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6 Reasons You Need to See ‘Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish’ – in Yiddish

Category Broadway

|by Mikey Miller |

From the show's 'komedie' to its 'kostumen' and beyond

Grois naies – Good news! After the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbeine’s sold-out run downtown at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, the Joel Grey-directed production of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish began previews Off-Broadway at Stage 42 on Monday, Feb. 11, and opens on Thursday, Feb. 21. Starring Broadway vets Steven Skybell as Tevye the dairyman, Jennifer Babiak as his wife Golde and Jackie Hoffman as Yente the matchmaker, Fidler Afn Dakh is performed completely in Yiddish. The production is a theatrical experience unlike any you’ve had before, here are some reasons – in Yiddish, of course – why you’d be meshugge (crazy) not to see the show before the end of its limited twenty-week engagement. 

The cast of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ in Yiddish (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

The cast of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ in Yiddish (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Komedie (Comedy)
Fiddler on the Roof is not only one of the masterpieces of the American musical theater, but is also a pinnacle of the American musical comedy. (Believe it or not, funny woman Bette Midler even got her start as a replacement Tzeitel in the original Broadway company.) Although Fiddler deals with some serious issues, its book is rife with laugh-out-loud jokes and moments. And even though this production isn’t in English, you will still be floored by the comic performances. Hoffman, for instance, reinvents the original text’s Yente – who sits among the ranks of musical theater’s best character roles as a campy, brazen, brash widow – as one who is sarcastic, sardonic and deadpan, in an interpretation that absolutely works, and to great effect.

Kostumen (Costumes)
You might be thinking to yourself: How can a production of Fiddler have out-of-this-world costumes? The characters are Russian Jews in the early twentieth century. When I saw this production downtown before its transfer, I was struck by the thought and care that was put into the color coordination of characters’ costumes, no matter how trivial that may seem. Although Fiddler begins with “Tradition,” one of the most famous, vibrant, boisterous opening numbers in musical theatre history, the cast is dressed in shades of black, white and gray. As the show progresses, however, the color palette becomes more advanced. As Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava, Tevye’s three oldest daughters, begin to marry the men of their dreams, a world that was once so uniform and ruled by arranged marriages and obligation becomes one of color and relationships based on love.

Oitantisiti (Authenticity)
The story of Fiddler dates back to the Russian author and playwright Sholem Aleichem, who wrote ten short stories about Tevye as the titular milkman’s fictional memoir, Tevye and His Daughters. Aleichem originally wrote his stories in Yiddish, and Yiddish is the language that the villagers in Anatevka would have spoken as well. This production’s use of native language allows you to experience Fiddler the way it would’ve actually happened – if human beings spontaneously burst into song and dance, of course.

Schprach (Language)
Although Fiddler on the Roof is performed in Yiddish, there are supertitles in English and Russian, so that speakers of any of these three languages can understand all of the action. However, this version isn’t a direct translation of the English libretto we all know and love. In the 1960s, actor-author Shraga Friedman wrote the Yiddish translation. The exact meanings of some lines were altered to better embody Yiddish syntax, and song lyrics were changed to retain the beauty in the rhythms of composer Jerry Bock’s music. Most notably, the Yiddish title of “If I Were a Rich Man” translates to “If I Were a Rothschild,” which plays more deeply on the cultural desires of a poor Jew at this point in history. Through this production of Fiddler, you can rediscover new meaning in a text that is over half a century old.

Paschtes (Simplicity)
Being a landmark work of musical theater doesn’t necessarily mean that all productions of Fiddler have to be huge spectacles, which this production is not, and to incredible effect. The set is made up entirely of chairs and tables (which come together to form the roof for the eponymous fiddler in the first scene), and the most lavish production piece is perhaps the tailor Motel’s brand-new second-hand sewing machine. The backdrop is comprised of a few pieces of large parchment, one of which bears the Hebrew letters in the word Torah, the collective name for the five Books of Moses, constantly reminding both the audience and the characters that those living in Anatevka exist only to serve and carry out the will of God.

Teme (Theme)
Ultimately, no matter the language, the Yiddish-language Fiddler on the Roof is the musical that we all know and cherish, telling a timeless story about the meanings of family, tradition, marriage, religion and love as the denizens of a Russian shtetl are unwillingly thrust into a modern era. Featuring a Tony Award-winning score, this new production of Fiddler on the Roof (that ironically breaks traditsye – tradition) is sure to make you feel as though you’re experiencing this classic for the first time.

For more of the best of New York theater, check out our list of the Top Shows in New York in February 2019.

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