Small Changes Make "Fiddler on the Roof" Feminist Without Breaking Tradition

a year ago

Though it lost the 2016 Best Revival Tony Award to The Color Purple, the number that this latest Broadway mounting of Fiddler on the Roof performed during the telecast did highlight one of the ways in which this production is different from previous ones. (Insert your own Passover joke, here.)

 It is the best-danced Fiddler I’ve ever experienced, with intricate, energetic and innovative choreography (granted, I was too young to have seen the Jerome Robbins original). In fact, its feminist mindset slyly betrays itself in that the lead dancer of the "To Life!" number, though dressed in traditional male Jewish Orthodox garb, is obviously a woman. That's already pretty subversive, though subtle.

Image: Screenshot from Fiddler on the Roof Broadway on YouTube

The show also features an interesting take on Tevye. 6-time Tony nominee Danny Burstein plays Tevye as a man who uses his periodic, nearly-sitcom-level clowning as a way to diffuse tense situations. Whereas previous Teveys started off the show already beaten down, Burstein visibly fights against it. He appears desperate to behave as if nothing is that serious or that horrible that it can’t be laughed off, in order to prevent those around him from panicking, and to keep their spirits up. It makes his breakdown into rage over Chava, and into despair at their eviction even more devastating. This is a man who made the best of a bad situation for as long as he could, and he just doesn’t have it in him anymore.

But the freshest character interpretations come from Fiddler’s women. Tevye is front and center in Fiddler. He is the narrator and we see the action unfold through his eyes. As a result, it’s easy to miss the fact that the bulk of the plot is directed by the women. Yes, Tevye needs to deal with multiple changes. But it’s his daughters (and, to an extent, his wife) who do the actual changing and propelling story forward. Tevye reacts. They act.

Tzeitel stands up to her father and insists on marrying the man she loves. Hodel realizes there’s more to life than the shtetl, adopts a radical political mind-set and sets off for Siberia where, soon (assuming they live), she’ll be an actual revolutionary (whether she and Perchik will survive the purging of the purgers is anyone’s guess). Meanwhile, Chava has a forbidden conversation with a non-Jew (though I’ve always wondered what language this interaction took place in, as Chava is unlikely to have spoken Russian, and Feydka certainly wouldn’t have spoken Yiddish), turns her back on her beloved family and gets married by a Russian Orthodox priest, presumably converting along the way.

Image: Screenshot from Fiddler on the Roof Broadway on YouTube

These are all huge, dramatic events, but they tend to get overshadowed by Tevye’s soul-searching (and dream making up-ing). Not in this production. In this production, the women shine.

Hodel, played by Samantha Massell, possesses such high intelligence and wit (and “the tongue she gets from her mother”) that she reduces the revolutionary who presumably makes speeches in front of hostile crowds and argues with university intellectuals into a stammering, tripping mess who can barely keep up with her.

Tzeitel, here played by Alexandra Silber, tends to traditionally (see what I did there?) come off as the quieter, less fiery sister compared to Hodel. But this Tzeitel is undeniably her mother’s daughter, standing up for herself, and brow-beating Mottl into standing up for both of them. As they set off for America, the audience has no trouble believing that this is a Tzeitel who will make certain her husband (the only one among them with a transferable, professional skill) will quickly find work on the Lower East Side of New York City. First doing piecework, then in a factory and, eventually, with his own shop (why not his own factory?). Mottl might not possess the chutzpa to pull it off but, don’t worry, this Tzeitel does.

Image: Screenshot from Fiddler on the Roof Broadway on YouTube

The real revelation, though, is Golde. Golde tends to be played like an old woman. But let’s do the math. Tzeitel is said to be 20 years old, and her parents have been married for a quarter of a century. So Golde is, what? 45 at most? Possibly even younger? 40? Yes, life in the shtetl was brutally hard, and it aged people prematurely. But this is a still-vibrant woman!

Jessica Hecht (you probably know her from Friends, she was Susan, Carol's wife), who plays Golde, at 51 is actually older than Maria Karnilova who originated the Broadway role at age 44, and Norma Crane who portrayed her in the movie at 41. But Hecht acts younger. In this Golde, you can see the girl a shy and nervous Tevye first met on their wedding day. Her energy is similar to that of her five, boisterous daughters, and you might catch her living a little bit through them and their adventures (at least, until her own breakdown over Tevye’s insisting they consider Chava dead). You can also, during the “Do You Love Me?” number, watch Golde light up and, possibly for the first time ever, flirt with her husband – not to mention finally fall in love with him after twenty-five years of merely making do.

Most Americans’ familiarity with Fiddler on the Roof comes via the movie, and that’s one version that’s never going to change. On the other hand, there are various national touring companies, not to mention hundreds of community theater and high-school productions.

What do you think? Should future Fiddlers on the Roof adopt this more feminist version of the classic show? I think it can be done faithfully to the original material, without changing a single line. It’s all in the performances. 

 - Alina Adams

http://www.AlinaAdams.com

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