Book by Joseph Stein
Music by Jerry Bock
Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
adapted from stories by Shalom Aleichem

INFO:

Opened at The Imperial Theater    September 22, 1964    3,242 Performances (the record, at that time, for longest running show of any kind on Broadway.)
Original Director: Jerome Robbins
Original Choreographer: Jerome Robbins
Original Producer: Harold Prince
Original Leads: Tevye: Zero Mostel    Golde: Maria Karnilova    Tzeitel: Joanna Merlin    Hodel: Julia Migenes    Motel Kamzoil: Austin Pendelton    Perchik: Bert Convy    Yente: Bea Arthur
Cast Size: Large, usually 24-30 plus. Some children can be cast.
Orchestra: Large, around 20. Can be done with smaller ensemble, even a piano/drums, though it isn’t optimum. You will need a good violin player at the very least.
Published Script: Limelight Editions ISBN 0-87910-136-9
Production Rights: MTI (Music Theater International)
Recordings: There are many. The original Broadway is very good. It in 1964, starring Zero Mostel. I loved the 2004 revival with Alfred Molina.
Film: A good and interesting adaptation overall. 1971, starring Topol, directed by Norman Jewison.
Other shows by the authors: Tenderloin, Fiorello; She Loves Me; The Apple Tree, The Rothchilds
Awards: Every Tony in sight, including Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Book for a Musical, Best Composer and Lyricist, Best Director, Best Producer, Best Performance by a Leading Actor (Zero Mostel), etc.

WHO SHOULD DO THIS SHOW:

Groups capable of handling significant and expensive production demands. Schools with large theater arts departments, including shops and a real crew, or the ability to rent, hang and use existing Fiddler sets. Jr. Highs can’t do this show. Many High Schools try this show, but they should not unless they have a very promising Tevye, and a large and active drama department. For the same reason, even colleges and some Little Theater companies should find another show to do unless they have the right ingredients. A staple for dinner theaters, stock, professional companies, and even Broadway revivals, of which there have been many.

That said, the musical aspects of Fiddler can be relatively easy to handle by a High School orchestra and cast – that part of the show is pretty easy.

The show is about Russian Jews at the time of the Czar. But it is universal. There is probably no group of people that has not been oppressed at some time in history, and even forced to move from their homes. Fiddler speaks beautifully and successfully to audiences all over the world, and has been translated into Hebrew, Spanish, Japanese, and many other languages. I can’t think of many audiences that will not understand and be entertained and moved by these characters and songs.

Be Warned:

Fiddler is a large show, a Broadway-type musical. The technical demands (sets, costumes, etc) can be daunting if you’re not set up for them. Your Tevye MUST be exceptional. You will need a large group of actors to pull this off. The original Broadway cast wisely cast many stars and stars-to-be in the leading and support roles, recognizing the need for exceptional performers. Harold Prince (Producer) and Jerome Robbins (Director/Choreographer) were/are two of the most revered talents in American theater history. To get Fiddler right requires real expertise. The timing in delivery of dialogue should be particularly good, and the depth of character development unusually profound. Choreography in a few of the numbers, particularly the Bottle Dance, is very difficult, not for beginners.

One more thought – Fiddler is one of the most produced shows. You might want to find out how many local productions there have been in the last two-three years at least, to see if the neighborhood might have a few too many fiddlers on the roof, which might become annoying (and unprofitable).

But if you can get it right…OY! This is one of the four or five greatest musicals ever written.

THE STORY:

ACT ONE: It is 1905, in a small village somewhere in Russia. A fiddler plays a haunting melody atop the roof of a small home. Tevye, a dairyman, speaks directly to audience, as he often will. He introduces us to his life in the Russian village of Anatevka. (“Tradition”) We meet the people of the town, starting with the Jews, to which Tevya and his wife and five daughters belong. We meet “the others”, Russian Christians. Their relationship is tense. Life is difficult. But it is blessed with history and tradition, which makes life bearable and provides it direction, shape and meaning.

