Fiddler on the Roof - Musical
Updated: Jul 9, 2022
I bet most of you went through this by now, but has it taken you a lengthy portion of time to see what you wanted to see for no other reason than because of delays caused by COVID-19 restrictions? For moviegoers, that would’ve included Top Gun: Maverick. For me, and you might already have expected this considering how much I talked about it each year, it would be the stage musical ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’
Based on the short stories by Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem, the story, set in early-20th-century Russia, is about a Jewish family settling in the Russian countryside and trying to uphold their traditions. Tevye, the father, did his job around the village, called Anatevka, as the local dairyman, handing out creams, milk, and cheeses to the fellow farmers and villagers. In the household, he had five daughters, all of whom he, his mother, and the village’s matchmaker, Yente, arranged for potential marriage.
However, one by one, Tevye’s three eldest daughters each found themselves a suit they’re most comfortable with, despite their picks being not met favorably by the local townsfolk, least of all by Tevye. In their town, their ideas of upholding their tradition included having the sons and daughters betrothed to whoever they considered the proper match. It was shocking news to everyone, especially his father, Tevye, who reacted with mixed feelings over the matter every time his daughters confronted him about their picks. Sometimes, he saw the benefits of something new, but other times, he’s hesitant to stoop to that level and uphold what he valued most in his traditional beliefs. Something else that happened was that one of his daughters’ boyfriends was a visiting Christian who wanted to preach the good things that (his) God would’ve preached among his people. This, too, left the local villagers and Tevye turned off.
But that’s not the only thing Tevye had to worry about, especially for the villagers. Czar Nicholas II continued to tighten his grip on Jewish communities across Russia, and it appeared that Anatevka would have been next in line to have its citizens evicted. So, Tevye and the villagers had to decide by then what to do with their families, homes, traditional values, and lifestyles once that came into effect.
Let me clarify my experiences with this musical: much like ‘Of Mice and Men,’ this is a critique of the local production I’ve seen of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ at the Magic Circle Players Theater in Montrose, Colorado. Not many of you may be familiar with this or the actors who performed in this production, but that still won’t stop me from telling you exactly who I thought did a good job here.
To start with, I was impressed by the two actors who played Motel, Tzeitel’s boyfriend, and Fyedka, the Christian wanderer. Jonathan Heath portrayed Motel with a very meek disposition while also trying to find the footing necessary to stand firm and be brave with his decisions, even if he had to face some scolding by Tevye. Something about this demeanor reminded me of Seymour Krelborn from Little Shop of Horrors from time to time. And Zachary Bailey, who portrayed Fyedka, seemed very well-mannered, slick, courteous, and looked like he was looking out for the best interests of whoever he met and spoke with, regardless of their beliefs and if they differed from his own.
I also felt humbled by the actresses playing Hodel, the second eldest daughter, and Chava, the middle daughter. As Hodel, Shannon Rediger seemed very bright and energetic, almost like she was gleefully ready to take on whatever small opportunity she had. But she also expressed some genuine hesitation over her life decisions, such as when Hodel had to relocate herself to another part of the country to support her husband, Perchik. And Jewel VandenHoek, as Chava, felt like a modest and humble little girl who started to embrace the tendencies of adult romantic lifestyles. I also thought Marshall Pendergrass, who played the village butcher, Reb Lazar Wolfe, generally felt dignified. Despite his character’s age, he portrayed him with a very modest yet fashionable flair, emphasizing the character’s reputation as a good friend of Tevye and even his daughter, Tzeitel, even if he would’ve made a poor match for her. Patti Schiffany also did an excellent job portraying the mother, Golde, with a more down-to-earth and slightly witty demeanor to overshadow her more rigid upbringing within her family.
But in my book, the one that shone in this musical was Kenny Easton as Tevye. He felt like he utterly owned his role and emulated his voice to perfectly match Tevye’s strong yet groggy voice. The voice was such that it recreated and nicely matched what was already mastered before by such actors as Zero Mostel and especially Chaim Topol. He enlivened his character and brought him to life as I hoped he would have in a musical like this.
As far as I know, this is all I have to get out of the way regarding the musical’s more local elements. Now, launching into the musical itself, there are so many things about it that I admire.
