On the Other Hand

In Philip Roth’s Zuckerman Unbound, Nathan Zuckerman’s father tells him that the Barry Sisters and their recording of Fiddler on the Roof “are going to do more for the Jews than anything since ‘Tzena, Tzena.'”  Nathan allows the comment to go unchallenged, but Roth would call the Broadway musical “shtetl kitsch.”  Of course, his generation was closer, not just to the shtetl, but to Judaism proper.  They had more reason to be embarrassed by their parents’ anachronistic faith, by their pandering to Gentiles, and the admittedly schmaltzy nature of Fiddler must have been anathema to their secular intellectualism.  But it is easier to be embarrassed by parents than grandparents.  It probably wouldn’t occur to most young Jews today that they might be associated, let alone equated, with their co-religionists in Fiddler—the face contemporary Judaism, at least as I see it, standing more with Larry David than Rabbi Schneerson.  Thus, our similarities to Tevye (Danny Burstein), Golde (Jessica Hecht), and the rest of Anatevka are less cause for shame than idle amusement.

The revival of Fiddler currently running at the Broadway Theatre, however, is not idly amusing but an unequivocal cause for celebration.  Director Bartlett Sher and choreographer Hofesh Shecter have mounted a lavish, no-holds-barred production, one that never shies away from the musical’s unabashedly over-the-top nature.  The key to a successful Fiddler is sincerity, something Mr. Burstein and his co-stars establish almost immediately.  In the opening number, he ambles gaily onto the stage, introducing the audience to his covered head and his prayer shawl like a tour guide for goyim, asking, “How did this tradition get started?  I’ll tell you”pausing coyly before admitting“I don’t know.”  Like Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, perhaps the most important character in twentieth-century fiction, he has a rather unexceptional mind but an extraordinary capacity for curiosity and empathy.  And Ms. Hecht, with her gaunt and angular face, embodies the necessary level-headedness of this world, balancing Tevye’s intoxication for life with a food-and-shelter rationality, a love that is parceled out not in bear hugs but prudence.

Both may be types rather than fully-realized characters, but Mr. Burstein and Ms. Hecht both subtly and unsubtly exude such authentic goodness that it is impossible not to find yourself absorbed in the melodrama of their lives.  The laughing and crying here is exclusively full-bodied and surrendering to these outsized emotions is a magnificent pleasure.  Highlights include the panorama “Tradition,” the absolutely devastating “Sunrise, Sunset,” and the phantasmagoric “Tevye’s Dream,” which features a pantomime right out of a Munch painting.

Broadway musicals are so often disappointing because, despite popular belief, they don’t really believe in the value of their silliness.  In other words, they hedge their bets.  I recently attended a production of Carousel, for example, that included an after-show panel on domestic violence, as if Rogers and Hammerstein had anything valuable to say on the subject. (In fact, their complete silence would have been preferable.) Likewise, if Fiddler attempted to actually teach us about Talmudic law or Russian antisemitism, it would fail spectacularly.  The joys of this show (and this particular revival) come in its ability to make the audience submit to childish but essential feelings, the kinds that inspire us to belt show tunes off-key and dance like pricks.  Indeed, I soon found myself vigorously waggling my arms like Tevye immediately after the show.  It felt exquisite.

Fiddler on the Roof runs through December 31st at the Broadway Theatre.  1681 Broadway  New York, NY.  2 hours 45 minutes.  One intermission.

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Aaron Botwick

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