At first blush, a tale of traditional Jewish pilgrimage, but upon closer examination, a story about the ongoing narrative of refugees the world over, as universally applicable in the early 20th century as it is in the early 21st. I had the privilege to see Fiddler on the Roof with my family during its last week on the stage, since it just finished its run at the end of the year. A play that transcends geo-temporality; it could have taken place anywhere, and at any time in human history. The story of the overlooked and underprivileged Jews of Anatevka yesterday could easily be swapped for the challenges facing the Sunni refugees of Aleppo today. The ability for virtually anyone to relate to its overarching themes and inherent struggle is a testament to the play’s timelessness and justification as an oft-revived musical throughout the last half century.
For me, the show hits home. Specifically, my Grandma’s home.
When Poland was invaded by Germany during World War II, my grandfather, along with his sister and four brothers, fled to Russia where they toiled away in a labor camp until the end of the war. Afterward, they went to Germany and attempted to pick back up the pieces of their fragmented lives before moving to the states in 1951. My grandma led a parallel life, escaping Poland for Russia with her mother during the war before moving to Israel to start life anew. Her father was sent to the Polish Resistance and never returned. She and her mother escaped to Russia where they hid until the end of the war before moving to Israel. It wasn’t until the early 1950’s when my grandfather, as was customary at the time, flew out to Israel to try and find a wife, that he met and convinced my grandma to move back with him to Brooklyn. I might otherwise not be here at all.
But, back to the show-business at hand. Danny Burstein, a journeyman actor with varying degrees of success both on and off Broadway throughout the years, tackles the larger-than-life task of recreating Zero Mostel’s original Tevye, sole dairy supplier of Anatevka. As is always the case with a restaging of a show etched in the collective viewer’s memory, he faces the challenge not only of a demanding role, but of nostalgia itself. Burstein delivers a career-defining performance, instilled with equal parts pathos and bathos, always pulling back with self-deprecation before evoking too much pity from the crowd. He toes the line between sweet and saccharine, turning to the audience as a stand-in for God himself, as he waxes and wanes from one hand to the other when weighing whether to allow his daughters to marry whom they please.
Set against the backdrop of early 20th century Russia, Tevye and his neighbors struggle to eke out a livelihood and support their families. The constant threat of violence looms around the corner, the local Russian army presence always at risk of lashing out at the whim of national orders for pogroms throughout the country. More character than caricature –the butcher, Yenta, the Rabbi –all actors imbue a touch of humanity in each role, as relevant today as when Joseph Stein penned the original book. The viewer is thrust into a world entirely its own, and fully realized. It’s lived-in and comfortable in its own skin, entrusting theater-goers to keep pace. Though overt in its Jewishness, it speaks to struggle everywhere.
On one hand, the story’s about religious persecution and its sweeping effects on the psyche of the Jewish people. On the other hand, a tale of hope and redemption in the face of injustice, a religious group with the inner-resolve to fight for a better tomorrow. On the other hand, a play about a father’s stubborn grip on upholding tradition at all costs, even as it potentially bankrupts his children’s happiness. On the other hand, a narrative about the progress and regress of a Jewish people adapting to modernity, and the birth of the 20th century woman.
The melodies of the old country are as catchy today as they were when they first debuted in 1964. Lush orchestration, led by Jerry Bock, weaves throughout the narrative, always adding extra flourish to complement show-stoppers like “If I were a Rich Man” and “Tradition”. The dialogue bobs and weaves like a title fighter. I relished knowing the punchlines before they were delivered, like how today’s biggest comedians memorized and recited back their favorite comedy albums of their heroes growing up. As the adage goes, you need to laugh or else you’ll cry. Tevye’s story, like my grandparents’, mirrors the stories of millions of other Jews throughout the 20th century, and countless refugees fleeing their homes for better opportunity on America’s shores. It’s telling then that most characters aren’t given a last name. They could be any one of us.