It’s the Sabbath, the Holy Day of rest in the Jewish faith. All activity must stop at sundown, and dinner must be ready to eat. Tevye’s wife, Golde, and his daughters, work to prepare the meal before he arrives home from a long day of work. They are visited by Yente, the local matchmaker, a self-involved busy-body whose job it is to match boys and girls of somewhat equal social footing. And she has a match for Tevya’s oldest girl, Tzeitel, a “wealthy” middle-aged butcher named Lazar Wolf. So Yente doesn’t much care for the fact that the boy basically next door, Motel Kamzoil, is in love with Tzeitel. The three oldest daughters sing, fantasizing about their perfect match. (“Matchmaker, Matchmaker”) Tevye arrives home with a fairly lame horse. His wife insists he rush to prepare for the Sabbath, but that does not stop him from taking a moment to speak to God (which he often does) to complain about his poverty. (“If I Were A Rich Man”) It is shortly thereafter that an itinerant, young man, Jewish and a teacher, makes his way to Tevya’s door. Even in poverty, even though the boy has strange ideas about the poor rising up from their slavery, Tevye takes the young man in and offers to feed him, in exchange for lessons for his daughter. (This is a somewhat radical idea on Tevya’s part, as an education for girls at that time was not felt to be necessary.) Perchik meets the daughters, and they all sit down to the “Sabbath Prayer”.

Upon the insistence of Golde, Tevye goes to talk to the butcher, Lazar Wolf. He does not much care for the man, but he does feel that he would be a good match for his daughter. With a butcher, she would never starve. They drink to their agreement, and in joy, the town joins them. (“To Life”) Still a bit drunk, Tevye encounters the local Russian Constable, who warns Tevye that the Czar has ordered a pogrom. (A demonstration or action against the Jews in a certain town or city in Russia, often ending in destruction of property, injuries, even deaths.)

Perchik has begun to teach the daughters, and preaches the gospel of change. Hodel, the second eldest of the girls, and Perchik do not agree. It is clear they’re destined to fall in love. Tevye arrives home and announces to everyone that all is arranged – Tzeitel is to marry the butcher, Lazar Wolf. Perchik finds the idea of marrying for money disgusting. Tzeitel admits to her papa that she will be miserable with Lazar Wolf, and begs Tevye not to wed her to Lazar. Motel steps in and, speaking like a tailor, states that he and Tzeitel would make a perfect match. Tevye rages at God – when do the changes stop? Then he gives in. Motel sings with joy, “Wonder Of Wonders”.

But how will Tevye break the news to his humorless and unromantic wife? He pretends to have a horrible and frightening dream (“The Tailor Motel Kamzoil”) in which the dead rise to inform him that Tzeitel should marry Motel, not Lazar Wolf. Golde sees it all as a sign from beyond, and agrees to the wedding. Another day, in town, everyone is talking about how Tevye has jilted Lazar Wolf. Tevye’s third daughter, Chava, is on her way home when she’s stopped by three young Russian men (not Jewish). They make fun of her Judaism at first. But one of them, Fyedka, stops them. He is, of course, interested in her. She makes it clear she can have nothing to do with him, as he’s not Jewish. The best he can do to start things is lend her a book by a Jewish writer. But the seed for the unthinkable is planted.

The traditional Jewish wedding of Tzeitel and Motel the tailor, as mom and dad think about how time has flown. (“Sunrise, Sunset”) Taboos start to fall. Hodel dances with A MAN at the wedding, Perchik. To protect his daughter’s reputation, Tevye (to her shock) insists on dancing with his wife. The party continues (“Bottle Dance”, “Wedding Dance”), when suddenly, the Constable and his men arrive. He apologizes, but the pogrom has been ordered for this night. And the Russians destroy the wedding. Perchik is injured trying to stop them. The family cleans up the mess.

ACT TWO: Tevye complains to God, again. Perchik let’s Hodel know that Russia is about to pass through a great change (The Russian Revolution is just a few years away…), and he’s determined to be a part of it. He is leaving. He asks her to marry him, and she agrees. (“Now I Have Everything”) He says he will send for her soon. He announces the engagement to Tevye, who furiously converses with God and himself, before giving in. He is having a very hard time with the changes around him. He hesitantly tells Golde about Perchik and Hodel, and she is furious. But he wonders about love, and asks his wife of many years, “Do You Love Me?” Though she finds the discussion bizarre, she has to admit that she does.

Perchik is arrested protesting against the government, and is sent to Siberia. Hodel decides she must join him, and while waiting for a train, explains to her bereft father why she must go “Far From The Home I Love.”

