By now, everyone must have heard the story about how difficult it was, almost 30 years ago, to find backers for "Fiddler on the Roof."
"After all the Hadassah ladies have seen it, then what?" a skeptical backer asked Joseph Stein, whose idea "Fiddler" was. Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, who wrote the music and lyrics, were so discouraged they set "Fiddler" aside and wrote "She Loves Me" before they decided to try again.
Watching this wonderfully enjoyable revival, you see that the hesitant "angels" had a point. It was brave to imagine, in the year "Hello, Dolly!" opened, that audiences might want to see a musical in which the chorus consisted of impoverished Jews: Men in shabby work clothes or Sabbath caftans; women in babushkas and heavy skirts that would not show much in the way of what used to be called "gams."
"Fiddler" was audacious for other reasons. It was written at a time when Jews were happily assimilated into American life and not eager to explore the poverty, the rigid religious traditions they had cast aside.
But by recreating the world of Eastern European Jewry, Stein, Bock, Harnick and their demanding collaborator, Jerome Robbins, touched a nerve that has had reverberations all around the world. The show is about Tevye's daughters, unwitting feminists, who elude various, seemingly unbreakable traditions. Tevye's world is also crushed by the forces of hate outside it.
As the show ends, Tevye and his family are on their way to America, the forebears of many who sit in the audience, but forebears also to people around the world who see the ways of their fathers being turned topsy-turvy.
Topol, who played Tevye in the film, makes his Broadway debut here. His accent is that of Jews of the East End of London rather than the lower East Side of New York. That and his very nasal voice sometimes make him seem off-putting.
But he has great warmth and a keen sense of the abundant humor of the role. He makes musical use of his resonant voice by singing softly, which points up the grace and delicacy of Bock and Harnick's work. He dances with abandon, and though the vigorous way he shakes his body sometimes seems more showbiz than Hasidic piety, his Tevye, particularly in the scenes with his difficult daughters, is deeply touching.
He has a splendid partner in Marcia Lewis, who mines the comedy in the role but never reduces the shrewish Golde to a caricature. Sharon Lawrence, Tia Riebling and Jennifer Prescott, as their chief daughters, play their roles with conviction and sing beautifully. Jack Kenny, Gary Schwartz and Ron Bohmer are strong as their suitors.
Ruth Jaroslaw is very funny as Yente the matchmaker, and I have never heard a more musical Fruma-Sarah than Jeri Sager. At times the production shows it's been on the road for a year, but the material is so powerful it's hard to resist.
Incredibly now, after a quarter of a century, the Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick/Joseph Stein musical "Fiddler on the Roof" has become virtually as much a part of the Yiddish-Jewish heritage as the Sholem Aleichem stories of Tevye the Milkman that inspired it.
I still vividly recall first hearing about "Fiddler." It was 1963. Jerome Robbins was passing through London, where I was living at the time, and having time to kill at the airport he gave me a call. I asked him what he was doing, and he said he was thinking about a Broadway musical based on Sholem Aleichem.
It struck me as a terrible idea - although I hope I kept my draining lack of enthusiasm out of my voice. And the rest is Broadway history. Well, nobody's perfect. Not even critics.
For my generation there will probably be only one Tevye - Zero Mostel. I know all the problems - and at least one of the performances I saw him give was, how can I put it? more freestyle than a disciplined actor would have wished. But he was always smearily, blearily wonderful.
And Topol? Yes, I saw him on the stage in London in 1967 - and he was all right, and he was definitely rather more than all right in the movie version in 1971. But he didn't outscore Zero.
Now making, surprisingly, his Broadway debut in the musical's 25th Anniversary revival at the Gershwin Theater officially opening last night, he still doesn't dislodge memories of Mostel (or quite of a few of the other Tevyes over the years) but now he doesn't have to. He is his own man and his own Tevye.
His voice is darker now than I recall it, and this time I was disconcertingly aware of his slightly British enunciation - rather upper-class British at that, reminding one of certain Israeli politicians - for I always, quite unreasonably, expect Tevye to sound as if he came from the Lower East Side.
But the performance is a total joy - wise, warm, resourceful, full of a wary fun, with a wonderful feeling for his God, his wife, his daughters, his village and his people. Much less of a caricature than Mostel, of all the many Tevyes I have seen this one comes closest to fiction's reality.
The production is a reproduction of the original Jerome Robbins by Ruth Mitchell and Sammy Dallas Bayes - and frankly looks it. It lacks the spontaneity of an original. The performances, Topol apart, are really nothing more than adequately routine, and the show looks as though it's on tour - which fundamentally it is.
Even the Boris Aronson scenery - always quite effective in its imitatively sub-Chagall fashion - looks a little more seedy than before, although the cleverly designed costumes by Patricia Zipprodt remain a real pleasure.
Why do most of these Broadway revivals always try so diligently to put the clock back? Why not start from scratch with a new director (say, Jonathan Miller), new designers, and a fresh cast freed from the responsibility of trying to fit into earlier people's footsteps?
Then we could have a "Fiddler on the Roof" for the '90s. This is just one that has more or less survived from the '60s, and is worth seeing again more for Topol than for anything else.
