Arena’s surprising, deeply moving ‘Fiddler on the Roof’

Arena’s surprising, deeply moving ‘Fiddler on the Roof’

Tevye, Fiddler on the Roof.
Jonathan Hadary as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater October 31, 2014-January 4, 2015. (Photo by Margot Schulman.)

WASHINGTON, November 15, 2014 – We’re running a bit behind on posting our review of Arena’s wonderful new production of that perennial Broadway hit, “Fiddler on the Roof.” But for good reason.

We’ve always enjoyed this lively show on many levels. But director Molly Smith’s current production of “Fiddler” digs deep, tunneling beneath the memorable songs, the tears and the laughter to unearth the existential sadness of the human condition. This is a production that makes you sit back, think and take stock. It hit us hard in a way that this eternally popular hit show rarely does, so we needed a bit of extra time to figure out exactly why.

Chagall, The Fiddler.
Marc Chagall, 1912, The Fiddler, one likely inspiration for “Fiddler on the Roof.” (Public domain image in U.S. via Wikipedia)

It’s hard to believe that “Fiddler” has already been around for fifty years, debuting in 1964 when this writer was still in his teens. Unusual among hit Broadway shows, it’s intensely Jewish, intensely personal and, in its own way, deeply tragic. A few pundits opined at the time that such a deeply ethnic show would score a big hit in New York among that city’s large Jewish community, after which its appeal would quickly fade.

But they were wrong.

“Fiddler’s” original production turned out to be the first musical theater production to run for over 3,000 consecutive performances. It still remains firmly in the Top Twenty of long-running Broadway hit shows. It also ended up scoring nine Tonys as well as being transformed into a popular 1971 film musical.

The show has been performed almost continuously in the U.S. and around the world since then. It has also become a staple of community, high school and college theater troupes in this country.

We’ve seen this show almost as many times as we’ve seen “South Pacific.” Our late daughter played the spooky Fruma-Sarah in a 1980s high school production. And as recently as a couple of seasons back, we caught a charming dinner theater production at Toby’s in Columbia, Maryland. Once you’ve seen it, the music is always with you.

Most productions we’ve seen have played this musical broadly, with a focus on its wonderful, largely minor-key score and its earthy humor which, while thoroughly Jewish, also has universal appeal.

The story

With a book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, “Fiddler on the Roof” is loosely based on one of Sholem Aleichem’s classic short stories whose title is usually translated as “Tevye and His Daughters.” That’s a good label to stick with, too, as Aleichem’s tale chronicles the happiness and the anguish of a poor Jewish milkman named Tevye.

Tevye & Co.
Jonathan Hadary as Tevye and the company of Fiddler on the Roof at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater October 31, 2014-January 4, 2015. (Photo by Margot Schulman.)

According to various sources, the show’s title references either a painting entitled “The Fiddler” or wall panel generally entitled “The Green Violinist.” In the show itself, the fiddler is a voiceless wandering minstrel, whose gradual bending of the opening “fiddler” tune follows the uncertain fortunes of Tevye and his fellow villagers.

As we meet him in the beginning of Act I, Tevye, lacking sons, spends much of his spare time trying to figure out how to get his marriageable daughters paired off with rich men, or at least men who could support each one. That’s a tough order in their circa 1905 Jewish shtetl or village, Anatevka, where nearly every other impoverished family is also living on the brink of financial disaster.

Confident in the saving grace and power of Jewish “tradition”—something the entire cast extols early in the show’s first act in that memorable song—Tevye finds instead that, in the revolutionary year of 1905, the moral and spiritual support of those traditions will suddenly and completely vanish from sight, like dandelion seeds borne aloft by a sudden burst of wind.

Tevya's daughters.
(L to R) Hannah Corneau as Hodel, Dorea Schmidt as Tzeitel and Maria Rizzo as Chava in Fiddler on the Roof at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater October 31, 2014-January 4, 2015. (Photo by Margot Schulman.)

In short order, one daughter ignores the town’s traditional matchmaker and her own father by insisting on marriage to her own choice, an impoverished tailor.

Daughter number two eventually heads off to Siberia where the Tsar’s government has exiled her intended, a young student Marxist revolutionary.

Worst of all, a third daughter also abandons tradition, quite thoroughly and permanently, by marrying a gentile in the Tsar’s military—the same military that exiles Tevye and his neighbors and destroys Anatevka in the final scene.

It’s a sad, tragic story, emblematic, in a way, of the ethnic and religious violence that came to a head in the 20th century and that persists, with unpleasant new twists, right into the current century.

But most productions we’ve seen tend to accentuate the positive: the humor, the jokes, and Tevye’s incredibly maladroit interpretations of scripture. And, of course, those wonderful, wonderful tunes driven by their simple yet amazingly deep lyrics: “Tradition,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” “Matchmaker,” “Miracle of Miracles,” and the haunting, plaintive “Sunrise, Sunset.”