The story carried some intriguing vibes due to the many compelling issues it addressed. For example, how much of your tradition could you hold onto in the face of change? How much of your tradition should you hold onto? Is tradition more valuable than love? How much should you evaluate your family over your tradition? And finally, there’s the issue of marriage versus love. I understood that several hundreds of years ago, whenever religious organizations took their devotions seriously, they took them very seriously. Tevye demonstrated it through his Jewish upbringing and how much he wanted to maintain his faith as he approached unfamiliar territory. Sometimes, he even communicated with God when he was on his own, besides just praying. And the ongoing changes around the village, whether it was Tevye’s daughters choosing their husbands or the Czar’s persecutions of the Jewish people, challenged him and the villagers to think more about what they held most dear to them. And in Tevye’s position, the way he responded to his three oldest daughters choosing their husbands stirred up a whirlwind of emotions in him. Tevye had to ask himself whether to do what he would not have even thought of, how much of it he should have been willing to do for the benefit of his family, and how far there should be to bend before he felt like he took it too far. There were tons of interesting topics being talked about here in the musical, the characters embodied those questions sometimes, and they all moved like clockwork to me.
However, despite how it may seem, this musical was not all family melodrama and theological conflicts. The musical had some surprising moments of effective levity sprinkled here, many of them delivered by Tevye, his family, and the villagers. And every time, they carried the same humorous vibes as you’d expect from the typical suburban family confronting life’s woes with an upbeat attitude.
The characters, I thought, each expressed some interest in their positions within society, even if not all of them established as much personality as I would have expected.
The eldest daughters, including Tzeitel and Hodel, expressed a fiery spirit to each of them. However, they all had conflicting ideas about whether it was right to allow the matchmaker to decide for them or if they could have had a choice as to who they loved enough to want to marry him. The debates that went on between them were charming yet fascinating to watch for sure.
The middle daughter, Chava, felt like a slightly interesting character, even compared to the other daughters within the family. Whereas the two eldest daughters talked mostly in complaints about arranged marriages, and the two youngest daughters barely said or did anything in the musical, Chava was the shyest of the daughters and also a bookworm. Back in the old days, the idea of women reading books was slightly unheard of, especially when their customs expected them to be given a proper husband for their future families. So, Chava expressed some more instinctive qualities that set her further apart from the religious practices she grew up in and was expected to follow. And once she fell in love with Fyedka, somehow, I saw this as her experiencing love for the first time at a young age while also not fully comprehending the consequences of this arrangement, unlike with Tzeitel or Hodel. And above all, while the two eldest daughters and their boyfriends confronted Tevye about wanting to be married, Chava and Fyedka decided to get married secretly without Tevye’s knowledge. So, in a way, underneath her humbler image, Chava was the most reckless of Tevye’s daughters.
I also felt fond of Motel, Tzeitel’s childhood friend. Every time he arrived to speak with Tzeitel, he was generally dismissed by her family, like he was of little concern to them or the heads of the household despite them having known each other for so long. So, when he asked Tevye about having Tzeitel’s hand in marriage, he was shaky and afraid of Tevye yelling at him as he spoke to him. Yet, he still stood firm with his decision and tried to muster enough courage to ask him despite what he might have endured from him. He was meek, brave, talented – Motel was a tailor, after all – and he wanted to do and achieve what was best for Tzeitel, even if it meant starting fresh. To see all such engaging qualities firing off on all cylinders from this character made him as surprising as he was terrific and delightful.
The Christian follower, Fyedka, seemed very confident and conscientious in his preaching of the Bible. At first, he didn’t leave too much of an impression in the musical. He just arrived in Anatevka as a wanderer who preached what he believed in while carefully confiding in those who believed differently from what he believed in, even if they were firm in their defenses. At the same time, his ways of teaching his lessons and to whoever was nonetheless engaging to see and compelling to watch as it unfurled. And he only became more interesting when Chava married him in secret, thus unintentionally kickstarting the conflict between Chava and Tevye about a Jewish girl marrying a Christian man. It’s almost like he harbored both good and bad effects on the family and, arguably, the village.
The mother in the family, Golde, felt like a generally levelheaded — if sometimes rigid and strenuous — woman who also tried to uphold her position in the family, especially when Tevye was enjoying himself, overworking himself, or who knows what else she expected him to do. Sometimes, she looked at him as if he was fumbling around again, especially concerning his rounds around town with his cart. Sometimes, Golde even admitted that her views of her traditional beliefs and her ideas of traditional upbringings did not mesh well with those of Tevye. But what’s most impressive about Golde was that regardless, she saw a man she knew very well who was going through many hurdles underneath his uncertain if not unorderly demeanor, and, as such, tried to put him at ease during those testing periods.
