One Wednesday last month, during the lingering lull that separates matinee and evening storms, talent from two different productions settling on Broadway this season learned over a late lunch how alike they — and their respective shows — really are. You might not think it at first.
On the one hand you have Allegiance, the new musical by Mark Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione, at the Longacre Theatre, inspired by the childhood that its star, George Takei ("Star Trek"), 78, spent in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II. On the other, Fiddler on the Roof plays the Broadway Theatre and tells of Jews being expelled from Imperial Russia in 1905 by edict of the Tsar. For Fiddler lyricist Sheldon Harnick, 91, this sixth Broadway production is his first without writing partners composer Jerry Bock and book writer Joseph Stein who died within ten days of each other in 2010.
Both shows seem to come with a unique world view, but the closer you get the more that uniqueness blurs into universality. What's geography and politics next to humanity?
"The first time Fiddler had one of those Actors Fund benefits," Harnick recalls, "we were worried it was too Jewish. Then, at the intermission, Florence Henderson came running up to me and said, 'Sheldon, this show is about my Irish grandmother!'" Fiddler is just as fail-safe in Tokyo, too, he says. "Joe Stein insisted one of our Japanese producers said, 'How come this works in New York? It's so Japanese!'"
"It is Japanese," Takei agrees, and breaks into a laundry list of similarities. "It's again a group of people, focusing on a family, that's under a very authoritarian kind of environment. The love that the family has, the patriarchic structure, marrying daughters off, tradition — that's all very Japanese."
Takei's empathy kicked in right with the original 1964 production that starred Zero Mostel as Teyve, the milkman with five imminently marriageable daughters on his hands and menacing anti-Semitism breathing down his neck — a life "as precarious as a fiddler on the roof." But it was not until years later when he saw a Japanese-language Fiddler in Tokyo that the show really hit home.
The scene where the Tsar's soldiers order the people out of Anatevka triggered a post-traumatic stress reaction. "For me, to see Japanese faces [of those actors] being ordered out by soldiers flashed me back to when I was five years old.
"My parents woke us up very early that day. My brother and I were told to wait in the living room while they finished packing. … We saw two American soldiers marching up our driveway. They stopped at our front porch, banged on the door with their fists, and, when my father answered it, we were literally ordered out of our home at gunpoint. We took only what we wore and could carry. My father had to sell his car for five dollars.
"I remembered some people who lived across the street from our home as we were being taken away. When I was a teenager, I had many after-dinner conversations with my father about our internment. He told me that after we were taken away they came to our house and took everything. We were literally stripped clean."
The first stop after being ordered out of their home was the Santa Anita Park racetrack. "Each man's family was assigned to a horse stall because the camps were being constructed. For my parents, it was a degrading, dehumanizing, horrible experience — but, for five-year-old me, I got to sleep where [horses] slept."
The Anatevka exodus was comparably chaotic and heartbreaking — and a fire sale as well. "It was very difficult to sell everything so quickly in the three days they had to get out," Harnick notes. "The man who ran the inn had all those bottles of liquor, which I'm sure he sold for pennies. In our show, Tevye has a cart, so he could take a little more than what was on his back. It's the image that ends the show, and what's so tragic is that for years now, every time I've seen a production it has inevitably reminded me of what's going on in the world. These days you'll think of Syria."
The difference between the uprootings, says Harnick, "is George has lived it, and I haven't."
"I remember when people heard we were making a musical out of Sholom Aleichem stories, they said, 'How brave you are!' And I said, 'No, we're not,'" says Harnick. "'I was in World War II. I was a soldier. There, I was brave. But doing a big musical on Broadway…'"
He paused a mischievous beat. "Of course, with critics, I guess it does take bravery."