These mostly happy productions tend to put the essential sadness of this show into deep and at times almost negligible background mode. But under the direction of Molly Smith, this new Arena production, staged in the round in that complex’s Fichandler space, the sadness, the tragedy and the loss continually burst through Tevye’s genuine yet defensive high spirits as his own personal losses as well as the total loss of his village and his friends invades and then destroys his and their entire way of life.

So much for “tradition.” Change—relentless change—remains the only constant here. And the anguish and heartbreak of this change is the real focus of Arena’s surprisingly emotional production.

The Fiddler.
Alex Alferov as the Fiddler in Fiddler on the Roof at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater October 31, 2014-January 4, 2015. (Photo by Margot Schulman.)

The Arena production

As sensitively portrayed by Jonathan Hadary, Tevye is in his heart a jolly, upbeat individual and a dedicated, hard-working husband and father. But on a deeper level, Mr. Hadary portrays a character who also realizes that his positive attitude is but a poor cover for stark reality. He is not only losing his daughters. But he will likely never see them again. And he is also losing the entire way of life and religion that have kept him grounded.

Mr. Hadary conveys this inner quarrel subtly, in a way that conceals—though does not banish—his inner fears. His Tevye is in the end, just another Everyman who frequently attempts to reason with life and with his God even though he is apparently ignored by both.

Mr. Hadary’s vocal approach is one that’s common to certain Broadway musicals, a sort of “sing-speak.” He never waxes lyrical. Instead, his Tevye sings from the heart in the voice of a peasant who loves to sing a tune but has never had a lick of musical instruction.

Bottle Dance, Fiddler.
The phenomenal “Bottle Dance” sequence. (L to R) Jimmy Mavrikes, Eric Greengold, Kyle Schliefer and Curtis Schroeger in Fiddler on the Roof at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater October 31, 2014-January 4, 2015. (Photo by Margot Schulman.)

With one, perhaps two exceptions, this singing style is also the one preferred by the male villagers. Collectively it works wonders, leading to our acceptance of these characters as people who are just like us—earnest, hardworking, occasionally flawed, but, for the most part, making the best of a bad situation as they try to raise their families and finding fun and humor where they can.

In addition to Mr. Hadary’s Tevye, all members of the show’s primary cast turn in superb characterizations and decent to very good vocals. As daughters Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava, Dorea Schmidt, Hannah Corneau and Maria Rizzo are the same and yet incredibly unlike one another just as in any real-life family. All three singing actresses deliver their vocals far more lyrically and sweetly than their male counterparts as a rule, and the contrast is again of subtle importance in this production.

From a hierarchical point of view, the society of Anatevka, 1905, is the kind of patriarchy that contemporary feminists love to hate. “The Papa” is indeed the family protector and provider. But he’s also the absolute boss. What he says, goes. The women of the village subtly undermine this, of course, but carefully and not very often.

But each of Tevye’s daughters ultimately refuses to bow to patriarchal “tradition.” Whether choosing to scandalously dance with male partners, as they all do in the show’s central wedding scene, or—even worse—to light out for the territories with impoverished, revolutionary, or non-Jewish spouses, Tevye’s daughters are not only smithereening tradition. They’re taking a big step toward terminating it.

Hodel and Pertchik.
(L to R) Hannah Corneau as Hodel and Michael Vitaly Sazonov as Perchik in Fiddler on the Roof at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater October 31, 2014-January 4, 2015. (Photo by Margot Schulman.)

It’s all the central tragedy of the show, as exemplified by Tevye, who desperately tries to preserve all that’s good in tradition while gradually understanding that it’s all drifting out of his hands, borne away by the relentless tide of history.

All of which gets us back to the notable contrast in male and female vocal styles as we just noted. Rough and gruff, the male characters and their vocal deliveries are very much in the tradition of their roles. But the lyrical, sweeter and more appealing vocals of the female characters convey the idea of the different world, good or bad, that is beckoning.

It’s not surprising, perhaps, that the male characters who take a more lyrical approach—the tailor Motel (Joshua Morgan), the revolutionary Perchik (Michael Vitaly Sazonov) and the reluctant Czarist soldier Fyedka (Kurt Boehm)—turn out to be the nonstandard husbands that Tevye’s three daughters marry for love not for money and security.

Both the young women and their young men are the rising new generation who must confront change and create or at least adapt to a strange new world. Their noticeably different vocal approach is one of the ways that helps articulate the nature of this change, which notably includes a greater flexibility in marital arrangements and the relative freedom of the young women.

Of the three young husbands, Mr. Morgan’s Motel is perhaps the most affecting. Yes, it’s a bigger role than the other two, but Motel’s character is quite interesting. He knows that, from a money and property standpoint, he’s not a suitable match for Tzeitel. But both have been great chums from childhood, have sincerely fallen in love, and have boldly pledged themselves to one another without anyone’s permission.

