A new, groundbreaking Yiddish-language production of “Fiddler on the Roof” premieres tomorrow (Wednesday, July 4), presented by National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene (NYTF) at the Museum of Jewish Heritage,in Battery Park City.
The show is directed by Joel Grey, best known to audiences as an actor — and one of only eight people ever to have won an Academy Award and a Tony Award for playing the same role, in this case, the Master of Ceremonies in both the film and stage versions of the musical, “Cabaret.” But Mr. Grey is also a polymath who has carved out formidable reputations as a director, a singer and dancer, and a photographer.
“I really understand this show,” Mr. Grey says, reflecting on the vision he has brought to the new production of “Fiddler” as director. “I’ve seen it as many times as it’s been produced, and even though I don’t speak Yiddish fluently, I understand a lot. But more importantly, I know what the show is about, and I also know what it could be about at a time like this, with the issues of immigration and people wandering all over the United States and all over the earth.”
This production will be the American premiere of “Fiddler on the Roof” in Yiddish. The translation is the work of noted Israeli actor/director Shraga Friedman, who strove to remain faithful to the spirit of the English-language dialog by Joseph Stein and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. But he also aimed for a deeper connection to the original stories by Sholem Aleichem, about a character called Tevye the Dairyman, on which Mr. Harnick and Mr. Stein based “Fiddler.” One contrast is that the Yiddish version of the musical contains many literary references to Aleichem’s stories that did not appear in the English original.
“You can’t kid yourself with this show being performed in Yiddish,” Mr. Grey reflects. “Hearing this version transports us to an atmosphere where bigotry — in this case, anti-Semitism — is very real and very present. In the first scene, the Russians are telling the Jews, ‘stay in your own neighborhood, or something could happen.’ And of course it does, at it always has. And the scenes where Tevye and his family are forced to leave Anatevka brings this to life, also. The ancient sound of Yiddish attached to these issues is very compelling.”
“The fact that ‘Fiddler’ has played in so many counties and places that are worlds removed from the shtetl of Anatevka, speaks volumes,” he notes. “Everywhere this show has played, even in places like Japan, the audience see themselves in it. It speaks to everyone who has been marginalized.”
Mr. Grey reflects that, “I think that there’s an authenticity to this version that we never knew existed. I think people will recognize their own humanity in the characters, through the similarity of their pasts.”
“I believe that we’re at a place in time where things are very bad on a lot of levels,” he adds. “The show reminds us of how similar the times are in a certain way to Anatevka in 1905, and how certain things have never been diminished. This is sad, but it is true.”
“One way in which the world is different now,” Mr. Grey observes, “is that some people have talked themselves out of believing they are in harm’s way, just to feel safe. This amounts to a false security, based on wishful thinking, which the show hints at. But I think we’re all clearly facing some kind of chaos.”
“‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ on a basic level, is about the loss of family and the inability to control events,” he notes. “Tevye’s daughters leave the family. But this human drama, against the backdrop of bigotry and political turmoil, makes the show as current today as it was in the day it premiered, more than 50 years ago. And producing this version in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty could not be more fitting.”
“Fiddler on The Roof” performances run from July 4 to August 26, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage (36 Battery Place, near First Place), which is the new home of NYTF. Now celebrating its 104th season, NYTF is the world’s oldest continuously operating Yiddish theater company, and the longest consecutively producing theater troupe of any kind in the United States.
The show will be presented in Yiddish with English and Russian supertitles. Tickets are priced at $57 and up. For tickets or for more information, please browse www.NYTF.org or call 866-811-4111.
NYTF and the Museum of Jewish Heritage are co-presenting a series of five Wednesday evening forums (from July 18 through August 22), entitled, “Fiddler Talks: From Anatevke to Broadway and Back Again.” Each week will focus a separate theme. The first talk in the series, “The Making of Fiddler on the Roof” (July 18) will explore the show’s rich history, through a conversation featuring Mr. Harnick (who won a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for “Fiddler”) and Alisa Solomon, the author of “Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of ‘Fiddler on the Roof.'”
On July 25, the talk will be about “Transforming ‘Fiddler On The Roof’ Into ‘Fidler Afn Dakh'” and will feature Mr. Grey, along with choreographer Staś Kmieć.
“The Tradition of ‘Fiddler on the Roof'” will take center-stage on August 1, with Austin Pendelton, the actor who originated the role of Motel the Tailor in the 1964 production of the show.
On August 8, the talk will be about, “Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye And ‘Fiddler’ — Or Was Tevye A Traditional Jew?” Ruth Wisse, Harvard University’s Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and Comparative Literature will moderate.
And the series will close out on August 22 with a presentation of, “The Yiddish Mark Twain,” conceived and performed by Bob Spiotto, who will recall Sholom Aleichem’s legacy with stories featuring the author’s unique (and delicate) amalgam of humor, horror, pathos, and philosophical insight — as well as words of wisdom and advice from Tevye, the milkman.
Tickets to the Wednesday evening series (all talks begin at 6:30 pm) are priced at $5 to $10 and can be purchased at www.mjhnyc.org.
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