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Kaleidoscope with Stewart Lane speaking to Miri Ben-Shalom on his Fiddler on the Roof Production
By Miri Ben-Shalom

Miri Ben-Shalom was born in Israel and studied Theater at Tel Aviv University. Since 1973 in New York. Miri has been a documentary filmmaker and editor for more than twenty years. She worked for the major TV networks, as well as many independent productions. She co-produced and edited the documentary preserving the Past to Ensure the Future that was nominated for an Academy Award. For other works she is a Telly Awards recipient, a US International Film and Video Festival winner and received a 1998 National Headliners Award. She also wrote several feature length screenplays. In the last three years Miri returned to her original interest – theater. Currently, the play I Want the Whole World to See that I Can Cry through her non-profit company From Home to Homeland, Inc., she is working on producing this play for the stage, as well as a touring educational version for high school and college students to enhance the teaching of the WWII Holocaust curriculum. www.icancry.org  . Miri is also the Literary Liaison of The Genesius Theatre Guild www.genesiusguild.org  . e-mail : mirib@earthlink.net  

Music by Jerry Bock. Lyrics by Sheldon Harrnick. Book by Joseph Stein. Directed by David Leveaux. Musical direction by Kevin Stites. Musical staging by Jonathan Butterell. Orchestrations by Don Walker. Additional orchestrations by Larry Hochman. Design: Tom Pye (set) Vicki Mortimer (costumes) David Brian Brown (hair and wigs) Brian MacDevitt (lights) Acme Sound Partners (sound) Cast: Stephen Lee Anderson, David Ayers, John Cariani, Nick Danielson, Randy Graff, Philip Hoffman, Laura Michelle Kelly, Alfred Molina, Sally Murphy, Nancy Opel, Tricia Paoluccio, Robert Petkoff, David Wohl.

Growing up in Israel, I first encountered Fiddler in elementary school. I loved studying the stories by Sholom Aleichem collected under the title: Tuvia, The Milkman, stories, in which laughter and tears always coexisted. Then I saw the musical interpretation, in Hebrew, called Fiddler on the Roof. I loved it just as much. Seeing it again after all these years, I could still sing most of the songs in Hebrew.

The original musical Fiddler on the Roof (Joseph Stein, book; Jerry Bock, music; Sheldon Harnick, lyrics; Jerome Robbins, directing and choreography) opened in 1964 with Zero Mostel in the lead role of Tevye. Unexpectedly, it was an enormous success. This team proved to be invincible. They created not only one of the most successful and beloved musicals in America, they created what became a Tradition. “This is a musical that was an icon when I was growing up,” says the producer of the current Broadway production, Stewart Lane. “For all these years, any wedding, or Bar Mitzvah, or birthday party, or any gathering, is permeated with songs from Fiddler. So we began to identify a whole time in our lives with this show. It became more then just a show. It became part of us, it developed into a life style – this is part of being an American Jew.”

The book’s interpretation of Aleichem’s stories is quite liberal and “Americanized.” It reminds me of the Jewish Conservative and Reform movements: watered down versions derived from the strict Orthodox religion, that made Judaism more popular and easier to practice, so that one could be a Jew and still conform to the American life style. Tevye, like the orthodox or conservative Jews, can go along with some of modern life’s conflicts with tradition, but draws the line when it comes to making what he considers a greater compromise. Breaking with tradition, he allows his oldest daughter, Hodel, to marry the man she loves, nullifying her already agreed upon arranged marriage. He not only allows, but blesses the marriage of his second daughter, Tcheitel, who chooses her own husband, and leaves her family and their village to go with him. But he rejects and disowns his third daughter, Chava, who marries outside her faith. In the original Sholom Aleichem story, he pronounces her dead and makes the family sit Shiva. In the conflict between his love for his daughter and his loyalty to his faith and heritage, the latter wins. Tevye embraces tradition and loses his own flesh-and-blood beloved daughter. The question that comes to mind: is it preferable to reject and disown, losing everything in the process, in order to avoid changes and keep one’s religion as is? Here, the majority of American Jews embrace the compromise – better to lose an arm and a leg but save the patient. In order to survive as Jews in American society, they choose to adapt. A certain leniency, allowing some degree of assimilation, has evolved in order to keep the younger generations from leaving the faith. The reform movement, for example, prevented the disintegration of many thriving Jewish communities.

