When lyricist Sheldon Harnick attended the Tokyo production of his musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” he couldn’t believe what he saw: sold-out audiences every night and lines at the box office that stretched around the block.
How could a musical about a Jewish family in Russia be such a smash hit in Japan? He asked one of the show’s Tokyo producers to explain. The answer startled him:
“Because it is so Japanese.”
Japanese? Yes, and Russian and American and probably Spanish and Malaysian and Egyptian. The universal themes of family and tradition explored in this 1964-vintage musical transcend all boundaries, those of time as well as nations.
“This is a story about a specific group of people at a certain time. But everything it deals with everyone has experienced,” says Eric Polanyi Jensen, who plays the lead role of Tevye in Arizona Theatre Company’s production of “Fiddler.” The performances begin Friday, January 6, at the Herberger Theater Center.
“Fiddler on the Roof” musically relates the tale of Tevye, a dairyman in the small Jewish community of Anatevka in 1905. He, his wife and daughters, and the rest of Anatevka face the challenge of engaging the modern world while maintaining their traditions. (The opening number is called “Tradition.”) Thus, the title image of a fiddler trying to “scratch out a pleasant tune” while staying balanced on a rooftop. As Tevye’s daughters find husbands, one by one their choices challenge the values of family and community.
“Every parent knows this situation. It’s the difference between what you think your kid will be and what they want to be,” Jensen says.
“The question is, how far to bend?”
It’s not just the story, but how the story is told that makes “Fiddler” a perennial.
“The score is gold, and the book (script) manages to create a whole community of characters, a town full of people,” says David Ira Goldstein, ATC’s longtime artistic director, and the stage director for “Fiddler.” It is Goldstein’s last season, and he decided to go out with a classic musical that is very large in scale, as opposed to some of the more current, small-scale musicals that dominated the company’s recent seasons.
“You need a lot of actors to do this show. You can’t do it with fewer than 27 people. Years ago, we did ‘My Fair Lady’ by cutting the cast down to 20. But in ‘Fiddler’ there’s no chorus per se. Every person onstage is a certain character,” Goldstein explained.
Goldstein’s take on the show’s universality extends to the current state of political affairs:
“This is not a political show, but it brings to us in a very human way what it means to lose your home.”
As the show progresses, the Jewish settlement is subjected to repression and pogroms—politically motivated attacks—until at last, the community is kicked out altogether.
“It’s about deportations and refugees. You can’t watch this without thinking of what’s going on in the world. From the sniffles around me during previews, I think it succeeds in humanizing something that’s very abstract,” Goldstein says.
“Getting people to walk in other people’s shoes—that’s what theater does best.”
The music, by Jerry Bock, draws on the tradition of Jewish folk music. Its songs include the perennial hits, “If I Were a Rich Man” and “Sunrise, Sunset.” Despite the references to deportations and the struggle between tradition and modernity, “Fiddler on the Roof” is also rife with jokes, written originally for the first man ever to play Tevye in the show, rotund funnyman Zero Mostel. An extended sequence where Tevye conveys to his wife, Golde, a dream in which their daughter, Tzeitel, is seen to marry the young man she loves rather than the rich old man to whom she is betrothed, is a classic of Broadway comedy.
The show is an ensemble work requiring all 27 members of the cast to bring the town of Anatevka alive. But it is the character of Tevye, which originally appeared in the short stories of Sholem Aleichem, that serves as a lightning rod for the emotions and embattled traditions of the disappearing past.
“It’s such a beautiful role with so much heart and passion and humor. Those don’t come around very often,” says Jensen, who previously played Tevye in a Goldstein-directed production in Seattle.
One of only a handful of musical roles for mature stage actors—others include Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady” and Don Quixote in “Man of La Mancha”—it brings with it a number of challenges—like facial hair. Tevye is supposed to sport a thick beard, but Jensen says he barely had time to grow one between his last role, which required him to be clean-shaven, and last month’s opening of ATC’s “Fiddler” in Tucson. (The company produces in both cities.)
“It’s a show about hope more than anything,” says the now fully-bearded Jensen. “Hope for people who may fight among themselves, but who find a way to embrace each other and move forward.”
In short, it’s about family in the biggest sense of community and humanity.
“I think that the biggest universal truth is love and compassion for family. We all have our different faiths and we hold them as fast as we can, but the desire for family and for belonging holds us together.”
“Fiddler on the Roof,” Herberger Theatre Center, 222 E. Monroe Street, Phoenix, 602.256.6995, arizonatheatre.org, various times Friday, January 6, to Sunday, January 29, tickets start at $46.