It was demonstrated best with two things. One was Tevye’s dream sequence. After his nightmare about Golde’s grandmother, Grandma Tzeitel, scolding him about hesitating to allow Tzeitel’s engagement with Motel, Golde still leaned toward Tevye and assured him that she was still there for him, no matter what happened. And the second was the musical number, “Do You Love Me?’. That song alone was attractive because this was when the parents themselves started to question the validity of the traditions in which they grew up for most of their lives since this was what brought them together in the first place. Again, this tied into the many engaging questions this musical asked about traditions in the face of massive social and political upheavals.
Yente, the matchmaker, seemed like a generally contented, easygoing woman. As expected, she would’ve arranged the potential best suits for her fellow patrons once the situation called for it. Yet, despite the potentially rigid practices she upheld with her matchmaking, her mellowness portrayed her as an easy woman to get along with, no matter where opinions on the issue lay. And every time she contemplated what her life choices as a matchmaker were like, whether she did it with her late husband or not, or whether they pertained to her future, it gave her some moments to think for herself about what she valued most in life, just like Tevye did more than once.
Speaking of whom, you have Tevye. I found him a very…fascinating character, to say the least. On the surface, he seemed like a pretty mellow, easygoing man who seemed somewhat at ease with his life in the village as a dairyman, poor as he and his family were. He was happy with his life, how things were going for his family, and his wife and five daughters. However, he sometimes wished to be far richer than he and his family were then. Not only that, but I caught plenty of things about him that I thought felt jarring and required hard thinking.
He was wishy-washy. He acted buffoonish sometimes. He tended to not think straight. Yet, at the same time, he was stubborn. He was a hardcore traditionalist. He was always a family man. He wanted to set boundaries and standards, no matter how he followed through with them. All these personality quirks came into play when Tzeitel approached him, then Hodel, and then Chava about marrying the men of their choice. It put him in a position where he had no idea how he was supposed to respond to it. He always wanted to uphold the traditional values he valued so much and apply that to his life and family ways. So, when his views became more and more challenged, he felt like he was stepping too far out of boundaries from what he considered the right or logical thing to do. It was as if her daughters’ unexpected requests were steering him away from how he expected things to work in the village and with his family. But it wasn’t just his daughters’ requests. Even earlier in the musical, Lazar Wolfe approached Tevye about marrying Tzeitel; despite him and Tzeitel being good friends, Lazar Wolfe was old enough to be her father. It put Tevye in a state of self-conflict, making him peruse through all the ‘on the other hand’s in his head until he settled on the one decision he felt was the most sound out of all of them.
So, in times like this, for his dedication, hard work, and no-nonsense tendencies, Tevye became a slight pushover when he faced each new unanticipated life decision with each new arrangement his daughters made. However, when his middle daughter, Chava, told him of her marriage to Fyedka, Tevye was utterly rattled by this, knowing that his daughter was Jewish, yet the man she married was a Christian. It was fascinating because the last time I picked up on this online, interfaith marriage is still an ongoing source of controversy among Jewish communities. And in the early 20th century, because followers took their religious devotions so seriously, this was just too extreme and almost sacrilegious. And Tevye expressed such outrage when Chava confronted him with her ‘radical’ decision. And unlike with Tzeitel or Hodel, where he felt obliged to let them marry their sweethearts out of conscience, here, enough was enough for him, and he refused to believe Chava married Fyedka to the point of disowning her. People might look at Tevye like he was no saint; sometimes, that was true of him. But in the center were Tevye’s battles concerning his devotion to his faith in the face of the encroaching changes creeping into his village.
Watching Tevye sift through all his emotions and conflicts over all the chaos around him was fascinating. There were times when I tried to dig beneath his sometimes stern and sometimes whiny tendencies to find the truth about his feelings. Most other times, though, I can tell that Tevye valued his traditional beliefs and tried desperately to cling to what he believed the most before he felt like he was losing his way with it.
I’ll be frank, if there’s one character Tevye reminded me of a little, it would be Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind. They both started as naïvely confident until they began to wake up to the harsh realities of the world sneaking into their lives. Regardless, they did whatever they felt was necessary to sustain themselves and their families, morally questionable as their actions and reactions became.
That’s the beauty of a multi-dimensional character to me; there’s no one simple way to look at someone like Tevye because he embodied far more than what he seemed to.