Fiddler plucks at the same chord. The musical is milder and gentler, and this Tevye is a watered down version of Aleichem’s Tevye. Indeed, the name Fiddler on the Roof was drawn from a well-known, much loved image by Marc Chagall. It appeals to a wide variety of audiences, Jews and non-Jews alike. The story is heartfelt, not a heartbreaker. We are spared the worst. In the original story, Tevye’s “tsures,” or troubles, do not end with the loss of his third daughter, Chava, but with the tragic death of his forth daughter, Shprinze, who drowns herself after being rejected by a wealthy prospect. The Pogroms are also handled gently in Fiddler: the Cossack neighbors and the friendly police chief don’t wish to destroy the Jews, they are only obeying orders that come from higher up. Of course, there is no killing or vandalism – just exile. It might not be close to historical reality, but it makes a point, and it makes for a good musical that is a positive and influential part of Jewish American culture.

Since the 1964 Fiddler on the Roof debut, there have been several Broadway revivals (and numerous productions all over the world), in which the new Tevyes are forever condemned to be compared to the great Zero Mostel. The current production, directed by the Tony Award winner, British director David Leveaux (Nine), stars Alfred Molina (Frida) as Tevye. Since the book, the lyrics, the music (with the exception of one song) and the choreography were not changed, the director had a difficult task: to give the musical a fresh new look and interpretation.

Leveaux’s new concept certainly veered from tradition and has evoked mixed and opposing reactions. “Despite everything, however,” The Hollywood Reporter asserts, “‘Fiddler’ remains a magical experience, full of heart, humor and soul, and brimming with songs that one can barely resist joining in. While this new rendition hardly erases anyone’s vivid memories of the original production or its myriad faithful revivals,” critic Frank Scheck goes on, “it’s still nice to have ‘Fiddler’ back on Broadway where it belongs.” So thinks Richard Zoglin from Time magazine: “British director David Leveaux has removed or toned down much of the shtetl shtick that has become identified with the show… but that’s no reason to dismiss a striking Broadway revival that manages to shake off the cobwebs and relocate the emotional core of a show too often typecast as your grandmother’s favorite musical. This is a Fiddler for everybody.”

David Leveaux and his creative team, which included the set designer Tom Pye and lighting designer Brian MacDdevitt, stirred a controversy mostly over two aspects: Alfred Molina, as Tevye and the conceptually different look of the stage. As for Molina not being Jewish, most agree that it’s not a valid criticism. “An actor’s ethnic background really doesn’t matter, if he can sing, dance, and convey emotions,” writes Irene Backalenick at All About Jewish Theatre. “Should Jewish actors be banned from A.R. Gurney’s WASP plays or a Francis Ford Coppola Mafia movie?” David Finkle’s review at Theatermania.com goes even further: “It doesn’t mean that, as some show-biz buzz has it, the play is denatured if Tevye isn’t played by a Jewish actor or someone ‘acting’ pointedly Jew-ish. When you think of it, such comments border on being racist.”

However, the controversy goes beyond the ethnicity of the performers. “What’s lacking is the human passion and idiosyncrasy that would set fire to all this theatrical tinder,” says The New York Times’ Ben Brantley. “None of his [Molina’s] natural charisma or combustibility comes across here. Whether chatting with God, bickering with his wife or dancing at his daughter’s wedding, this Tevye does nothing wholeheartedly.” “In the role of Tevye, Alfred Molina is miscast,” agrees Kelly McAllister, writing for nytheatre.com. “His quiet, pensive presence seems an odd choice for Tevye.”

