Yiddish ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ opens in New York

By ALAN SMASON, Exclusive to the CCJN

There is a misconception, according to Tony and Oscar Award winning actor Joel Grey. Although he was the son of famous Klezmer clarinetist and Jewish stage personality Mickey Katz, a man who was quite fluent in Yiddish, there was, in fact, no Yiddish allowed to be spoken in his home.

Steven Skybell, center, as Tevye in the opening number of “Tradition.” (Photo by Victor Nechay / ProperPix)

“My mother wouldn’t have it,” he announced at a press conference in New York in early June. “She was much too glamorous for that.” This is how, Joel explained, he was brought up in a Jewish home without knowing how to speak Yiddish, first in Cleveland and, later, in Los Angeles.

The press conference signaled the beginning of rehearsals for an entirely new production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” probably the most well-known Jewish musical of all time by Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) and the late Jerry Bock (music) and Joseph Stein (book). What distinguishes this new production is that Joel is directing it and that it is entirely sung and spoken in Yiddish.

Presented off-Broadway at the Museum of Jewish Heritage by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene (NYTF) and a host of other producers, the production opened on Sunday, July 15 after a week and a half of preview performances. It was  originally scheduled for an eight-week run, but producers quickly extended it to September. Now it is slated to close on October 25, 2018, a testament to rave reviews and popularity among audience members.

Steven Skybell as Tevye. (Photo by Victor Nechay / ProperPix)

The translation by highly-regarded actor and director Shraga Friedman of blessed memory was painstakingly constructed in 1965 following the original cast’s Broadway success when Zero Mostel played the lead role of Tevye. Friedman, a Holocaust survivor, who emigrated to Israel in 1941 with his family, captured the joy and emotion of the music and lyrics of Harnick and Bock while making a greater connection to the work to the original Sholem Aleichem “Tevye the Dairyman” tales.

Friedman, a native of Warsaw, spoke Yiddish fluently and used his skills as an actor and director to infuse the Stein book with references found in the Aleichem material. The musical was presented only once before in Israel in the early 1970s. It is making its North American stage premiere with a cast of well-known and respected Yiddish performers, many of whom have appeared on stage in NYTF productions of “Di Goldene Kale” (“The Golden Bride“) and “Amerike: The Golden Land.

Steven Skybell acknowledged it is a “daunting challenge” to play the lead role of Tevye in Yiddish. “But,” he said “I feel a little like I have at least a grasp about something about the Yiddish. For me, I’ve done a fair amount of Shakespeare in my life and so Tevye is up there with Hamlet and with some of the great roles. Each individual actor feels the freedom to endow the role with all personal inspired choice. Just like any great Shakespeare role, you are approaching it in the shadow of so many great people who have gone before.”

Skybell knows the part well. He recalled playing Tevye first as a 17-year-old and then as a 22-year-old. “I definitely feel like returning this story back to its Yiddish beginnings feels (right). I just feel happy and humbled by the opportunity to give life to the Yiddish Tevye.”

Playing the role of Tzeitel is Rachel Zatcoff (“Phantom of the Opera,” “Candide“), who was last seen on the same stage two years ago in “Di Goldene Kale.” She says it’s very different than what some might expect.

“Matchmaker” performers from left: Raquel Nobile, Rosie Jo Neddy, Rachel Zatcoff, Stephanie Lynne Mason and Samantha Hahn (Photo by Victor Nechay / ProperPix)

“We all know ‘Fiddler’ and while keeping with the “tradition” of it… this is still a very unique production,” she pointed out in an email interview with the CCJN. “The Yiddish language is such a beautiful element. It feels right. It seems like it was always meant to be told in this language. The translation is exact to the Stein/Harnick in some places, and a little different in other places. At the end of the day, the creative team collectively wanted us to stay true to the Stein/Bock/Harnick/Robbins (production).”

Joel was asked to helm the latest production by NYTF artistic director Zalmen Mlotek, the conductor and music director of the project. He told Mlotek that despite his not speaking Yiddish fluently, he felt he could bring something to the work. “Even though I don’t speak fluently, I understand it a lot and know what that show is about…and what it could be about in this year of immigration,” Joel stated.

“That Tevye family leaving Anatevka never fails to get me,” he said.

As Harnick is the only member of the original creative team still alive, it was important to Joel to bring him into the work as much as he could.

“He was there on our very first day of rehearsal,” Zatcoff recalled. “He attended our first preview performance and he was extremely happy!”

Zatcoff echoed Joel’s belief that the work is significant at this time of political unrest and divisiveness. “Working with Joel Grey has been a masterclass,” she mused. “It’s a necessary time in our country and world to be telling this story, especially in Yiddish. It feels like the ‘Fiddler’ we all know and love is coming home.”

Her direction from Joel and her innate acting skills have added to the character she has built on stage. “Tzeitel is a very strong-willed, practical, and smart young woman,” she continued. “I think her strength comes from her parents, but also from within. Golde and Tevye are both very passionate, grounded, and full of love. She knows how much her parents love her and her sisters. In breaking the tradition, she remains hopeful and, most importantly, determined. She is a pioneer (and) the first to break the chain.”

Joel believes the story also has a great deal to do with the Jewish response to anti-Semitism. “The ancient sound of Yiddish attached to these issues is very interesting,” he noted.

Zatcoff said she was especially moved by the song “Sabbath Prayer,” in which she sings. ” It’s a visceral experience to sing all of it in Yiddish, and quite moving to hear it in Yiddish as an audience member,” she pointed out. “This is the language the characters in this story would have been speaking. It feels true. It sounds beautiful. It’s natural. It’s intimate.”

The production will have supertitles in both English and Russian for the benefit of those who do not understand Yiddish, Joel added.

Fiddler on the Roof” continues at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Place in New York. For tickets, visit www.NYTF.org or call 866-811-4111. For group sales and memberships, call 212-213-2120 Ext. 204.

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