I don’t know exactly how the Jewish tradition worked in the old days or even how matchmaking worked. Still, personally speaking, if the customs included men and women being arranged for marriage, regardless of their age gaps, it feels like the followers might have had almost no choice in what they had to follow or how to follow them. But, of course, as I said, religious indoctrination was not too out of place back then, and let’s not forget, some ideas of normalcy back then may have been different from ours.
If anything, Fiddler on the Roof probably demonstrated to us what happened when the old traditions, questionable as they may have been, clashed with new ideas that promised greater accessibility to everyone, like the choices by women to marry whoever they desired. It all felt no different from how old values clash against new values even today. This time, they could cover such controversial topics as women’s birth rights, LGBTQ equality, police brutality, African American privileges, and even their sense of juxtaposition against issues concerning white people—the same thing with the new ideas discussed in Fiddler on the Roof. Some of the characters and villagers even called the ideas proposed in their town’ radical’. Case in point, Tevye looked at those ideas as if those who started upholding them planned to be Americans. Frankly, out of the topics thrown around in the musical, the battle between old traditions and new values was what made Fiddler on the Roof for me.
Of course, let’s not forget the songs. They, too, made this musical. They all seeped into the modest, soothing, and upbeat melodies that lent themselves the more natural and local elements matching those of Anatevka.
‘Tradition,’ the musical’s opening tune, felt like the perfect opening song to lay out the basics of Anatevka and how the villagers practiced their religion. It took us back to a time and place where traditional values were most relied upon before the unprecedented social differences started challenging them. The opening fourth-wall-breaking narrations provided by Tevye in between the song segments also helped fill in some of the blanks with Anatevka and its traditional practices.
One of the songs I remember and admire the most from this musical was the song, ‘Sunrise, Sunset,’ sung during Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding ceremony. I first heard it in an episode of Full House, of all places. But this was a very soft, emotional, rousingly personal song highlighting the surprises found in watching who were once little children suddenly growing up and ready to take on all the challenges and responsibilities the world would throw at them. It even had a bit thrown in by Hodel and Perchik on whether they would’ve had luck in having a marriage arranged for them the traditional way. And it all fit.
‘If I Were a Rich Man,’ sung by Tevye, was a purely giddy song about Tevye’s desires for a far more wealthy, luxurious lifestyle without having to deal with all the burdens of farm life like he did being the daily delivery man. Fantasizing about the luxuries to be found beyond the workloads he and his family dealt with if they could afford it, it carried the same sensible vibes as Tevye as he divulged how much he wanted more from life than what he’s stuck with. It’s not like ‘I Just Can’t Wait to be King’ from The Lion King, where Simba sang about his desires and fantasies in an excitable way. It’s not even like Frozen’s ‘In Summer,’ where Olaf sang about his hopes over what he wanted out of life despite his oblivion to the realities of that life goal. Instead, Tevye sang this song with a purely gleeful demeanor, despite knowing how unlikely it may have been for him to achieve it.
‘Anatevka’ felt like the opposite of the opening song, ‘Tradition’. Whereas that song opened the musical with a lively introduction to the town and its customs, ‘Anatevka’ is a bittersweet song that closed the musical with a painful recollection of the village as it used to be before its evicted civilians prepared to leave it behind. The song didn’t have an overtly tragic tone, but the lyrics conveyed all the conflicting emotions the villagers felt as they got set to move on to greener pastures. It was a soft, musical equivalent of a parting goodbye, and it signaled the end of the musical and the villagers’ story within this town in a contemplative fashion.
‘Far From the Home I Love’ expressed an essence of hope and an element of melancholia as Hodel and Tevye shared some last moments together as Hodel was about to leave her family behind. Within the song, Hodel prepared to depart from Anatevka to join her husband, who became a war prisoner in Siberia. Her singing reached an irresistible level of heavenliness, and it led to a touching farewell between father and daughter.
‘Matchmaker, Matchmaker’ was an upbeat song sung by the three eldest sisters as Tzeitel debated with Hodel and Chava about how much decision they felt they should have on the matchmaking when the arrangement was in place for them, especially by Yente. Tzeitel postulated that the match picked for them may not have been all he was built up to be and that they should have a say in who they chose for their husbands. But Hodel and Chava, before they met Perchik and Fyedka, still believed in the values of matchmaking and insisted that they should put their trust in the matchmaker to find them the best suit.
‘To Life’ felt like a joyous, riotous, and upbeat song sung by Tevye and the local barkeepers as they celebrated Lazar Wolfe’s intended marriage to Tzeitel. It did an excellent job of putting me in a festive mood despite the subject of celebration being liable to raise many eyebrows.