From the pages of Back Stage, Julius Novick thinks otherwise: “This is a new ‘Fiddler,’ handsome and lively, directed by David Leveaux with affection but not too much schmaltz (thus leaving it open to attack for having no ‘Jewish soul’). Alfred Molina is a vigorous Tevye, likable without being cute, who knows how to take stage and how to put over a song.” Curtain Up reviewer Elyse Sommer concurs: “Molina may not have a bar mitzvah in his resume, but his Tevye is a likeable and even somewhat romantic mensch.”

The newly conceived set design was discussed no less then Molina’s performance, and opinions are just at varied. Critics are divided on everything from placing the orchestra on stage, and having a relatively empty looking stage, to the bare birch trees and the symbolic indoors and outdoors structure: “THE most animated presence in the prim, pretty new production,” writes The New York Times’ Brantley “may well be its title character. No, not the Fiddler. The Roof… The designer Tom Pye has created what looks like a free-floating roof to hover over the set. This attractively weather-worn piece of architecture, this roof moves in mysterious ways, ascending and descending throughout the evening.” Curtain Up thinks highly of the “tradition breaking” staging, which parted from the Chagall look, and the use of the birch trees as a metaphor “for the theme of reluctantly abandoned tradition.” The reviewer, Elyse Sommer feels that “As the trees have lost their leaves so Tevye has lost his patriarchal hold over his daughters’ marriage... The evocation of Chekhov’s forests also link the Anatevka of 1905 to the larger events on the horizon - - events that prompted the hunger for lost roots and accounts for Fiddler’s lasting appeal to audiences of all faiths and nationalities.” Michael Feingold from The Village voice feels differently. By not using the original staging “as a skeletal structure that could be filled with spirit… unhappily, what the director and his design team seem to have striven for instead is to drain that spirit away: The new Fiddler takes place in an abstract techno-placelessness that couldn’t be anyone’s home village; you could stage a Guatemalan or Korean folk musical on it with equal lack of effect.”

I believe that, in fact, this was exactly the director’s intention - to achieve this “placelessness”, or universality. Fiddler on the Roof is a timeless hit because it appeals to everyone, everywhere – not only to Jewish audiences. It is reflected in Stewart Lane’s anecdote: “When the first Japanese production of Fiddler was produced, the composers Harnick, Bock and Stien went to Japan. They were all very nervous. ‘How’s a New York interpretive Jewish musical is going to work in Japan? During production they are all anxiously biting their nails. At the end the Japanese producer comes over to them and says: I don’t understand, I don’t know how this piece can work so well in New York. It’s so Japanese!”

Personally, I found the staging striking and appealing. Abstract? Not really. I would describe it as minimal and effective. The lighting of the Shabbat candles scene is breathtaking and one of the most beautiful moments I’ve seen on stage. As someone who has not seen Zero Mostel, or any other Tevye on Broadway, as someone who strongly rejects the notion that one must be Jewish to play the role, and as someone who loved Molina as Diego Rivera in Frida, I admit that I also found that Molina was lacking the earthliness, the warmth, the manners, or, yes, the “neshuma” - the “Jewish soul” that Tevye’s role demands. It distracted me for a while, but 15 minutes into the show - the magic took over! As Theatermania’s Finkle puts it: “By the time the ‘Tradition’ sequence finishes… it is safe to say that many in the audience have surrendered their hearts to the work of the creators and are already tearing up even while smiling broadly.”

I met producer Stewart Lane, at his comfortable, modest office in mid-town Manhattan, an office not quite as lavish and spacious as one might expect of a successful Broadway producer. Currently, in addition to Fiddler, two other of his musicals are running on Broadway: Thoroughly Modern Millie and Gypsy. The list of his productions, awards and nominations is long and can be found on his web site: www.mrbroadway.com .

