriage has them assessing their pre-arranged life together. It nicely sets the table for the upcoming “Do You Love Me?” (Sher isolates them by putting them on a passerelle – meaning that wrap-around ramp that goes around the front of the orchestra pit. There’s a historical irony here, for another 1964 musical used a passerelle: HELLO, DOLLY!, which became the longest-running musical in Broadway history. But DOLLY only had a brief eight-month reign as the champion because it was soon overtaken by – yes – FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.)
So later, when Tevye asks Golde “Do You Love Me?” we see what’s led him to this point and why he must know the truth. When Burstein says “Golde! I’m asking you a question” it’s not a request but a flat-out demand. We see that his introducing this subject wasn’t easy for him, and now that’s he’s finally found the courage to state it, he will not let her off the hook. Burstien shows us that Tevye genuinely needs to know, even if the answer isn’t the one he wants.
“Do You Love Me?” is a good question, for by now we’ve seen Tevye and Golde sleeping in twin beds. Traditionally (and is there any better adverb for FIDDLER?), directors from Jerome Robbins on have had them in a double. Sher knows that many a long-married husband and wife, after years of annoying each other in bed with twists, turns and snores, make the transition. And will any of us have trouble believing that a couple that’s been married for 25 years doesn’t have sex anymore?
We’ve all loved somebody and simultaneously hated that same person. That’s the relationship Sher gives Tevye with God. During the first act, Burstein expresses increasing anger with Tevye’s Maker. This culminates with fury when the Cossacks turn Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding reception into a never-to-be-forgotten nightmare. That’s what closes Act One, and when Act Two starts some months later with Tevye’s talking to God, we get the impression that this is the first time they’ve been on speaking terms for quite a while.
There’s still more than an hour to go, but you’ll have to experience this FIDDLER yourself. Do discover the substantial number of thoughtful touches that Bartlett Sher has brought to a classic which in the process has created a classic of his own.
What’s also good news is that all the singers are up to Jerry Bock’s flavorful music and Sheldon Harnick’s perceptive and deft lyrics. (Have you ever really noticed the cleverness in “To Life” when Tevye sings “Here’s to the father I’ve tried to be” and Lazar responds “Here’s to my bride-to-be!”?) Yente’s claim of “It’s a perfect match” is spurious far more often than not, but if she said it about Bartlett Sher and FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, she’d be right – of course right!