ON THE RECORD: Fiddler on the Roof and Barbara Cook's Broadway

News   ON THE RECORD: Fiddler on the Roof and Barbara Cook's Broadway
This week's column discusses the revival cast recording of Fiddler on the Roof, and Barbara Cook's Broadway.

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF [ps Classics PS-420]
The current revival of Fiddler on the Roof received a rather mixed reception. The main complaint was that it doesn't live up to Fiddlers past, and I'm somewhat in concurrence with that opinion. Let me say, though, without hesitation, that this Fiddler does indeed accomplish what it must. People who know the material going in might well find weaknesses, but theatregoers who have never seen Fiddler — a group that, needless to say, encompasses the majority of present-day potential ticket buyers — will likely come away appreciative of the material and wiping a tear. We have seen more than one recent revival where you had to wonder, was this show always so dull? Say what you will, this Fiddler works as a piece of theatre; except, perhaps, to those who walk in with the show floating through their memories.

"You don't have to be Jewish" went an award-winning advertising campaign for rye bread back around the time that Fiddler first opened. You don't have to be Jewish to love Fiddler on the Roof, nor do you have to be Jewish to direct Fiddler, or choreograph or design it or play Tevye. Librettist Joe Stein has told how he was approached at the Tokyo opening by a fellow who praised the show, but wondered how an American could possibly have understood so well the undercurrents of the traditional Japanese family.

You don't have to be Jewish, no; but Fiddler, on Times Square, needs Jewish flavoring, and that is what is missing on the stage of the Minskoff. (Jerry Robbins didn't come from Anatevka, but when he was six his parents took him back to Poland in search of the shtetl from which they came twenty-odd years earlier.) The performance, and the performances, are for the most part okay. The final track on the CD is illustrative. The chorus sings "Anatevka," and they sing it exceptionally well; crisp, clear and emotional, a well-trained choir.

And that's the problem, or one of them. Robbins and his authors went to great trouble to give a character (and a character-name) to each and every member of the ensemble. Someone sitting in the audience couldn't differentiate Yitzik, the Street Sweeper from Duvidel, the Seltzer Man, of course. But it gave the performers — each and every member of the cast — something to play when they were onstage. A personal point of view, from which to react to what the other characters said and did. Thus a community. Here, the character names have been retained (although poor Duvidel seems to have been cut); but the residents of Anatevka are a choir. Right church, wrong pew. Or, rather, wrong church, wrong pew.

This is not to fault director David Leveaux, at least not in my book. His assignment, presumably, was to breathe new life into Fiddler. Many took this as heresy, and I certainly preferred what I saw as a lad in 1964. But let me say this in defense of Mr. Leveaux and his producers: the last two or three Fiddlers I've sat through have been mighty tired. And let's make that mighty with a capital "M." Robbins' original staging was still there, with the great man himself usually stepping in to watch a dress rehearsal or two. But the magic was long gone; it sometimes looked as if Pat Zipprodt's costumes were doing the steps, dragging along whatever actor happened to be strapped inside. There also seemed to be a Fiddler Mafia of sorts, led by a group of fearsome, indestructible character ladies. Yes, I would be thrilled, today, to see the original Fiddler; but I would have to drag myself, unwillingly, to yet another tired retread. The Fiddler assistants know how to reproduce Robbins' 40-year-old staging; the steps, yes, but it's the spirit that was wanting. Thus, Leveaux's mandate was perhaps not to change Fiddler but to find a way to create the same kind of excitement, today, that it had in 1964. This meant changes, certainly. But changes of this sort can be treacherous. Radical restructuring can change and enliven an entire a show, as with the recent revival of Cabaret. But change of tone can just as easily backfire, as with the recent Man of La Mancha. And once you commit yourself to a concept, you can't turn back.

The conceptual changes in this Fiddler were not drastic, for the most part; nor were they harmful to the material, for the most part. But were they improvements over the original? And isn't that the only way we can measure Fiddler, a show that opened 40 years ago, closed 32 years ago, and reappeared on Broadway (in its original form) four years later, and then again five years later, and then again nine years later?

The cast recording of Leveaux's version reflects what is on stage, to both our ears and our senses. Everything is done well enough; but flavor, where art thou? Is there a performance on this CD that measures up to, in any way, the original Broadway cast album? I don't think so. The leading man, Alfred Molina, represented a brave choice to break away from the mold. (Who did you want, Theodore Bikel again?) You don't have to be Jewish to play Tevye; I suppose that Alfred Drake could have handled it, and Yul Brynner would have made an interesting — if impossible — choice. I'm told that Hisaya Morishige was pretty good, and he didn't look Jewish.

But Molina doesn't have the spirit, or the sparkle, or the musical comedy gene. The role of Tevye is laden with rueful jokes; rueful humor, the authors seemed to decide, was how these Jews in the shtetl got through the hardships of life. Molina says the lines, but he doesn't seem to get the jokes. When his daughter follows her arrested lover to Siberia, Tevye asks his friend, God, to take care of her. "See that she dresses warm," he can't help but add. (Siberia is a little chilly.)

