“A Fiddler Afn Dakh. Meshugeh, neyn?” “A Fiddler on the Roof: Crazy, no?” These are the opening lines uttered by Tevye in Fiddler On The Roof In Yiddish now playing Off-Broadway at Stage 42. They also happened to be the first words I thought of when I was asked to cast the show.
The adventure started late in 2017 when the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene (NYTF), where I have worked since 2012, announced that we would be embarking on our biggest musical yet: Fiddler On The Roof. In Yiddish. Oy vey! How were we going to pull off such an enormous undertaking? Despite my considerable experience as a casting director, the challenges of this one were daunting. Where would I find 26 Yiddish-speaking actors who sang and danced? I wondered what my dear late grandmother, who always wanted me to learn Yiddish, would have said if I told her I would be casting her favorite show (in Yiddish yet!). “Kenstdu es gloyben?” (Can you believe it?)
We received over 2,000 submissions, though we ultimately auditioned far fewer than that. The entire team, including director Joel Grey, was at every audition, and Joel’s presence was deemed to be an honor for every actor. To prepare, the actors received a seven-part audition packet that consisted of: a written Yiddish pronunciation guide; an audio pronunciation guide prepared by Motl Didner, the associate artistic director of NYTF and now Yiddish coach and associate director of the Yiddish Fiddler; excerpts from the script in transliterated Yiddish—and accompanied by the original English text written by bookwriter Joseph Stein—a recording of Motl reading the Yiddish, first slowly and then in real time; and a cut of a song.
A number of actors were called in for each role during the more than three weeks of auditions. As for Tevye, because of the size of the role, there were not many people available. The agent for an actor who had been in the 2015 Broadway revival called with an interesting bit of information: His client learned Yiddish a number of years ago between performances of another show. When Joel heard this story, he knew that Steven Skybell had to be Teyve. And, even though he was not a long-time Yiddish speaker, Steven’s Yiddish was impeccable. We now had our Tevye, and quickly lined up the other leads.
Time for the dance auditions.
The men had to learn to execute perfectly the famous bottle dance (never using Velcro), plus a piece of the “To Life” dance. And they had to learn a line to tempo prepared by Motl, one that tested their Yiddish pronunciation. The line was: “Vilstu farzhukhn mayn geshmakn tsimmes?” Which means, “Do you want to taste my delicious tsimmes?” (Tsimmes is a usually a sweet dish with fruits and carrots—ask Martha Stewart or a Hadassah member for the recipe.)
After offers were sent out, something amazing happened: everyone accepted. Equity would allow only three days of Yiddish coaching before rehearsals, so coaches Motl Didner and Sabina Brukner, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, got to work and rehearsals were conducted in Yiddish right off the bat.
First night of previews was July 4, 2018: Sold-out audience. So much trepidation. But the audience loved it! We were kvelling (bursting with pride). Opening night: Sold-out audience. Celebrities, VIPS, and Yiddish mavens. They laughed, they cried, they were overwhelmed and awed. Were they thinking what I was thinking? This iconic show, so beautifully done, was performed in the language of Sholem Aleichem. If only he, the Jewish Mark Twain, could see this show 124 years after he created Tevye the Dairyman. If only he could read the rave reviews. If only he could know how many times the show has been extended by NYTF, how many people were coming to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan overlooking the Statue of Liberty. If only those millions of Yiddish speakers who perished in the Holocaust could have seen this show so beautifully performed in their mameloshen (mother tongue). If only survivors like my grandmother could have lived long enough to see this.
So many people wanted to see the show that NYTF, a non-profit organization, was approached to move it to a commercial venue. Hal Luftig and Jana Robbins offered to produce it at Stage 42. Nearly all the actors agreed to the transfer, but in the case of those who could not because of previous obligations, we went back to auditioning and a new cycle of packets and coaching materials so that audience members could still be heard gasping, “How did they get so many Yiddish speakers?” Maybe it was a miracle. I think it was a miracle that reviews from the New York Times to CBS News were so great. Who expected that the Yiddish Fiddler would be nominated for four Lucille Lortel Awards, and Steven Skybell would win for outstanding lead actor in a musical? Or that Fiddler would win the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Revival of a Musical, and the Drama Desk Award for the same category, besting Broadway nominees Oklahoma! and Kiss Me, Kate?
What’s next for the Yiddish Fiddler? After the show closes January 5, maybe a tour—I know my parents and their friends would love to see it come to Florida and Toronto. It would give my mother even more naches (pride) if she could take her Floridian friends to see the show. But the future is often as shaky as, well, a fiddler on the roof, so I can’t be sure. I do know I should have listened to my grandmother when she wanted me to learn Yiddish.