Yiddish ‘Fiddler’: Miracle of miracles
With sales booming, is the Yiddish ‘Hamilton’ Broadway bound?
The National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene’s (NYTF) production of “Fiddler on the Roof” in Yiddish has the kind of buzz that Broadway producers dream of. Reviews have been excellent, tickets for the initial run sold out, and the show has been twice extended through Oct. 25. There are rumblings about moving it from the Museum of Jewish Heritage to Broadway.
Christopher Massimine, NYTF’s CEO, says that among Broadway producers, the show is dubbed “the Yiddish ‘Hamilton’” for its unexpected success. So far, more than 30,000 people have seen the show since it began previews in early July — that’s twice as many as usually attend eight-week runs of NYTF productions.
In fact, “Fiddler” made back its initial production costs of $700,000 before opening night on July 15. The cost of extending the show is about $550,000.
“It’s extraordinary,” Massimine said. The new block of tickets are more than half sold.
The NYTF production, directed by Joel Grey and presented with English and Russian super-titles, features Broadway regulars Steven Skybell as Tevye, Jackie Hoffman as Yente, and Jennifer Babiak as Golde.
The show has what’s known in the industry as great word-of-mouth. Reviewers and theater-goers have been praising its authenticity and the timeliness of its theme of being an outsider in society — forced to leave a place that is home, facing uncertainty, holding onto hopes for a better future.
Broadway folks who have seen the show include Bernadette Peters, Bebe Newirth, Andrea Martin, Jerry Zaks, Christine Ebersole, Mandy Patinkin, Katrina Lenk, Isabella Rossellini, Chaim Topol, and Chita Rivera.
Jana Robbins, a Broadway producer, director, and actor who is a member of the NYTF’s Artistic Advisory Council, told NJJN, “The show touches you at a core level. People who know ‘Fiddler,’ have always loved ‘Fiddler’ — that’s why they keep reviving it. Putting it into its native language transforms the show to a visceral experience. This is beyond anybody’s expectations as to what would be felt, sitting in the theater.”
About a possible move to Broadway, she said, “There’s not just a little bit of interest.” She added, “I can absolutely see myself being involved. It’s in my heart and soul.
“If only the Jewish population of New York came out to see this show, it could run in a medium-sized Broadway house for five years,” she said. But she sees the potential audience as even wider than Jewish show-goers. “The more specific a subject, the more universal.”
Emanuel “Manny” Azenberg, who also serves on NYTF’s Artistic Advisory Council and is the winner of the 2012 Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre, said, “It’s kind of a phenomenon. I’ve seen it 5,000 times — first in 1964 when I was a company manager for David Merrick and ‘The Rehearsal’ was playing across the street. I’d run across the street to see Zero [Mostel, who played Tevye in the original production], and would run back to do the count-up for the play we were doing.”
The success of the NYTF production surprises him. “The lovely production humbled everybody. The cast has extraordinary energy and they know they’re good.”
As for a possible Broadway production, he questions how this could work on a large stage. “Here, you have no scenery and your imagination creates Anatevka. On the Broadway stage, you need much more.” He says that in the current production, audiences are forgiving.
“On Broadway, you don’t forgive anything.”
Massimine said that they will decide by early October about further extending the show in its current venue or another, or moving it to Broadway.
Jack Schwartz, former book editor of Newsday and a longtime former editor on the culture desk of The New York Times, said, “This was perhaps the best ‘Fiddler’ I’ve seen, starting with the 1964 original. I was expecting little more than a labor of love that would receive dutiful applause for a trip down memory lane dusted in Yiddish for authenticity. To my delightful surprise, the production was anything but the sentimental journey I’d anticipated. Joel Grey conjured an Anatevka that was at once vibrant and fragile, a Jewish ‘Brigadoon,’ but one that was never going to return. The characters were absolutely spot-on perfect.”
Schwartz praises Skybell’s Tevye for keeping the humor of Mostel and others, but adding a “humanity that took the play beyond musical comedy into the realm of tragedy — truer to the spirit of Sholem Aleichem.”
Skybell too is amazed by the success. “Putting on a play is like putting lightening in a bottle. I always try to believe wholeheartedly in the production I’m working on. But there’s no rhyme or reason as to what catches fire.” In terms of “Fiddler,” he said it’s as “close as possible to a perfect musical, a miracle of a theatrical evening.
“I do believe that the Yiddish component is taking everyone by surprise. For people with any Yiddish in their history, it immediately grabs them by their throats and gives them an emotional journey they didn’t expect.”
Skybell is “delighted beyond words” that people who aren’t Jewish react strongly, too. He says that when actor and singer Christine Ebersol saw the show and spoke afterward to the cast, she was emotionally wrought. “And she said she didn’t understand a word of it.”
For him, as a Jew, the Yiddish script as translated by Shraga Friedman from the show’s original English has additional moments of meaning and power, like when Golde tells Tevye that Chave is marrying a gentile, and Tevye begins to intone the Kaddish prayer (not in the English text). On stage, Skybell senses the audience’s visceral reaction to those words.
Rose Reizbaum, who was born in Poland and survived the Holocaust, had seen the show on Broadway and knows the play and songs well. “It was wonderful to have it in Yiddish — that’s the language they would have been speaking. It was the language it was meant to be in,” she said. She saw the show with her daughter, Toby Glick. They both loved it and noticed that the woman sitting next to them cried straight through.
Lauren Stalbow, a 26-year-old medical student, said: “Even though the play was in Yiddish, everyone in the audience was laughing and crying when you’d expect. The actors were able to get at the underlying emotional truths of the play, while not speaking the same language as the audience. I think that’s what’s behind its success.”
For Eliezer Lawrence, 27, the show was especially familiar: He may have been the only audience member who had been listening over the years to the Yiddish soundtrack of the 1965 Israeli production. He knew some of it by heart.
Lawrence, a rabbinical student at Chovevei Torah who majored in Yiddish at Columbia University, attended the production with his girlfriend and their families. He played Tevye in Columbia Musical Theatre Society’s 2010 production — and his girlfriend’s father played the same role 20 years ago in a community production. For Lawrence, playing Tevye in Yiddish would be his dream role.
“Our group of six had a variety of engagement levels, in terms of Yiddish knowledge and fluency in Jewish tradition, and everyone was moved by it, just the same. The production brought new life to the show, because it restored it,” he said.
Lawrence is not surprised by its success. “I didn’t have expectations. I wondered if I was too jaded, having seen it so many times. The truth is, I was not jaded. I wish I could see it again.”
Sandee Brawarsky is the culture editor for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.