Backstage: Fiddler on the Roof

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One of Broadway’s most beloved musicals has returned to Burlington, in a production by the Lyric Theater Company.

“Fiddler on The Roof” is loosely based on the stories of the Russian Jewish author Sholom Alechiam.

The title of the play stems from a painting by Marc Chagall of a fiddler balanced on a roof peak.

Tevye is a poor villager trying to maintain his balance by keeping to Jewish cultural traditions.

One of those traditions will be the arranged marriages of his eldest daughters.

(Daughters sing) Matchmaker, matchmaker make me a match
Find me a find
Catch me a catch
Night after night in the dark I’m alone
So find me a match of my own

(Charnoff) But to his astonishment, Tevye’s daughters ignore tradition by choosing their own husbands.

He decides to overlook this transgression, and celebrates.

One of the play’s most enduring songs captures the poignancy of releasing one’s children to their own fates, and has since become a traditional anthem at weddings

(Tevye sings) Wasn’t it yesterday when they were small?
Sunrise, sunset
Sunrise, sunset.

(Charnoff) Fiddler on the Roof deals with much more than the domestic evolution of a culture. Tevye and the townspeople must also deal with the Russian pograms, or demonstrations, which will ultimately lead to the dissolution of their village on orders from the Tsar.

To stage Fiddler on the Roof, the cast and crew immersed themselves in Jewish culture. There were no rehearsals on Friday nights, the start of the Jewish Sabbath. During rehearsals, all cast and crew members wore traditional head coverings, which are meant to show respect to God. Rabbis were consulted, and a special Shabbat dinner was held in a Burlington synagogue.

Stan Greenberg is the show’s musical director. Greenberg gives several reasons for why Fiddler has endured. For one thing, the book and music accurately reflect the optimistic attitude necessary to overcome adversity.

(Greenberg) “In the dialogue for example, Tevye will say at the beginning at the second act, he will bemoan the fact that there was a pogrom at his daughter’s wedding. And he’ll say two sentences about that and then he’ll say, Anyway , and then he goes on to other things, happy things. And that’s a characteristic of the show. It goes from those kinds of beautiful things to those kinds of ugly things in a very short period of time.”

(Charnoff) Greenberg says the show reflects the ambivalence many people feel when trying to balance tradition with moral values.

(Greenberg) “It touches the love of your children, the wanting of your children to be happy and successful and at the same time to live within some kind of organizational rules and moral ethics. And the show is a clash of the combination of the paradox between the extreme of living with an emotional love and living within the strictures of what a religion can do for you.”

(Charnoff) Joe Garafalo of Burlington plays Tevye. He says Fiddler on the Roof touches themes that go beyond a Jewish setting.

(Garafalo) “It’s a universal story. I teach in the Burlington schools, and right now we’ve had influxes in the five years I’ve taught here in Burlingon, of people from Bosnia, who’ve been driven out of their land because of religion, people from Tibet who’ve been driven out of their land because of religion, people now from Africa who’ve been driven out of their land. And in Vermont we’ve accepted all of these people and we have to deal, especially when I teach, I have to deal with all these different traditions. And to me its really a common story. Finding your place in America is what Sholom Alechiam was talking about and that’s why it’s still a universal story.”

(Charnoff) Fiddler on the Roof has been produced on Broadway four times, and was also a successful movie. The Lyric Theater production of Fiddler on the Roof runs through Sunday at the Flynn Center in Burlington.

(Singing) Sunrise, sunset
Sunrise, sunset
Swiftly fly the years
One season following another
Laden with happiness and tears

(Charnoff) For VPR Backstage, I’m Neal Charnoff.

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