Yet even more positively, Motel has been saving up his pittance of a wage in order to acquire what Marxists like to call “the means of production.” In this case, it’s a sewing machine, a modern new device that will enable this young tailor to create, and sell, new clothing faster and with greater efficiency thus leading to the kind of income that can support a family.

Motel and his sewing machine.
Motel acquires the means of production. (L to R) Maria Rizzo as Chava, Tracy Lynn Olivera as Rivka, Joshua Morgan as Motel and Shayna Blass as Shprintze in Fiddler on the Roof at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater October 31, 2014-January 4, 2015. (Photo by Suzanne Blue Star Boy.)

Like his marriage to Tzeitel, this, too is something new, something not very traditional. And that, ultimately, is what lies behind Mr. Morgan’s exuberant, almost trilling delivery of “Miracle of Miracles,” a song wherein he exults at his personal good fortune and anticipates his financial freedom as well, marking him in many ways as the most positive and forward looking of all the villagers represented in this show. It’s an exciting moment, and Mr. Morgan gets the audience involved in Motel’s excitement as well.

Modern love is indeed exciting. But “Fiddler” looks back, too, on those fading traditions that once served villages like Anatevka in good stead. In a touching musical moment, midway through the second act, Tevye reaches out to Golde—the arranged match who has been his loyal if officious wife for twenty-five years—and asks, rather poignantly, “Do You Love Me?”

The duet conversation that follows between Tevye and Golde (Ann Arvia, in a quietly moving performance) approaches the question in an amusingly roundabout way that reminds us of a circa-2014 Washington press conference in which a press secretary uses every language trick in the book to evade a definitive response to a reporter’s pointed question.

Both the lyrics and the vocals are amusing and poignant, as Golde finally answers vaguely yet somehow definitively. It’s a hint that sometimes love can even happen if neither party were in love at the outset of an arranged match.

Tevye, Fiddler.
Tevye could use a little help from the Lord. Jonathan Hadary as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater October 31, 2014-January 4, 2015. (Photo by Margot Schulman.)

But then, once again, that’s the nature of this production. Both Molly Smith and her cast combine to create a marvelously, tragically human stamp on this “Fiddler,” transforming it into something that’s more intimate, more human, and more moving than any we’ve yet seen.

Both director and players get a nice assist in this effort from Costume designer Paul Tazewell and set designer Todd Rosenthal. Mr. Tazewell’s simple but authentic-looking period costumes re-create the mood and the spirit of Tevye’s times.

Mr. Rosenthal’s severely minimalist yet effective wooden planked stage and nearly non-existent props at first seem a bit severe, until we realize that most of the surrounding village and scenery are more than adequately re-created by the energetic cast that takes us away to another time and place without much need for props.

One exception: the surprising act one “dream scene,” where Tevye’s and Golda’s bed hosts maternal spirits from their past with one of the most unexpected special effects you’re likely to see in any theater-in-the-round production—one we won’t give away here.

An additional plus for Mr. Rosenthal’s otherwise spare setting: There’s plenty of room for this production’s wonderful, joyful choreography, adapted and re-staged for the Fichandler from Jerome Robbins’ original ideas by Parker Esse.

Mostly concealed beneath the stage is this production’s pit band, ably led by music director and conductor Paul Sportelli and sounding at almost all times like an energetic klezmer ensemble, a perfect background for a production like this one.

Are we overthinking this production in this review? We don’t think so. Molly Smith & Co. have given “Fiddler on the Roof” a thoughtful and thought-provoking new look. And that’s a good thing for this 50th anniversary edition.

As they were for Tevye, things are still changing for us today—rapidly and not always in a positive direction. We still remain in a world destabilized by uncertain choices to be made. Currently, the cosmic question is, exactly which traditions do we strive to preserve? And which traditions are those that need to go away?

Should you attend an upcoming performance of Arena’s “Fiddler” and recall it with a tear in your eye, you’ll know what we mean.

Rating: **** (4 out of 4 Stars)

Entrance to Arena complex. (Courtesy Arena Stage)
Entrance to Arena complex. (Courtesy Arena Stage)

Post-script: On opening night, November 12, the audience remained in the theater after the curtain call for a brief special event. The Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater’s artistic director and the show’s stage director Molly Smith presented Arena’s American Artist Award to “Fiddler on the Roof’s” pioneering lyricist Sheldon Harnick, as well as giving its American Voice Award to Virginia Senator Tim Kaine. Both were present on Wednesday night, and Mr. Harnick expressed genuine gratitude for Arena’s recognition of his work.

Arena Stage’s new production of “Fiddler on the Roof” continues at Arena’s Fichandler Stage through January 4. Address: 1101 6th Ave. SW, Washington, D.C. Easily accessible by Metro, whose Green Line “Waterfront” stop is only one long block east of the venue.

Running time, approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes including a single intermission.

Tickets and Information: Tickets run from $45-119 with prices subject to change. Call the box office at 202-488-3300 or visit

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17