A Continuing Tradition

Originally written in November 2016 as a midterm assignment.

There is one word to describe how “Fiddler on the Roof”’s fictional shtetl of Anatevka kept its balance through the rocky beginnings of the 20th century: tradition. In the opening number of the musical – aptly titled “Tradition” – a milkman named Tevye, states that they have traditions for everything – “How to eat, how to sleep, how to wear clothes.”

“Without our traditions,” Tevye says at the end of the musical’s prologue, “Our lives would be as shaky as—as a fiddler on the roof!”

“Fiddler on the Roof” has become tradition.  It’s become a staple of American musical theater in its 52-year history, spawning five major Broadway revivals, and three West End revivals.

The musical was written in 1964 by three secular American Jewish men who identified with Judiasm culturally: composer Jerry Bock, lyricist Sheldon Harnick and playwright Joseph Stein.

“[Fiddler] was created at a time when there were many Jewish people in show business, but very few Jewish characters represented onstage in any real way. It was a huge step forward and incredibly culturally significant.” says 2016 revival cast member Nick Rehberger.

Alexandra Silber, who currently stars as Tzeitel on Broadway, says, “The story is not about American people. It’s about the people who became Americans.”

Fans of the musical and cast members alike all have stories for how the show first entered their lives and continued to affect them after the initial first exposure.

For Rehberger, it was a high school production he saw as a middle school student. It inspired him to take voice lessons. When the 2015 revival was announced, Rehberger knew that the show had one part for him: Fyedka, the Christian who has a hand in how Chava breaks tradition.

The creative team behind this production were also the people behind the first show Rehberger saw on Broadway: the Lincoln Center revival of South Pacific.

“It feels very special and full circle that I get to be a part of this particular show on Broadway,” he said.

For Silber, the show has personal meaning.

Her first exposure was also during school. She played Golde, Tevye’s wife, as a high school sophomore.

Silber said playing Hodel professionally was an outlet to grieve her father, who died almost five years before the production opened.

“I think that the train station scene became my, pardon the expression, platform for saying goodbye to my father, which was something that I was robbed of in my real life.” Silber said. She said that another gift “Fiddler” has given her is being able to dance with her father at her wedding.

Seeing the show at a young age is how one teenage fan initially connected with it.

Sydney Guye, 19, first saw “Fiddler” as a six year old with family who felt it was important for her to know her roots. She fell in love with the musical, and says she danced to the cast recording in her room for months following that.

Guye who was raised Jewish, planned on leaving much of her Judaism behind when leaving for college. Falling in love with Fiddler again through the revival and web content, including backstage vlogs, also changed the way she views her religion.

“I saw Judaism in a new light and realized that while I may not actively believe in it, I can still appreciate its culture and traditions.” said Guye.

Lena Nighswander is another young fan of “Fiddler”. She has used it to connect to her Jewish identity. As a child, her mother would sing the songs to her.

“It was just something that was constantly around during my upbringing.” Nighswander said. She also says she’s been influenced by “Fiddler” because it showcases and shows how interesting her culture is.

The influence and tradition of “Fiddler on the Roof”’s story goes beyond what’s presented on the stage.

The actor currently starring as Motel, Adam Kantor, spoke about the trip through Eastern Europe he took prior to beginning rehearsals in the last episode of the vlogs – backstage video blogs – he made at the beginning of the show’s run. He also wrote a piece on the trip, in the form of a monologue to Sholem Aleichem – he went and visited places outside of Kiev that served as inspiration for Aleichem, including finding the town he thought was the inspiration for Anatevka.

Silber’s next creative venture is directly inspired by Fiddler’s impact on her life.

“I was so haunted by the characters that I had to physically go to Siberia and write a 770 page book in order to exorcise the haunting they had embodied me with.” She said.

This is one way that Fiddler’s traditions are being rewritten – Silber gives an end to Hodel in her upcoming book After Anatevka, one that the musical doesn’t provide. The novel will be released next July.

UNICEF teamed up with the cast of the current revival to raise money and awareness for the refugee crisis, as the Anatevkans become refugees at the end of the musical.

In an article for UNICEF, Kantor said “Our director was really adamant that we be aware of the refugee crisis today throughout the rehearsal process.”

The classic song from the musical, “Sunrise, Sunset” has become a staple at Jewish weddings, but it was recently given a makeover to reflect more modern couples; lyricist Harnick released lyrics for two new versions, for female and male same-sex couples.

50 years after its premiere, Fiddler’s significance hasn’t faded, and it doesn’t seem like it will.

“We all know a gossip like Yente or a father like Tevye. It’s the personal connections we have to the characters that allow for it to stay relevant.” Nighswander said.

Guye also thinks the show will stay relevant.

“It has affected so many people because of its story about family, faith, and tolerance that is always applicable to a culture, though it may not always be the same one.” she said.

Rehberger described the significance best by saying, “Every generation needs its own Fiddler on the Roof.”

 

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