The British director who brought a potent visual sense to the 2003 Tony Award-winning revival of Nine wants to underline ideas in scripts, not paint over them, he told Playbill On-Line. There is, he said, room for "revelation" of themes rather than "imposition" of self-conscious ideas.
His revivals of Electra and Nine are remembered for their elemental scenic qualities — earth and water, respectively. And previews of Fiddler on the Roof have shown that nature is still a part of what Leveaux likes on stage: There are silver birch trees at the Minskoff Theatre, suggesting the pastoral Russia where peasant milkman Tevye (played by Alfred Molina) lives and struggles with his wife, Golde (played by Randy Graff), five daughters and the larger Jewish community of Anatevka.
Leveaux admits his journey with the show was full of discoveries about the heart and soul of a masterwork of musical theatre. The challenge was honoring the show's tradition while making it seem alive; bringing it "to life," as they say in the show.
PLAYBILL ON-LINE: Before you got this gig, did you know Fiddler on the Roof, as a part of stage literature?
David Leveaux: Yes. Even the English sort of grew up with it. It was always there, it was always around for as long as I can remember. I obviously had seen it in various productions while growing up. But before this came up, I hadn't studied this book in detail and thought it through. It's one of those pieces that's been so enduring that you tend to hear the music before you know what the music belongs to, you know? PBOL: What attracted you to the project?
DL: Two key things, really. When I read the book, I thought this is the most fantastic book: It's an absolute master class in the craft of musical bookwriting, from an era when people were writing musicals with a drama, and scenes — before the through-scored musicals of the '80s and '90s. I thought it was rather like looking at a play, with this extraordinary music to it. And I felt that the heart of the story — the pogrom and the big social arc of it aside — is essentially family. The whole issue of a father and his daughters and the young transforming the world of their parents felt fantastically moving to me and exquisitely written.
PBOL:The growing pains of that family are so incredibly palpable.
DL: Aren't they? Absolutely extraordinary. There's not a scene which doesn't in some way reveal those tensions. Even a scene like "Sabbath Prayer," for example, which leads to the moment itself of the sabbath prayer: In a few brief moments you've got all these stories going off. They all happen in moments; you have the most extraordinary dramatic complexity but it's told in short form. There's never a moment when you don't find yourself thinking about family, and by extension thinking about community.
PBOL: Lesser writers would have made Tevye forgive and reconcile with his daughter, Chava, who falls in love with someone outside the faith.
PBOL: It seems incredibly brave to not give the audience what it expects.
DL: It's brave and it's real. The point is, he says, "If I bend that far I will break." Tevye's struggle is something that he understands to be the foundation of his world, which is a certain tradition. It's in struggle with the fact that he's indubitably in love with his daughters in a fabulous way. It's that love of his daughters that pulls him and pulls him and pulls him to actually being rather radical. But when it comes to Chava, and she marries outside of the faith...as I was saying to [Alfred Molina] in the rehearsal, what's so horrifying about that is that what's happened is your third — and probably most beloved — daughter has died. It's as powerful as that.
PBOL: Do you have favorite moment in the show, or do you shift around?
DL: [Laughs.] I shift around! It comes wave upon wave upon wave: Who can forget the moment of Hodel leaving her father at the railway station? A scene and a song which takes this huge journey from girlhood to womanhood. It's stunning when Chava comes to her father and says, "I want to speak to you," and him saying, "No, no!" And that extraordinary reprise of "Tradition." The thing about Fiddler is that there are so many access points to it. You certainly don't have to be Jewish to feel resonance in the story.
PBOL: The Japanese love it.
DL: Well, they would because their sense of family and community and indeed tradition has direct echoes in that regard. And the pull of generations is a very, very potent thing in Japan.
PBOL: Do you think Fiddler was initially so popular because it premiered in a time of cultural revolution — the 1960s?
DL: I think so. I think the book is incredibly radical, really. The idea of writing a musical that has a pogrom at the end of its first act, and ends with a forced eviction, and at the same time is about the world changing! It has a sort of radical politics, not a theoretical politics. That is hard to imagine in the new book of a musical now. I think of 1964 and I think, that was five or six years after Brecht's company, the Berliner Ensemble, really started to come out and play in the West, and presented that way of telling stories about our world, in a very simple form. There's no doubt somehow that vitality was present in the '60s — that kind of daring. There's a reason why it's endured. My definition of a classic, provisionally, is that it's a ghost that still haunts. The reason why it does is ultimately to do with people's perception of family and relationships with children and children's relationships with their parents. That's something that pulls at you throughout the evening in the most extraordinary way. In the theatre, as you know, the thing either works in the present tense or it doesn't work at all.
