Those who doubted that a Yiddish-language production of “A Fiddler on the Roof,” directed by Joel Grey, would turn out to be a great joy (“a shtik naches”) might see Jackie Hoffman’s performance as a revelation.
Hoffman, a resident funny lady on Broadway (Hairspray, Xanadu, The Addams Family, On The Town and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) as well as TV and Twitter, portrays Yente, the yente(gossip) and shadkhnte (matchmaker) in the fictitious shtetl (town) of Anatevke. In the opening number of the show, “Tradition,” (now “Traditsye”), she sidles up to a bearded man (Kirk Geritano) and says in Yiddish (with surtitles in English and Russian):
Avrom, I have a golden match [ “a goldenem shidukh”] for your son, a girl, a diamond.
Who is she?
Rokhl, the shoemaker’s daughter.
Rokhl? She can barely see. She’s almost entirely blind.
The truth is, Avrom, what is there to see in your son? The way she sees, and the way he looks— it’s a match from heaven.
And right there, Jackie Hoffman reveals that Yiddish is surely the source of her comic gifts; the shrug and the whine and the wisecrack are embedded in the rhythm of the language.
Click on any photograph to see it enlarged and read the caption.
The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene production of the hit 1964 musical by librettist Joseph Stein, composer Jerry Bock, and lyricist Sheldon Harnick uses a 50-year-old Yiddish translation by Shraga Friedman, a native of Warsaw who immigrated to Israel after World War II. Fidler Afn Dakhwas first performed in Israel in 1965. The folksbiene production, running through September 2 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, is billed as the first Yiddish-language production of the musical in the United States.
It’s about time. “A Fiddler on the Roof” in Yiddish is not the same as, say, in Finnish. The musical is based on the 19th century short stories by Sholom Aleichem, who wrote in Yiddish about Tevye the Dairyman, his family and his neighbors.
“There was very little of the original Sholem Aleichem text that I could use literally,” Fiddler librettist Joseph Stein once explained. “I doubt that there is a total of a page of dialogue from the original stories now in the play. But I am enormously pleased at the constant references to the ‘true Sholem Aleichem spirit’ of the show.”
By contrast, Friedman borrowed liberally from the Yiddish writer’s original text, especially in Tevye’s hilarious misquoting of Scripture.
The differences will fascinate any student of the musical, or of Jewish literature. To pick a few examples: 1. To keep the meter of the song “If I Were A Rich Man,” Friedman translated it into Yiddish as “Ven Ikh Bin A Rothschild” (“If I Were A Rothschild.”) 2. Similarly, “Sunrise, Sunset” becomes “Tog-Ayne, To-Oys,” literally “Day-in, day-out.” 3. In Tevye’s introduction to the song “Tradition” in the Broadway version of the musical, he says: “And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word … Tradition.” In Friedman’s translation, Tevye says (according to the English surtitles)“And how do we stand it? For that I have one answer- God is a father and holy is his Torah!” It’s not hard to see that the original Fiddler creative team toned down the Judaism in Sholom Aleichem’s stories. The translation arguably restores it.
But of course, the average theatergoer is not a scholar of Jewish literature, and they don’t have to be. The folksbiene production of Fiddler is as entertaining as any I’ve seen. The creative team for it, which includes several top Broadway talent, obviously worked with a much lower budget than they would get on Broadway (this is especially evident in the scenic design by Beowulf Boritt; the main feature is a backdrop consisting of a sheet of brown paper printed with the Hebrew word for Torah.) This Fiddler employs at 12-piece orchestra; the last Broadway revival (its fifth) used a 24-piece orchestra. But this Fiddler is also in a more intimate space: Edmond J. Safra Hall on the first floor of the Museum of Jewish Heritage seats 375; the 2015 Broadway revival was presented at the 1760-seat Broadway Theater.
Staś Kmieć does a good job in fitting Jerome Robbins’ original choreography into the smaller space.
The performers also seem to be adjusting to the smaller scale. As Tevye, Steven Skybell, who is a seven-time veteran of Broadway (including the 2015 Fiddler) is, let’s be blunt, no Zero Mostel. But a Zero Mostel might overwhelm this theater; Skybell is a fine low-key Tevye, and Mary Illes (five-time Broadway veteran) an unfussy Golde. There are times when this less flamboyant approach is a clear improvement, such as Ben Liebert’s performance as Motel the tailor.
