"Do you think it has a chance?" Tony winner and audience member Elizabeth Ashley asked perennial producer, Jeffrey Richards, Dec. 20 upon arriving at the Broadway Theatre for his — and Broadway's sixth — Fiddler on the Roof. The answer was obvious.
Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick and Joseph Stein fashioned from Sholom Aleichem's stories of Old World Russian Jews, a musical entertainment to last and thrive, and 51 years later it still works like a Swiss watch, bearing the unmistakable stamp of Jerome Robbins' genius while also wearing Emperor Bartlett Sher's new clothes.
When director Sher takes on a classic, he really signs in. Nobody noticed the boat bringing Anna Leonowens to Siam until his current King and I revival when he dropped anchor with one that jetted deeply into Vivian Beaumont's audience. When he did South Pacific in the same house, "Honey Bun" became a precision drill march.
New Fiddler on the Roof, Starring Danny Burstein, Opens on Broadway! Red Carpet, Curtain Call and Party
With Fiddler, tradition is dashed at the outset. Instead of a Tevye in period drag, he is first seen, head uncovered, sporting a natty bright new red parka. Slowly, he sheds this for his conventional costume, reading the play's opening lines from a book as a fiddler rises gradually in the background on top of his cottage. Suddenly, we are home again in the perilous Anatevka of 1905. At the end when we must leave, Tevye reverts to contemporary clothes and takes his pushcart into life's eternal migration. This tweaking was to underscore the show's timelessness. "It's only a gentle gesture at the beginning and the end," the director advanced meekly. "We've had all these different waves of immigrants. They say the first families who came out absorbed and survived. The second ones completely denied the ones who came before them. (That was my dad. He didn't want to have anything to do with them.) The third ones became obsessed with their grandparents' lives, and the generation now has no idea about any of it, so I decided to speak to people who had no idea what the story was and see if they can find a resonance for themselves, seeking their own identity, asking these questions.
"I came up with this frame to make sense of that for me. This Tevye could be reading from a guide book, from Sholom Aleichem, from anything. At the end, having experienced the story, he decides to put himself in the place of his own ancestors and join the circle himself. Or, in the place of the Syrian refuges escaping Damascus."
Harnick subscribes to the same notion. "The end of the show — unfortunately, for humanity — always reminds us of something that's happening some place in the world," the lyricist noted on opening night. "It's severe right now with all the Syrian refuges, but, through the half-century of the show's existence, there has always been something in the world that echoes that exodus."
Whether the red parka clashes with the show's lingering last image is still a matter of internal debate for him. He put up strenuous resistance to this modernization during rehearsal, but eventually opted to go along with it. "I have mixed feelings about it, still. The reason I accepted it was that I found out many, many people — a significant part of the audience — are moved by it, and you can't argue with that."
He was not in any kind of argumentative mood about the rest of the revival, though. "It was very moving tonight, and I think this may be the best cast we've ever had. I thought they really each gave the best performance I've seen of the show so far."
It would be a mistake to call this meticulously crafted musical indestructible, however. Au contraire, he insisted. "It's nice of you to say that, but I saw a version in Denmark where they managed to destroy it. They had a vaudeville team of two violinists, who played each other's violin somehow, and they set up every scene. They didn't trust the audience to understand the scenes so they came out and told them. It was the shortest run [time] that the show has ever had. It ran an hour and a half."
Only Harnick, of the show's original core of creators, was present to see their handiwork win over a new generation of admirers. Spry and sprightly at 91, he bounded out of the audience and onto the stage for the final curtain call in a sprint that could only be described as "beyond brisk" (the consequence — according to his wife, Margery Gray, and their son, Matthew — of daily bike-riding).
He was joined there by the major players of this revival — Sher and his regular South Pacific-The King and I creative-team: set designer Michael Yeargan (a master of flying scenery — another Sher signature), costume designer Catherine Zuber, lighting designer Donald Holder, sound designer Scott Lehrer and conductor Ted Sperling.
Harnick led the relay race through the print and television interviews and outlasted most of the evening's party guests at the elegant opening celebration at Gotham.
The man of the hour was, as he should have been, the show's Tevye, Danny Burstein. Having perfected his expert character-acting in second-berth roles, he gets — and makes the most of — his shot at the star spot as the milkman whose travail includes five daughters he must marry off, never factoring in the possibility that each will follow her own heart. That's a lot of tradition to swallow and digest.
He was up to the heavy lifting, but pretty depleted by party time. "It is an awesome role. It is an awesome show. It's a masterpiece, and I'm exhausted," said Burstein. "That's what it's like doing the show. It's been a bear to get it up, and I know it'll be a bear to continue to play. But I love it, so I'm really looking into just settling into a good long run."
Jessica Hecht, who could be carving out a Wives of Famous Characters career (A View From the Bridge, Julius Caesar), is his loving, nagging Golde, and the chemistry they cook up is quite convincing, even though they've never worked together before.
"I feel connected to Golde through my grandmother and the history I've lived with," she admitted, "but I also have never done a musical before, so just the challenge of that has been extraordinary." And, yes, she does want to do more musicals now.
Broadway's fifth Fiddler took more than its share of critical brickbats for "not being Jewish enough" 11 years ago. That deficit seems to have thoroughly corrected this time out. Indeed, there may have been a questionnaire asking about family history on the audition application, given how many actors have drawn on personal data.
Adam Kantor, the first in the procession of suitors for Tevye's daughters, said the research he did last summer visiting where his ancestors are from and where the Tevye stories were written ("I, basically, found Anatevka") empowered him for the moment when Motel the timid tailor becomes a man and asks for the hand of Tzeitel (the wonderful Alexandra Silber). "Feeling the landscape and learning about the culture of the shtetl and learning about my roots strengthened my performance, I believe. I come from a line of Jewish immigrants who had to fight for their lives to make something of themselves. I just drew from them and what they went through."
Veteran comedienne Alix Korey, with her spot-on timing, is very much in her element as the village gossip and matchmaker, Yente. "The way I look at humor is 'Why is it funny to me?'" she explained. "If it's funny to me, I just have to figure out how to communicate that, so whatever that comes out of my mouth made me laugh."
No doubt the resonance of the material for the actors translates in their performances. It's this personal connection that will endear audiences to the latest mounting of the musical that has become Broadway's biggest tradition.