PBOL: Your vision for Nine was so bold that some people imagine you'll impose something conceptual onto Fiddler. Is there room for that?
DL: No, I don't think there is. I think there's room for revelation but I don't think there's room for imposition. One of the things that I felt very strongly about is that I want people who love this musical — to whom it belongs — to feel in the first five minutes that it will be taken care of. I take that as a responsibility. But when one does that, one's also saying, "Yes, but not in the sense of a nostalgic museum piece." Therefore, obviously, it's just inappropriate to simply recreate the production and production values of 1964, because they'll be read differently. Audiences move on. When I say "revelation," I just mean you can bring existing themes and tensions to the surface in a great text, which may not have been quite so apparent 40 years ago because that wasn't the currency. You do that without imposing what I would call the vanity of a directorial concept. Nothing could be worse for me than asking an audience to spend 2-1/2 hours encountering my gloss on Fiddler on the Roof. When I first met with the writers before taking this on I remember I said to them, "Look, I'm assuming that what you want is not a description of Fiddler on the Roof, you want Fiddler on the Roof. And that's what I meant: We would set out to deliver this musical back to not only the people who love it anyway but the people who could love it the first time. [Yet] it's a very different world from the [original Jerome] Robbins setting and design.
PBOL: Can you talk a little bit about the visual world of the production?
DL: This is partly compelled by the fact that we're putting it into the Minskoff, which is a big theatre, and wanting to create a space which also had the possibility of intimacy. Some of those scenes, as you know, are very intimate: The musical veers between public scenes and very intimate family scenes. To do that we wanted to bring the stage out over the pit so actors could get almost into the lap of the audience. That had a direct consequence — we had to take the orchestra out of the pit and put them on the stage. We wanted to create a sense of Russia, and a place where, viably, you could tell this exuberant folk fable. Plus, there was that reference to the Chagall [imagery, used in the original production design], so basically it's a world of silver birch trees and a very ancient fragment of an old synagogue roof sitting in a translucent blue box, through which visions appear — like the sun and the moon and stars. [The scenic designer is Tom Pye.] I suppose you can say this production owes more to the language of film than the Robbins production of 1964 did. Mainly, I was preoccupied by creating a sense of embrace in a big theatre like the Minskoff, and not wanting "The Bottle Dance" to happen over the other side of an orchestra pit. [I wanted] that to come perilously forward, literally into the laps of the audience.
PBOL: And to bring a sense of nature into the world. To bring on Chekhov's birch trees?
DL: Absolutely! We have real birch trees on this stage, so the difference is everything. You can feel them, they have vibrations, you know?
PBOL: The casting of Alfred Molina and Randy Graff is interesting because they are fiftyish and fortysomething, respectively. The perception from some past productions is that Tevye is a tired old man and Golde is something of an old crone. You seem to say there are ways to reinvent the casting tradition.
DL: I think you absolutely can. That's what I mean about "revelation" as opposed to imposition. It's all there. It's all written. "Do You Love Me?" is a spectacularly lovely statement about what it is to be married 25 years to somebody with whom you haven't spoken about it. I was so keen that Randy and Fred should be this couple. There's a kind of youth about them, and there's a warmth about them. And I believe they've been together for all that time. I know what you mean about that version of it: with a sort of wearied clown and, as you say, an old crone. That doesn't seem to be there [in this production]. What's there is something unspoken. They just don't have a language for it. They don't talk about love.
PBOL: They've lived a hardscrabble life for 25 years and haven't got time for the love.
DL: They don't! I said to Randy, the thing about Golde is there's never a moment when she's not working.
PBOL: Do you think by Act Two the passion of their children has sparked them?
DL: I think so. Their children teach them something involuntarily, which is that this "new fashion," this thing called "love" is not new, it's there. It's been around. What's new is that people talk about it.
PBOL: Is the Chagall-inspired Fiddler character more of a presence this time around?
DL: Perhaps little bit, a little bit: A sense of that kind of cultural angel that the fiddler is, somebody who sort of seems to be in some way watching over the beating heart of the culture as opposed to the rigid aspects of the tradition. It's a very interesting character who seems to be associated with the movement and chaos of the love stories. It's almost as if that fiddler has a special understanding of what is happening with those girls.
PBOL: But he's inscrutable, there's not a fine point on him, right?
DL: He is inscrutable just in the same way that I imagine an angel would be if you met one.