There’s a new arrival at Tzeitel and Motel’s…a sewing machine, the newest invention! Oh, and they have had a baby. It is now that Tevye discovers that his third daughter, Chava, is in love with a non-Jewish Russian. He is furious, it’s too much change and unacceptable. He orders her never to see Fyedka again. So, while Tevya is away working, Chava runs away with Fyedka. Tevye is heartbroken. (Chavelah”) He refuses to ever speak with her again. It is shortly thereafter that the Constable informs Tevye, and all the Jews of Anatevka, that they must sell their homes and relocate. So, they pack and head away from the village they’ve spent their lives in. (“Anatevka”) With carts loaded with their spare belongings, each family heads for different parts of the world, often, America. Tzeitel and Motel will go to Warsaw until they make some money, and then meet Tevye and Golde in America. They pray that Perchik and Hodel will somehow come into their lives later. Chava begs to speak to him as he leaves the town, to tell him she and Fyedka are leaving this land where people are treated so poorly, and moving to Cracow. Golde tells Chava where in America they are going. Everyone departs, followed finally by the lone fiddler we saw earlier on a roof, playing as he dances his way into the unknown.

THE SONGS:

“Tradition”; “Matchmaker, Matchmaker”; “If I Were A Rich Man”; “Sabbath Prayer”; “To Life”; “Miracle of Miracles”; “The Tailor, Motel Kamzoil” (or The Dream); “Sunrise, Sunset”; “Bottle Dance; “Wedding Dance”; “Now I Have Everything”; “Do You Love Me?”; “I Just Heard”; “Far From The Home I Love”; “Chavelah”; “Anatevka”

Hits include “Sunrise, Sunset”; “If I Were A Rich Man”; “Far From The Home I Love”

MY OPINIONS:

Feel free to ignore my opinions and rating.  If you do and you end up with more sunset than sunrise, don’t blame me.

Fiddler moves me enormously. I cry as the violin starts the show. (The only other show that effects me that exact way is The Fantasticks, as the piano starts the overture. Can’t help it.) It makes me laugh a lot. It makes me weep. It is a masterpiece, constructed perfectly around one idea, or “theme” – the battle between the highly-valued past, or our “traditions,” and the inevitability and need for change to keep up with a world in flux. The theme largely manifests in a battle of the generations, another universal idea. The story, accordingly, is timeless. Fiddler will always be contemporary. Parents will always stare in wonder at the choices their children make as they approach the end of their teen years, and fear that their children are “nothing like we were.” Children will always suffer over their parent’s inflexibility. Both generations will find warm understanding and hard-won truths in this show.

The music is simple, but beautiful and evocative. It certainly has a feel for the period, for Russia and Russian Jews at the time. But the songs are all modern language (there’s a little Jewish slang, or “Yiddish” spread throughout, not much), the songs are theatrical, and the melodies are and always will be irresistible. I do believe that a director who understands little or nothing of that period in history will need to seriously do some homework before directing Fiddler.

Fiddler is easily on the very short list of most beloved musicals. I’d go so far as to say that if you do not love this show, you probably don’t like musicals very much. And if you don’t like musicals, ah, well, there is no hope for you.

MY RATING: *** (An exceptional show, bordering on (if not) perfect, and one of my personal favorites.)

PRODUCTION CONCERNS AND IDEAS:

DIFFICULTY OF MUSIC:

For a large musical with extensive production demands, Fiddler’s score is relatively simple to learn and execute. Almost none of the material is very hard to learn, making much of it ideal for strong actors with limited musical experience.

The ranges called for by the performers are small when compared to many other Broadway shows, and so the roles are easily sung. Tevye is a baritone. Golde, an Alto. The daughters (Tevye has five daughters!) must have various ranges to sing together in “Matchmaker”. The daughter who should have the most beautiful voice is Hodel, who sings “Far From The Home I Love.” She is a lyric alto, not heavy. Motel and Perchik are lyric baritones with some tenor range. Of the two, Motel is more a “character” voice and part, Perchik more the “leading man” type. You will want an ensemble the is capable of very tight, clean delivery of music and lyrics. They sing a fair amount of material together in the opening number (“Tradition”), “Sabbath Prayer” (background), The Tailor, Motel Kamzoil, Sunrise Sunset (background), and the last number, “Anatevka”, named for the village they are forced to leave behind.

The dance numbers will work best with some orchestration, rather than just a piano, and are an argument for using at least a partial orchestra. And you will AT LEAST need a strong fiddler.

DIFFICULTY OF DANCE, CHOREOGRAPHIC CONCERNS:

Much of Fiddler is fairly simple to choreograph. Numbers like “Matchmaker, Matchmaker”, “Wonder of Wonders”, “Do You Love Me?”, “Far From The Home I Love”, “Sabbath Prayer”, and even “If I Were A Rich Man” are small, involving just a few actors, and are “actor-centric.” By this, I mean that you as a director/choreographer should be more concerned in these numbers to paint a clear, emotional portrait of the characters reacting to the moment they are experiencing, rather than forcing some movement on to the number. I’m not saying that these numbers are without movement or even some (very limited) choreography. But the emphasis throughout Fiddler is on character and theme, with just a few exceptions.