That's a joke. A Jewish joke, yes, more Yiddish Theatre than Broadway. But Fiddler is Sholom Aleichem, folks, and that's the context in which the role is written. Listen to Molina try his best with "If I Were a Rich Man." You can almost hear him wince every time he comes to one of those digguh digguh daidles. And no wonder; it's hard to sing all those quacks and clucks and biddy-biddy bums. (Go ahead, try it yourself.) Difficult, yes. But Tevye needs to be able to quack and cluck and gobble and honk and eat whole milkcarts-full of scenery. Mere thespians needn't apply.

This new CD does bring us material we might not have on our shelves, especially the lovely "Chava" sequence, which in a way is the heart of the show. (This was originally a ten-minute ballet — choreographer Robbins' one major dance spot — but it was drastically whittled down during the Detroit tryout.) The other Tevye-God discussions are included as well, along with the new-for-2004 number "Topsy-Turvy," which doesn't quite come across.

Don Walker's original orchestrations have been sweetened somewhat; they seem to have tried to enhance the endings, for reasons unknown. Does this harm the music? No. Does this improve the music? No. Change for the better is good, but change for the same seems a step backward. This is not to blame the new orchestrator, Larry Hochman (who has done nice work elsewhere); he seems to have honored Walker as much as possible, making alterations only as specifically directed. The music and lyrics are presented admirably on this new CD, with technical precision, and I'm glad to say that the material, here, works.

But I ask, who d'ya wanna to listen to? This guy? Or Zero?

You need only hear the words Barbara Cook's Broadway, "a musical tour of the Golden Years of Broadway musicals," and you know pretty much you all you need to know. The operative phrase, here, being "Barbara Cook."

One London critic, in fact, was able to write and run a rave review of Ms. Cook's new concert last May without even seeing the thing. Ms. Cook visited London's Gielgud Theatre between her spring and summer engagements at Lincoln Center Theater, but illness forced the cancellation of her first eight of eighteen performances. No, the critic had apparently not seen the show in New York; but for all that, his lavish praise of the show wasn't all that inaccurate.

You can simply take yesterday's material and redo it today, but it won't necessarily have the same effect. (See the discussion of Fiddler on the Roof, above.) Cook and her musical director Wally Harper use yesterday's material, yes; but they distill, reexamine and animate it. Or let's just say, Barbara simply gets up there and sings the songs.

"Sing" is not an accurate description; "animate" is better. Cook seems to live these songs — live the emotions — each time through. Cook knows better than to sing "Mister Snow" like she did when she was 26. Too many people do, you know, and come across as middle-aged folk (or septuagenarians) trying to sound like they're 26. Cook and Harper have figured out how to give us the essence of Carrie Pipperidge, who was presumably in her late teens. Cook's "Wonderful Guy" is ageless. No, the singer isn't twenty-something, or however old Nellie Forbush was supposed to be when Rodgers and Hammerstein translated Michener's story into music; but listen to the performance on Cook's latest CD (from DRG). You don't stop to think how old the singer is; what's more, watching Barbara Cook's Broadway in the theatre — it's still onstage, at the Mitzi Newhouse — you don't stop to think how old the singer is, either.

As always, she is accompanied by Wally Harper's one-man band. Two-man, actually; Pete Donovan provides support on the bass. But Harper has the uncanny skill of reducing the original theatre arrangements of these songs down to ten fingers-worth, without losing a thing.

Cook gives us four songs from Rodgers and Hammerstein; as she tells it, she was a Rodgers and Hammerstein heroine who came along too late to originate any of the roles. (She also makes the point that while Julie Jordan is the star lady of Carousel, Carrie Pipperidge is much more fun.) We also get five songs from Bock and Harnick, which leave me wanting a whole album's worth of same. And while I could gladly listen to Cook's present-day take on Amalia Balash (her character in She Loves Me), the singer cannily gives us the songs she heard the other actors sing night after night. Thus, new life for that marvelous character-study "A Trip to the Library," as well as her one-time leading man's "Tonight at Eight" and "She Loves Me." The proceedings are laced with personal reminiscences, some more interesting than others. But the songs are the thing, and they make a wonderful hour's worth of listening. Let it be said that this collection does not have the power of Cook's prior outing, Mostly Sondheim [DRG 91464]. A number of the songs from non-Cook shows, inevitably, seem arbitrarily chosen. Some pay off, like "I'll Marry the Very Next Man" (from Fiorello!). But others, like "A Perfect Relationship" (from Bells Are Ringing), seem — well — arbitrary. Arbitrary, material-wise that is. Musically, though, I'm more than glad to hear whatever it is Ms. Cook (and Mr. Harper) see fit to present us.

—Steven Suskin, author of the forthcoming "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork" (Chronicle Books), the "Broadway Yearbook" series, "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by E-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.

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