Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Stratford 2013 -- Fiddler on the Roof

The world is made up of little communities, each with their customs, traditions, and stories.  It doesn't matter where you come from; we all have a sense of tribalism, whether it's through religion, ethnicity, or even sexual orientation.  Humans cluster in like-minded groups.  It's our nature.

This simple fact is what makes Fiddler on the Roof so compelling and such a universal story.  A shtetl in Russia in 1905 isn't much different than a neighborhood in Los Angeles or a pueblo in New Mexico: they are bound together by common bonds, and even when the bonds are frayed or broken, there is still a sense of community, of belonging, of purpose.

I had a hard time getting through the performance of Fiddler on the Roof at Stratford.  It wasn't because the production was terrible; quite the opposite.  It was magnificent in every detail, from the casting of all the roles to the set, which often consisted of little houses that represented the town of Anatevka like a table model.  The music was flawless, the choreography and staging on a par with anything you'd expect on Broadway, and the story itself; clear and passionate, humorous and heart-rending.  And I spent a great deal of time flashing back to 1972, when, at the tender age of 19, I performed a very, very small role in a production of the musical at the University of Miami.

Our cast had a large Jewish contingent.  Many of the cast members had family who had either survived or been lost in the Holocaust.  For them, the story of Jews scratching out a living in what is now the Ukraine under the thumb of Tsarist Russia, always under the cloud of the pogrom yet to come, made the story of family, tradition, and faith all the more important and immediate.  And when I, a naive young kid from the Midwest who only knew from Judaism what you learn from friends at a private high school where the only question was how well did you clean up at the bar mitzvah, began to immerse myself in the story of Tevye the milkman and the town of Anatevka, my world expanded to understand that not only was there life outside of my cocoon of WASP culture, it wasn't so much different than the traditions I grew up with and accepted as my way of life.  Except no one was trying to wipe me and my way of life off the face of the earth.  For what was supposed to be a small part in a musical comedy, it was a lesson of life that still strikes me to the core more than forty years later.

Fiddler on the Roof is about Jews in Russia in 1905.  But it could be about the Puritans in 1605, the Quakers in 1650, the Native Americans on the Trail of Tears in 1831, the Irish in 1848, the Palestinians in 1948, or Cubans in 1959.  It's about all of us.  The theme of Tradition that runs through the play is what binds it together.  From the opening number to the last notes as the people of the town leave after being forced out, holding on to small things -- a pot, a shoe, a book, a faith -- keep the tribe and life together even as they are scattered to the winds to end up in Chicago, Jerusalem, or Miami. 

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