The theme of the this show is stated clearly in the opening number. The musical is about tradition. It’s about old ways verses change. This tells you that the dance is going to often represent “old, traditional” ways, and so it must. The tradition explored in this show is Russian Jewish, just as the Czar was pushing the Jews out of the country, in 1905. In the original production, the choreography rather brilliantly evoked the period, the people and the traditions involved. Sometime the evocation required minimal choreography, as in “If I Were A Rich Man.”

And then there’s the Bottle Dance. This is a highly-specialized number, requiring a variation of a Russian Kazatzka. (If you don’t know what that is, you’re going to need to find out.) And those bottles – how is it done? They usually show the dancers removing the bottles at the end of the number. I’d probably have hard wires set in the top of each hat and shaped like a cup holder. Still, the dance skills called for are significant. Depending on who is available, you could conceivably reduce this to a single male dancer, but I’d have at least three if at all possible to make it impressive.

The opening number, “Tradition”, introduces the entire town and all the characters. It should explode with vitality, and pull the audience into this long-gone world. It is also entirely presentational, rather than representational. Tevye speaks directly to the audience. Is he talking to us, or to God, as he later does? Hard to say, up to you. This direct communication certainly makes the opening feel very alive, however. It feels like Tevye is reaching across time to us. You might keep the Jews and Gentiles apart in the number, to establish that dynamic.

CASTING CONCERNS:

Tevye, Tevye, Tevye! Requires a consummate performer who is truly funny (while in character), and who suffers with comic vitality and abandon. Stereotyped as a physically large man (Topol in the film, Mostel on Broadway), the role has been successfully played by many actors of less physical stature. We do have to believe that this man can drag his cart of milk when his horse fails to, however. Lyric Baritone, preferably with a big, even explosive voice. A large personality capable of playing small details, small moments of anger and pain when he’s coming to grips with the changing world around him.

Golde, Tevye’s wife. Dry, cool, stoic, accustomed to a life of endless toil, the hopeless fight for survival, and few joys. Saved by her sense of humor – she has some very funny lines and moments dealing with Tevye and the cards that they’ve been dealt in life. Requires a fine actress with an oversized personality. Full alto voice.

Make sure the daughters all look something like sisters, all look “Russian Jewish” -and still look different enough to easily differentiate. The two younger girls should be about 10-ish, and so they will not look like their three older sisters. Of the three, Hodel is the most intense and serious. Tzeitel is the homiest, the most matronly. Chava is the wild child, willing to take on a dare that will change her life. The eldest three are all motivated by love, and that is “new” to Tevye and Golde. They should be decent actresses, and sing and harmonize well. Hodel must sing quite well, but in a non-operatic, simple, plaintive manner.

Motel Kamzoil is a character role, mostly comic. He provides comic relief. Find an actor who is genuinely good at being awkward and very nervous around women (and men), and who can do some decent signing in character.

Perchik is a bit more the dark, handsome leading man type, but young, revolutionary, incendiary. Should sing well, lyric baritone.

Fyedka must dance, and NOT look Jewish, often accomplished by casting a tall, light-skinned blonde. Though he is cocky, we must come to see a good man. He can have an “accent” to differentiate himself further. He is “other.” You can stretch this idea to the other non-Jewish Russians to some extent, as long as it doesn’t become transparent. Most Russians have dark hair, Jewish or no.

Yente in the ultimate busy-body, middle-aged, never shuts up. She does some singing in the original version, but I believe it was removed in later productions. Go for a strong actress just right for the role. The more Jewish ethnic, the better, so long as she doesn’t become a cartoon.

Other roles must all sing fairly well, to get that big Broadway ensemble sound. But each part must be played by someone uniquely right for the role, so sometimes vocal needs may take a back seat to strong actors who do not sing as well. Balance the needs of your production between singers and strong actors.

SETS:
The show has been done many ways, where sets are concerned. It is often done on numerous sets, with cutaways and drops and the like, and set pieces rolling on and off, but this can get expensive and complex. Hey – this is a great big, Broadway show. But the many sets approach can only work in a theater with huge rafters, flies and wings, a sophisticated baton system, and even trap doors or carousels. You may wish to go toward a unit set -a single set that is used or slightly altered in many ways, to represent multiple locations.