“A Jewish musical when current atmosphere is not that positive toward Jews?” I wondered? “Isn’t it a bit risky? Why now”

“This is why! The answer is in the question. Even more reason. If this is not the time to be doing stories about Jewish themes and Jewish philosophy – when is? Fiddler on the Roof is an American story. The story of Motel the Tailor is my Grandfather’s story. He came here from Russia, a poor tailor who didn’t speak English, with his wife and children, set up shop in the Bronx, and put two sons through medical school and two daughters through college – as a tailor. That’s the American story.” Mr. Lane’s attachment to the story is evident. “After the show my daughter said - it’s a very sad ending, they’re forced to leave their homes – and I said, it’s a sad story, but they come to America and become successful. This is actually a happy ending,” he continues enthusiastically. He is excited, practically elated, so personally he identifies with the story. “This is the point of the end of the show. The traditions go on, hence the fiddler at this production hands the fiddle – or the traditions – to the young ones, to the young boy who goes off to America with Tevye and his family. The old bittersweet thing.”

“Why the new visual concept? Why not stick with tradition”

“We didn’t want to do the same old Fiddler. It’s been around for so long, people tend to think of it as an antique. David Leveaux gave us a new interpretation with a whole new set design. Unlike the original, as successful as it was, with its, Chagall-like bright colors sets, this one is very Chekhovian – very stark. It looks like a Russian winter. On the first day of rehearsals, in his opening speech, the director said: ‘this play comes with a lot of ghosts. Good ghosts, but we want to keep it fresh for a new generation. The 2004-generation is different from the 1964 generation. We experience life in a different way and we experience theater in a different way’. So he made it a Fiddler for our times – a classic story told in a new way.”

Richard Zoglin of Time magazine liked the new concept: “For a show set in pre-revolutionary Russia, Leveaux has taken a revolutionary communal approach: instead of schmaltzy star turn, he forged a cohesive and resonant human drama.”

“What do you think of the Alfred Molina as Tevye controversy?” I asked Stewart. The answer is another animated, humoristic tale: “There is this producer who’s working on Hamlet. They’re looking high and low for the perfect Hamlet, but they can’t find anybody. Finally a Jewish man walks in (with a heavy Eastern European Jewish accent): ‘I vant to audition for Hamlet’. And they say to him: ‘Excuse me sir, but we’re looking for more traditional Hamlet.’ However he says: (heavy accent) ‘No. I vant to audition.’ ‘There’s not much of a chance’ they say, but he persists (heavy accent): ‘I vant to have a chance to audition for Hamlet, or I vill call the union.’ They look at each other – they haven’t found anybody yet –‘go ahead.’ So he gets up on the stage, and in perfect clean English he goes with the ‘to be or not to be’ speech, his voice is resounding… they’re amazed, their jaws drop, at the end they clap ‘Bravo, that was wonderful. How do you do that?’ and he goes (heavy accent): ‘vell, that’s acting.’

And that’s what I felt about Alfred Molina doing Tevye. This whole concept of “you’ve got to be Jewish to play Shylock.” I mean – Please! Tell it to Laurence Olivier. You can’t play Death of a Salesman? You can’t play Willy Lowman? This whole concept is beyond me. He is an actor, and he does a wonderful job. Yes. I saw it with Zero and he was warm and wonderful, but he was very comical as Tevye, where Alfred takes a more serious approach to the acting of the character. He’s not looking for the gag or the laughs so much as he’s trying to tell some truth about the character. He takes much more sincere approach to it, which just works. He is a fine actor. Throughout the years there were a lot of non-Jewish Tevyes out there - it’s about acting. That’s my feelings about it. Before I became a producer I was an actor and I always approached theater initially from the performer point of view – character and motivation.”

“Tell me about your background” I asked, “how did you become a producer?”

