As I’ve said in these cyber-pages at least a few times before, any meaningful revival of a classic musical that isn’t just a remounting of the original production, is a conversation with that original production—and this is, curiously, true even if the later creative team never saw the original production. And that’s because, unlike a play, where you can literally start with nothing but what’s on the printed page, a musical casts all kinds of shadows; cast albums, archival footage, the absorption of songs into the collective consciousness, even film adaptations, if they’re faithful enough, seep into the cultural zeitgeist. Past-period sensibility communicated by the script, score, orchestrations, style—all those artifacts of complex, balanced collaboration essential to learning the material well enough to work with it—assure that no director approaching a standard or a classic with a presumably “fresh take” gets to be entirely a virgin. And this is why revivals are subject to SUCH scrutiny, analysis and, frankly, rabid word of mouth. A great musical’s stature can belie a surprising internal delicacy, and in revival, a miscalculation of tone, focus, or emphasis can—and usually will—resonate throughout the entire show. Subsequently, a production that looks to do more than just recreate or approximate its antecedent is really out to rebuild something that’s already been built. The most successful revivals triumph by finding implicit qualities in the material that the original production didn’t exploit, often because of its era of authorship—i.e. the recent trend toward infusing classic Rodgers & Hammerstein shows with nuanced, “realistic” acting to bring out the subtler psychological, humanist values that older, broader techniques didn’t sufficiently communicate; a trend at which Bartlett Sher has proven himself a grand master.
Fiddler on the Roof provides a slightly different challenge, though, for the original ’64 production was no stranger to humanist nuance. Its director-choreographer, Jerome Robbins, was not only obsessively aware of telling a deep story about changing traditions that would cross cultural lines (with what would prove an astonishing universal appeal, with which the most foreign-seeming cultures still identify), but had been the one to insist on the show having a thematic spine in the first place. It was very far removed from the stock, broad acting styles that informed most original cast productions (including R&H) of decades past—except arguably some of his own. Indeed, by the mid-60s, the synthesis of realistic and musical theatre performing was well underway.
So what is it, exactly, that Mr. Sher has re-investigated with his late-2015 revival, currently at the Broadway Theatre (to which the original production moved and where it eventually closed)? If I had to give it an identity, I’d say corners of verité. This manifests in two ways.
First, one must note that, tacitly, a good deal of the original production’s style had its roots in the Yiddish theatre of the first half of the 20th century. And that in 1964, the entire creative team, and key members of the cast, were old enough to have seen the real thing. The conventions and styles of Yiddish theatre were part of their first hand heritage. Robbins employed its broadest tropes selectively (“Tevye’s Dream” for example), and in grounded scenes never in any way that broke illusion of a kind of reality; but they were there. It’s not such a pervasive influence for Mr. Sher, though, at least not identifiably so. If Fiddler were about Yiddish theatre players, Sher would focus on how those Yiddish archetypes might have lived their lives off stage.
Second: a fresh, newly minted musical number by a high octane writer, or team of writers, tends to have a self-evident energy; the fusion of melody, accompaniment figure, linguistic particularity, placement in the narrative, do a great deal to dictate line reading and interpretation, as indeed they must; numbers molded originally around a particular actor even more so. A kind of template is thus created; subsequent players of the roles need not dig too deeply for their human truths, because a full set of them comes with the show’s legacy. They only need to find their own ways of fulfilling the known endgame.
Sher removes the known endgame from the equation, except for the obvious mapping of structural intent. He—and I don’t have any inside track, I just believe this is the process, based on what I see onstage—approaches each song as a scene that has never before existed, and guides each actor through a beat-for-beat examination. This leads to some highly surprising and highly potent new emotional turns, because the point of the beat-for-beat examination is to find places where the human stakes have not been fully exploited. Thus what was once mostly a charming number for Tevye’s three eldest daughters, “Matchmaker, Matchmaker”, as they contemplate their possible futures in a culture where arranged marriages are the norm, becomes a number of commiseration among three hearts, all starting to realize how vulnerable they are to factors that have nothing to do with their dreams or desires. It’s all there in the song, but what’s not there is the proportion to which Sher has decided to emphasize it. That said, he’s totally unafraid of, and unopposed to, the notion of rediscovering a classic take, but it has to happen as an organic inevitability. This makes for a Fiddler that is both traditional and more intimate than we’ve ever seen it before. And not incidentally, it’s the mechanism that allows Danny Burstein, a master of light comedy, to imbue his Tevye—and it’s a rich, heartfelt Tevye—with weight and consequence.
And this of course cascades around him to all the other members of the ensemble as well. And they’re all splendid.
New choreography (Hofesh Schecter, Christopher Evans), scenery (Michael Yeargan) and costumes (Catherine Zuber)—taking a certain inspiration from Robbins and his original team, because there’s no choice, but also marking new territory in the same way, exploiting fresh research into the era and indicia of Sholem Aleichem’s world—are also a reflection of this beat-for-beat re-assessment.
All this acknowledged, does that make this Fiddler better than the original, as Sher’s R&H revivals have unequivocally improved upon their originals? No; the first production, at its freshest, best-maintained and most meticulously revived is too dynamic to be eclipsed, too full-blooded to be retroactively reframed as “oldschool.” But it does make the new Fiddler have an equal footing, because it addresses its new millennium era in terms that are as potent, with an approach not previously available.
And what more is there for a revival to do?
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