I don’t know if this was unique to the presentation of the musical in Montrose or if this was part of the musical’s closing, anyway, but after everyone, and I mean everyone, from the production came out for a bow, they all gathered and sang the ‘Sabbath Prayer.’ This song was sung earlier in Act I by Tevye, his family, and the rest of the villagers as they prepared for dinner. I wonder, was this song reprised by the cast and crew as the musical’s way of wishing its audience Godspeed? Or was this done in the Magic Circle Theater’s production as the cast and crew’s way of saying thank you to the audience for remaining faithful in their cause after two years of Covid delays? I can’t tell, but I admire this nice little touch at the end of the show.
One other thing I should tip my head to the musical for is the choreography. The dancing throughout the musical was infectious and demonstrated the actors’ incredible physical abilities, whether shown throughout its musical numbers or in its wedding sequence.
Speaking of which, when I saw the musical at the Magic Circle Theater, there was a flub that made me wonder if actors on stage could improvise as long as they kept it in character, and if so, how much. Near the end of Act I, as the dancers all balanced wine bottles on their heads as part of a dance sequence in Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding, one of the bottles tipped over and landed on the floor behind the dancers. Then, Kenny Easton, who played Tevye, quickly picked up the bottle. At that moment, I thought, “Well, Tevye, you might as well guzzle it down. After all, it’s your daughter’s wedding.”
But does it matter? The way things played out with the theater during this timespan, I’m thrilled it got Fiddler on the Roof off the ground after all these years; better late than never. Fiddler on the Roof is a musical classic, and for a good reason. Its message would open your eyes a little more, the characters all have distinct personalities and elements that make them human, the settings are such that you feel like you’re peeking into how religious upbringings used to function back in the day, and the songs all felt like they came straight from the village in which the musical was set. It is a multifaceted musical with an impeccable sense of humor and a complex, invigorating aftertaste.
To life and the countless treasures made possible by this musical’s legacy!
A strong A-
I never considered this until I listened to the musical’s deluxe soundtrack. But one thing I discovered about “Do You Love Me?” was that according to Sheldon Harnick, the show’s lyricist, he wept during the middle of the song in a live performance and had to leave in a huff. He never knew why he reacted to it the way he did, but then it hit him: Harnick choked up over the song because the lyrics describing how Tevye and Golde felt for one another reflected what he wished happened with his parents. I found it profound and very touching. I find myself appreciating the song a little more with that background knowledge in mind.
Update (Jun. 21, 2022): Okay, actually, I'm mistaken. About the dream sequence, even though it played to Golde's emotions and feelings for Tevye, I discovered that Tevye made the whole dream up. I guess this demonstrated how much Tevye was thrown for a loop by Tzeitel's decision to marry outside of tradition and wondered how this would've effected the family.
Magic Circle Players. Photograph of Kenny Easton as Tevye. Facebook, 10 May 2022. https://www.facebook.com/Magic-Circle-Players-451565698220190/photos/pcb.5264108093632569/5264107530299292
Magic Circle Players. Photograph of Kenny Easton as Tevye and Patti Scriffany as Golde. Facebook, 10 May 2022. https://www.facebook.com/Magic-Circle-Players-451565698220190/photos/pcb.5264108093632569/5264105900299455
Magic Circle Players. Photograph of Patti Scriffany as Golde and Kat Govan as Yente. Facebook, 10 May 2022. https://www.facebook.com/Magic-Circle-Players-451565698220190/photos/pcb.5264108093632569/5264107183632660
Magic Circle Players. Photograph of Sarah Crawford, Shannon Redigeer, Jewel VandenHoek, Jessica Bausch, and Kaitlyn Moss as Tevye’s daughters. Facebook, 10 May 2022. https://www.facebook.com/Magic-Circle-Players-451565698220190/photos/pcb.5264108093632569/5264107453632633
Magic Circle Players. Photograph of Tevye and the villagers gathering around with the Fiddler in the background. Facebook, 10 May 2022. https://www.facebook.com/Magic-Circle-Players-451565698220190/photos/pcb.5264108093632569/5264106736966038
Magic Circle Players. Photograph of Wedding ceremony for Tzeitel and Motel. Facebook, 10 May 2022. https://www.facebook.com/Magic-Circle-Players-451565698220190/photos/pcb.5264108093632569/5264107723632606
Various Artists. (2003). Fiddler on the Roof (Original Broadway Cast Recording) (Deluxe Edition) [Album]. BMG Music. (Original work published 1964)