In the 26 years since it was first produced on Broadway, "Fiddler on the Roof" has become a universally cherished folk musical. With countless versions performed throughout the world, it is part of our musical heritage, just as the Sholom Aleichem stories on which the show is based derive from an earlier European literary heritage. As the revival that opened last night at the Gershwin Theater proves, "Fiddler on the Roof" has not lost an ounce of its charm or its emotional power.
From the Chagall-inspired settings by the late Boris Aronson to Topol's performance as Tevye the dairyman, this is a heartwarming production. It is presented on Broadway by Barry and Fran Weissler, who have produced it with the same care and attention to detail that they demonstrated last season with their revival of "Gypsy."
When Fruma-Sarah, the ghost of the butcher's wife, scurries across the stage in Jerome Robbins's dream ballet, sending a tremor of terror through the superstitious characters, "Fiddler" levitates, like those figures in the scenic backdrops that fill the landscape with the ambiance of Anatevka.
As everyone knows, Anatevka is a little town next to nowhere, a bucolic Russian community in which Jewish residents at the turn of the century hold fast to their religion and their traditions, even as their world collapses. The tone of the show is established by Tevye's opening number, "Tradition." Despite its familiarity, that song retains its elemental wisdom, as does the show that revolves around it.
Historically, the primary question facing Tevye is how far he is prepared to go in forsaking -- or re-evaluating -- the old ways as he tries to preserve his feelings of fatherhood and moral responsibility. As intended, "Fiddler" is not simply the story of a father and his five daughters, but of the end of a way of life and an assumption of the principles of a new freedom.
All this is captured in Jerry Bock's music, Sheldon Harnick's lyrics, Joseph Stein's book and the original stage conception, direction and choreography by Mr. Robbins (reproduced with fidelity in the current production, as staged by Ruth Mitchell, with the choreographic assistance of Sammy Dallas Bayes).
The score liltingly evokes folk and liturgical strains while never losing sight of the show's obligations as a work of popular theater. Both the lyrics and book convey Sholom Aleichem's homespun philosophies. The musical has a seamless fluidity, songs flowing into story into dance. Even the settings seem to dance as Tevye's cottage swirls in time to the music and as, in the song "Sabbath Prayer," the skies are lined with an aurora borealis of families lighting candles.
In the apportionment of responsibility, the creative team deserves the highest credit. But one must not overlook another figure of importance, Zero Mostel, who first gave the musical Tevye such extraordinary stage life. In the original production (and in the 1976 Broadway revival), Mr. Mostel turned a poor, put-upon country dairyman into a larger-than-life hero with human-size impulses. It was a most difficult, double-edged feat.
Great roles, in the musical theater as well as in drama, exist to be re interpreted, true of Tevye as it is of Rose in "Gypsy" and Henry Higgins. Topol, who has his own history with the character and toured the United States last year with this production, has grown considerably since he played Tevye in the 1971 film. It is not simply a matter of his age, which is now approximately that of his character, but of his maturing in the role. On the other hand -- as Tevye would say -- Topol is not hilarious like Mr. Mostel, nor as expressive a musical performer. On the other hand, he never neglects the warmth or the drollness of his character.
Most important, Topol's Tevye is deeply embedded in Anatevka, where he wearily accommodates his bossy wife and their marriageable daughters, all with minds of their own, while on the horizon there is a pogrom that will remove what little stability remains in the shtetl. Topol is playful rather than sentimental, a self-dramatizer, but with an appealing humanity, and a believer who is skeptical enough to hold his own in man-to-God conversations.
The actor also has a natural gift for melody, as he demonstrates in the wishful "If I Were a Rich Man" and in "Sunrise, Sunset," that poignant Bock-Harnick acceptance of the effects of the passage of time. Topol does have a tendency to talk down into his beard, which, with the Gershwin Theater's dubious acoustics, sometimes makes it sound as if he is speaking into a microphone muffled beneath the bristle. In all significant respects, he is an authoritative Tevye, and when he sings "Chavaleh," about a daughter who has challenged tradition, he once agains reveals a tenderness.
Marcia Lewis as his wife, Golde, has a piercing voice that automatically sets her husband's body trembling, and it may have a similar effect on theatergoers. A little toning-down would make her performance more in keeping with those of her colleagues. She does, however, seem like the mother of her daughters, each of whom is winningly personified (Sharon Lawrence, Tia Riebling and Jennifer Prescott as the three oldest).
Ms. Riebling and Gary Schwartz are most engagingly matched as Hodel and the radical teacher Perchik. In addition, there are sympathetic performances by Jack Kenny as Motel the timid tailor, Ruth Jaroslaw (who has made a career of playing Yente the matchmaker) and Stephen Wright as the ubiquitous fiddler on and off the roof.
"Fiddler" is an enduring work of musical theater, simultaneously a comedy and a drama, retaining a sense of wonder as it spins to its moving conclusion. As Anatevka is abandoned, Aronson's palette of Chagall colors is suddenly replaced by a monochromatic horizon more resonant of Rothko, conveying an aura of the unknown. Topol as Tevye harnesses himself to his milk wagon and becomes a Father Courage leading the remainder of his family to the more promising land of America.