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A Behind the Scenes Look at the Classic, Fiddler on the Roof

Ellen Levitt

Posted on September 2, 2018 11:46

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There is a new production of the theater classic Fiddler on the Roof playing at the Museum of Jewish Heritage -- in Yiddish. The museum is holding a series of panel discussions about the show, and I attended one that brought together five veterans of the show and the film.

The Broadway show Fiddler on the Roof is one of the most beloved classics of American musical theater. It has played around the world and been revived on Manhattan's Broadway and London's West End several times. The 1971 film version won three Academy Awards and two Golden Globe awards.

Currently there is a ground-breaking staging of the play, directed by legendary actor Joel Grey, and performed in Yiddish at the lower Manhattan Museum of Jewish Heritage.

In addition to the play, which began its run in July and will go through late October, the museum has sponsored a series of panel discussions about the show. I attended the fascinating talk "The Tradition of Fiddler on the Roof" which included Rosalind Harris, Joanna Merlin, Austin Pendleton, Robert Aberdeen and Stas Kmiec. All have played roles in the musical or the film and Mr. Kmiec is a historian of the show as well. 

Throughout this exuberant and eye-opening talk, which included a Q&A segment, the five veterans of stage and screen spoke about their parts in the show, their auditions, their analysis of how the original theater production took shape, and  dollops of gossip and entertaining anecdotes.

The audience was privy to behind-the-scenes glimpses at the craft of acting. We listened to the actors and actresses speak about their auditions, the decisions they had to make about choosing songs and master teachers, how they were mentored and in turn mentored others. Some of the cast members described how they went on multiple auditions for Fiddler parts, and sometimes ended up with different roles than they had expected. 

We were regaled with tales about how the original Fiddler was shaped, and how it was in danger of being closed when it initially was not popular. Songs were cut and changed. A ballet featuring middle Chava went from ten minutes to elimination. The mournful ending number "Anatevka" was first a buoyant company song in the middle of the production. Lyrics and lines were changed around and eventually the hit musical was born, after out-of-town runs in Detroit and elsewhere.

Another layer to the panel which interested me was the discussion about director-choreographer Jerome Robbins's huge role in the show and musical. (Note: from the late 1970s through early 1990s I attended performances at the New York City Ballet, and Mr. Robbins frequently sat in my aisle, Row J, to watch one or more of the dances.) The cast members spoke at length of how hard they had to work for "Jerry" but that they all were thrilled with the outcome.

The interplay between the cast members and Mr. Kmiec, who moderated the talk, was highly enjoyable. Ms. Harris told of how the five "daughters" in the movie were barked at by director Norman Jewison for not shaving their armpits. Mr. Pendleton spoke of hijinks perpetrated by the original Tevye, Zero Mostel.

As a big fan of Fiddler, I was completely thrilled and charmed by this talk!

 

Ellen Levitt

Posted on September 2, 2018 11:46

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Source: NYT

Joel Grey, center, directing Steven Skybell, left, who plays Tevye, and Bruce Sabath, right, who plays Leyzer-Volf, in the...

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