The most beautiful set I’ve seen for Fiddler, and one of the most beautiful sets I’ve ever seen, was for the Broadway revival in 2004. Taking Chagall (a great Russian Jewish painter who used a lot of symbolism in his work) as their starting point, the set largely consisted of small lights strung across the top of the stage like stars in the sky. Twigs and trees seemed to serve the multiple purposes of creating outdoor cold, barren Russia, and the thatched roof of a hand-made house of the time. A great moon stood still in the sky, the floor has painted patterns swirling like water, and we were transported to another time – mostly in our minds. Take a look (if it’s still there.) (You can also get a look at part of the opening number, and of the Bottle Dance! How do they do it?!)

There is a large, potential problem with Fiddler that can make the sets and costumes difficult to make work. The show skews dark. It is definitively written for earth tones – blacks, browns, some white in the shirts. You should really work to find color anywhere you can in the set, to offset the actors. If the backdrop is black or dark, your actors will vanish into it. You can partially solve this with a set that lets in some sunlight (figuratively speaking)during day scenes, and the moon and its light at night. Lanterns and stars as secondary light sources will help, as well. Houses, cottages, shops with some color, even with flowers, will help. Straw in the rafters and on roofs might help. You’re going to need to be creative in color designing your sets, though, to provide a real sense of life to the proceedings. The 2004 set accomplished much in this regard.

COSTUMES:
Read what I said about sets.

Religious Russian Jews wear defined paraphernalia, and you’ll need to get this right. The Russians are going to need to be dressed very differently than the Jews. You will need to understand the proper attire for Russian Jews circa 1905, during Sabbath and weddings. The Constable will need some sort of costume variation or appropriate symbol of his office. The Rabbi should look like a Rabbi for that time and place.

Clothes should generally reflect the method of livelihood. Lazar Wolf is a butcher, and a bloody and much-used apron will help us understand why Tzeitel might not be interested in the man.

This is a large show, and you’re going to be building some specialty costumes. The hardest will be for the dream sequence, when we see the ghost of Lazar Wolf’s first wife, Fruma-Sarah. Many productions have her move as a ghost, and stretch (her white death robe enshrouding her) to a height of eight or ten feet. She needs to be terrifying. You’ll need to work with the Set Designer to make this work.

PROPS:
Tevya’s cart, a butter churn for the daughters, a hoopa under which a Jewish wedding takes place. (Look it up if you don’t know.) Bottles for the bottle dance (and probably carefully prepared hats for the same…)

LIGHTING:
This show has many moods. You will need to be able to light the entire stage for large numbers like the wedding, the dream, the opening number. At other times, you’ll need to isolate characters, as when Tevye speaks to God. As is true of the props and sets and costumes, you may be tempted to go to darkness and earth tones. I would not. Most of the show is witty, funny, and needs lots of light to allow the audience into the mood. Again, we should celebrate the fact that these people are survivors. There should ultimately be an air of jubilation, even if it’s wistful, particularly at the end of the show. Yes, they’re leaving Anatevka…but they’re bringing they’re music with them. Night lighting could be very poetic, you might feel the cold Russian wind blowing through the shadows. Again, the 2004 production handled this extremely well.

Anyway, don’t lose sight of the fact that this is a musical with lots of comedy in it. Light big numbers brightly, and isolate scenes with enough light that we can enjoy the piece without succumbing to moodiness.

MAKE-UP:
Build beards, lots of them. Religious Jewish men of that period were generally not permitted to shave. They beards better look real, too, and each one, unique. Practice this if you’re not great at it.

You have two dead character’s ghosts in the big dream sequence. You might wish to find out how Jews of that time envisioned the appearance of their dead.

You’ll be tempted to make-up the living Jews to represent their difficult life. You know, hollow eyes, etc. I would not. Make this concession for the sake of musical theater, and make the daughters (and most of the characters) presentable if not appealing. We have to like these people, accept them, care for them. (But not feel sorry for them. The point of the show is that they keep going, they are survivors.)

KEY PERSONNEL (The ones you MUST get right.):
Director, Choreographer, Set Designer, Lighting Designer, Tevye (and if you don’t have your Tevye, don’t do this show. Fiddler is a “star vehicle”, a show built to showcase a great and usually beloved talent. I can’t emphasize this enough.)

MY THOUGHTS:
I love this show, pretty much everything about it. You will, too, if you do it well. It is a show that draws an audience easily, almost every time it’s produced. As is true of many large musicals, it costs more to do than a play or smaller show – but the rewards can be commensurately greater. I think Fiddler is not a good show for a new acting group, or a small one. It’s needs are too great and too sophisticated. But if you’re group has some experience and decent support, you could not pick a more wonderful show to present.