The actor who portrayed Motel in the 2015 Broadway revival was over-the-top fidgety nerves, hiding under the cart and the like; it was too much. This production’s Motel is far shorter than his beloved Tzeitel, Tevye’s oldest daughter; his timidity seems more natural, and more credible. (This does make for a momentary oddness when during the wedding of Motel and Tzeitel, Tevye sings “When did he get to be so tall?”)
All the performers have great voices, and this Fiddler has an advantage that the Broadway Fiddlers – and indeed most Broadway shows – don’t match. The surtitles assure that nobody who can read English (or Russian) misses a single word.
Not so meshuge, this Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof, nu?
There is one more terrific perk of the production — a Wednesday evening lecture series, From Anatevke to Broadway and Back Again. (There is a separate admission of five or ten dollars, to these events.)
- The Making of Fiddler on the Roof – July 18 at 6:30pm:Explore Fiddler’s rich history through a conversation featuring Sheldon Harnick, Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning lyricist of Fiddler on the Roof, and Alisa Solomon, author of Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof.
- Transforming “Fiddler On The Roof” Into “Fidler Afn Dakh”– July 25 at 6:30pm: Join us for a lively discussion of the journey to bring the Yiddish Fiddler to life. Featuring Joel Grey, Director; Staś Kmieć, Choreographer; and Zalmen Mlotek, National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s Musical Director and Artistic Director. Moderated by Budd Mishkin.
- Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye And “Fiddler”, Or “Was Tevye A Traditional Jew?”– August 8 at 6:30pm: Join Ruth Wisse, Harvard University’s Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and Comparative Literature,
- Shalom / Sholom The Yiddish Mark Twain– August 22 at 6:30pm: Performance conceived and performed by Bob Spiotto. Sholom Aleichem left his literary mark on the world. Bob Spiotto offers a unique smorgasbord of stories featuring the author’s precarious balance of humor, horror, pathos, and philosophical insight, as well as words of wisdom and advice from Tevye, the milkman.
- The Tradition of Fiddler on the Roof– August 29 at 6:30pm: Austin Pendelton, Broadway’s original “Motel the Tailor,” and Rosalind Harris (Tzeitl from the 1971 film, and both Tzeitel and Golda on Broadway) moderated by Staś Kmieć, choreographer of Fidler Afn Dakh and Fiddler on The Roof alumnus and historian.
A Fiddler on the Roof
Folksbiene production at Museum of Jewish Heritage
Directed by Joel Grey. Musical staging and choreography by Staś Kmieć, set design by Beowulf Boritt, costume design by Ann Hould-Ward, lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski, sound design by Dan Moses Schreier.
Cast: Steven Skybell as Tevye, Mary Illes as Golde, Jackie Hoffman as Yente, Jennifer Babiak as Grandma Tzeitel/ U/S Golde; Joanne Borts as Sheyndl/Understudy for Yente, Fruma Sarah, Grandma Tzeitel; Josh Dunn as Chaim; Michael Einav as Ensemble/Understudy for Fyedka, Motel, and Perchik; Kirk Geritano as Avram; Samantha Hahn as Bielke; Cameron Johnson as Fyedka (The Golden Bride); Daniel Kahn as Perchik; Ben Liebert as Motel; Stephanie Lynne Mason as Hodel; Evan Mayer as Sasha; Rosie Jo Neddy as Chava; Raquel Nobile as Shprintze Nick Raynor as Yussel; Bruce Sabath as Lazar Wolf; Kayleen Seidl as Ensemble/Understudy for Tzeitel, Hodel, Chava; Adam B. Shapiro as Rabbi/Understudy for Tevye and Lazar Wolf ; Jodi Snyder as Fruma-Sarah; James Monroe Števko as Mendel; Lauren Jeanne Thomas as The Fiddler; Bobby Underwood as The Constable; Michael Yashinsky as Mordcha; and Rachel Zatcoff as Tzeitel
Running time: 3 hours with a 15 minute intermission.
Tickets: $70 to $121
A Fiddler on the Roof is scheduled to run until September 2, 2018 (already an extension.)