“My father was a successful businessman. When I was 9,10,11 years old I was best friend with someone name Ricky. His father used to be at home in the afternoon when we came back from school. He was always around. ‘Does your father have a job?’ I asked him ‘Sure, he is an actor. He works at night.’ I really liked that concept – he’s home during the day, relaxed when everybody else is working, and then he goes to work at night. This is fun. They had a nice house with a jukebox and a soda fountain in the basement. One day Ricky invited me to see his father in a Broadway show. I had never seen a Broadway show before. I grew up in Great Neck, Long Island. It was 1962. A limousine drove us to the city, a beautiful theatre instead of that matchbox movie-house, a ticket with the name of the show on it and a playbill - two souvenirs – this is great! We sat in the front row, the curtains go up on Little Me, starring Ricky’s father – Sid Caesar. The whole experience was great. We went back stage, we saw the ropes and the tricks, and the actors, we saw Sid in his dressing room, with his friends coming backstage, smoking cigars – he’s got his own little home away from home. This is great fun! Imagine- you get to tell stories to audiences, then you party. This is beautiful. So, from then on I was obsessed with acting. Acting, writing, directing – anything that dealt with live performances.”

After graduating from Boston University, college of fine arts, with major in acting, Stewart worked as an actor until he felt his priorities had changed. Among others, being on the road for so many months was no longer as exciting. Wanting to expand, and to carve a niche for himself, he started by getting a job as an assistant house manager at the Brooks-Atkinson Theater.

“Instead of plot, character and motivation, I learned about payroll, union, box-office and boiler rooms – practicalities of running a show in the theater.” But – Stewart wanted more then being a caretaker, so he turned to Jimmy Nederlander, the owner. “‘Well, Stewart, he said, you want to learn about the theater – invest in my shows. I’ll put you through all the meetings, all the ad agencies – be there!’ So I got all that was left of my Bar-Mitzvah money and invested in a show called Whose Life It Is Anyway. It covered all that I was looking for in theater – it was a good play, it had something to say and was very dramatic. In fact, it won Tom Courtney a Tony Award, though we lost best play to The Elephant Man. This was the way to learn. There is no blue print in the theatre and they don’t teach it well in universities, for the most part. You’ve got to learn how to do it by practice, by experiencing it.”

This was 1979. Today, in addition to the three musicals on Broadway, an almost unparallel phenomenon in Broadway’s history, he is producing an Off Broadway one-man play The Two and Only at the Atlantic Theatre, about the history of ventriloquism. He is also planning a revival of La Cage Aux Folles, and a new musical Princess, loosely based on The Little Princess. And, he goes on “there is the play I wrote called In The Wings which will get a reading at the end of May. There is a Jewish mother in the play – this is not the Jewish mother like my Jewish mother, chicken soup and all – this is a Jewish mother today. A Modern Jewish mom, like my sister is. I’m also directing a reading of the play Final Appeal, by Billy Goda at the revolution theatre.”

However, he concludes, for him “Producing is work! Directing is fun, writing is fun and acting is fun. Producing is running a real business. You’ve got to meet payroll. People are counting on you for income; it’s a lot of responsibility."

“What is a life of a producer? Many think it’s basically the guy who comes up with the money.”

“Producer is the CEO – Chief Executive Officer. The buck stops with him. He hires everyone, he negotiates the deals, he finds the material – or the material finds him. He hires the marketing and advertising teams, press agents. He gets the theater, works with the director, coordinate everyone’s work together, and helps develop the project, because things don’t happen all by themselves. You build the plan that builds the building.”

The plan certainly worked for Fiddler on the Roof. I invited my 91 and 92-year-old parents in-law to see the show with me. Right behind us sat a family with 8 and 10-year-old children. The response was uniform, and ended up with a standing ovation. As Irene Backalenick puts it: “A new-old Fiddler on the Roof, and one to be cherished.”

Related Links:

  • Tragic magic Sholem Aleichem
  • Marc Chagall Bio
  • Review from Potomac Stages
  • Read more articles by Miri Ben-Sahalom
  • Molina,The man who plays Tevye is preparing his dressing room
  • Robbins' Sister Dies at 'Fiddler' Opening
  • Mr. Broadway Stewart F. Lane
  • Fiddler on the Roof on Playbill
  • Rosie in Fine Fiddler

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  • Miri Ben- Shalom

    Producer Stewart Lane

    Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916)

    Alfred Molina in Fiddler on the Roof

    Fiddler on the Roof

    Marc Chagall (1887-1985)

    Chagall's Fiddler on the Roof

    Chagall's Fiddler on the Roof

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