Our first glimpse of Tevye at the Broadway Theater in the splendid revival of the much beloved 1964 musical, Fiddler on the Roof, he looks like a tourist in a red parka, much like post-Holocaust Jews scouring European towns for traces of ancestry, and life before--before pogroms and genocide drove them out. Soon this figure transforms, becoming the patriarch of a lively family in "Anatevka," Russia, a milkman in tzitzis with five daughters, a pious wife, and an ailing horse. As the musical acts go through familiar paces, from "Tradition," to "Matchmaker, Matchmaker," to "If I Were a Rich Man," it is hard to contain one's own delight in celebration of a fictive bygone world of Edenic bliss even when life is tough. But this is not just a trip down memory lane, with fresh choreography from Hofesh Shechter inspired by Jerome Robbins' original, under Bartlett Sher's expert direction, and starring Danny Burstein, the latest in the long line of Tevyes to hit Broadway.
The original book, by Joseph Stein, was based on tales from Sholem Aleichem, stories from the shtetl, folktales about stupid butchers and sly carpenters, gossipy neighbors and wise rabbis. The Broadway production draws on the lore, and on the Jewish ethos and culture, a rich source for Tevye's decision-making (on the one hand, on the other hand, and, there is no other hand), his dialogue with God (he's like a questioning Job; did you have to give me bad news on a happy day?), and plan to convince his wife Golde (the appealing Jessica Hecht) that maybe their eldest daughter's engagement to the wealthy, widower butcher Lazar Wolf was not such a good idea. For this, Tevye imagines a dream, one of the great set pieces of this production, with figures on stilts, a nightmare vision of whimsy worthy of Chagall.
Another favorite: a duet with Tevye and Golde for "Do You Love Me?" Tradition demands: parents hire a matchmaker to arrange marriages; what are the chances that the couple will find love? So when Tevye sings these tender, romantic words to Golde, a work-weary nag, you love him more; you get the kind openness that makes this father melt to the will of his daughters. This is a family in transition. Before the forced departure for America at the play's end, done with pageantry and a nod to the America where so many were able to come, he winks toward the past even as he moves toward modernity, invoking folklore wisdom: When you are rich, no one can call you stupid. That line struck a chord for at least one current presidential hopeful.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.