Fiddler on the Roof: The Cost of Tradition

William Shakespeare once wrote, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women are merely players.” If viewed through the lens of one’s own life, that may be found to be true.

Shakespeare took the picture of a stage to describe the complexities of life, which often reflects emotions in ways people cannot always verbally describe.

When sitting down in a theater, the audience is invited to see themselves on the stage, relating to the characters as they embark on a journey of joy and pain that is strangely familiar. By the drop of the curtain, characters can become like family, telling a story similar to the audiences’.

Fiddler on the Roof is not just the story about a poor, Jewish milkman named Tevye. It is a story about humanity; one that exposes the risk we take in holding on to the security of our past or choosing to loosen our grip when the future starts knocking at the door of the present.

The lights dimmed in Chrysler Hall, and the all-too-familiar notes of a fiddle broke the silence, revealing a man with a modern-looking red parka, book, and glasses. He recited the traditional script but while looking down at the pages of his small book – as if to read about a distant memory.

As the fiddler played the opening song, the man began to peel away the red-toned outerwear to reveal his prayer shawl, cover his previously uncovered head, and set the book aside to transform right before our eyes into the main character of Tevye.

Such a slight addition to the production had not been seen before it made its second debut on Broadway in 2016, yet it shows the timelessness of Fiddler all in the opening act.

The red parka is symbolic of modern-day refugees who struggle to be who they are amidst so many other powerful forces. It makes an appearance for only a few moments at the beginning and at the end of the show, but it is a statement without words concerning a fight for freedom that so many are subjected to. It is depicted on a stage to show that just beyond it, the same troubles are still alive and well.

The opening song “Tradition” is foundational to the rest of the show because it is what causes Tevye to wrestle when his three eldest daughters wish to go against tradition in some way all in the name of love. It is in each of their individual loves and eventual marriages to unlikely men that tests the way Tevye should and wants to act.

Hence, the Fiddler is more than simply another actor in the company. He can be found weaving himself in and out of scenes with his bow to his fiddle, playing the songs that correspond with the struggle of whether or not the tune should be sung as the world around us is demanding a different melody.

The show is a witness to the evolution of Tevye’s relationship with Jewish traditions as he sees how their rigidity can be the cause of pain in someone who he dearly loves.

While Tevye’s familial life undergoes drastic changes, tensions continue to brew against the Jews of Anatevka and the European Jewish population as a whole.

There are many individual differences presented throughout this play, but Tevye is always the one who seems to get along with everyone. That is until his friendliness can no longer fend off the weight that difference carried at this time and the Jews were persecuted through fear and by a hand appearing so much greater than their own.

All in all, this particular production, directed by Tony winner Bartlett Sher, was outstanding.

The story itself wouldn’t be what is without the original book by Joseph Stein, the inspiration of Jerome Robbins from the Broadway production, and the timeless musical numbers and lyrics of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick.
The orchestra, conducted by Michael Gildin, beautifully brought forth the music that so diligently breathed into the laughter and pain of the story.

The cultural dancing that accompanied the storyline was originally choreographed by Hofesh Shechter and recreated by Christopher Evans for this tour.

Each set, designed by Mikiko Suzuki Macadams, was wonderful to witness as they evolved into scenes and became like another character in the show. Tevye being played by Israeli actor Yehezkel Lazarov added a distinct uniqueness to the character that not everyone can deliver in that role.

The final scene that presents the Jews of Anatevka walking and carrying all of their belongings after being forced out of their home, becomes such a powerful picture when their walk turns into a circle around the Fiddler.

It is again a statement to endlessly navigating around the things we hold dear while still feeling distant from them because of someone else’s wedge.

Tevye enters the stage wearing the red parka once again and turning the last page of the book he began reading at the beginning of the show. He looks up from that final chapter and his eyes meet with the Fiddler’s one last time.

Without words, he motions for the Fiddler to join him in the circle, deciding to keep the traditions of his homeland as a reminder of who he is while journeying to someplace foreign.

I always put myself on that stage because many years ago, my family lived it. Had my Jewish great-grandparents not left Poland when they did and came to America to leave behind the beginnings of anti-Semitism that were fomenting there, I would probably not be here writing this article today.

Hence, “Fiddler on the Roof” is my story. But once you see it for what it truly is you begin to realize that in many ways, it is your own as well.

While this production has left Norfolk, Fiddler on the Roof is a meaningful play to read or watch over break- it’s sure to be in your local library!

Image courtesy of Broadway Norfolk.

Julia Selwyn

Julia Selwyn

Julia Selwyn is a Department Head for the Daily Runner.