I was in my local supermarket when Gwen Stefani came on the speakers:
And it made me wonder how many teenage music consumers around the world had any idea where that little tune came from. My conclusion? Not many.
Oh sure, Jewish kids, musical theater kids, maybe even most New York City kids. But that’s about it.
In musical theater, context is everything. In the Stefani version, it’s about the ability to shop 'til you drop. But in the original version, as the wonderful showcase song at the heart of Fiddler on the Roof, it is about something quite different, and far more profound. The milk man in Annatevka has five daughters and a shrewish wife and a lame horse. It’s that lame horse that creates the immediate problem, because Tevye still has to deliver milk to his customers. He winds up having to pull the large, unwieldy milk cart by himself. Tevye is his own beast of burden. As he sweats and strains against the harness of his poverty, he engages in a bit of a conversation with God -- “So, what would have been so terrible if I had a small fortune?" At the moment, along with the physical exhaustion of delivering his milk, Tevye has to be concerned about the fate of his daughters. Only marriage to a wealthy suitor (regardless of age, regardless of love) can lift them out of their poverty. Tevye the milk man is impotent to do it himself.
As portrayed by the wonderfully engaging Danny Burstein, this Tevya is a sweet, sweet man. In the current Broadway revival under Bartlett Sher’s direction, Tevya doesn’t question God, he merely (and timidly) asks him a question:
That is an important distinction -- between questioning and asking a question. And that, for me, is where this revival comes up a little short. When Burstein’s Tevye delivers these final lyrics, the stakes seem to be somewhat smaller than they should be. That’s why it comes across as a conversational question. What I want Tevye to do is stand up to God, question him! Why did you make me poor? It makes a BIG difference to me -- what difference could it make to You!? If you've ever seen the film starring Topol, or the original Broadway production starring Zero Mostel, you know what I mean. In this new production however, poverty takes a back seat to affability. We know that Tevye and his family are poor because they tell us so. But the costumes are more off-the-rack than threadbare and worn. And costumes are important to the story, as the man who Tevye’s daughter Tzeitel wants to marry is the poor tailor Motel, not the wealthy butcher Lazar Wolf. No wonder Motel has no money, there’s no work for a tailor. The clothes everyone wears look brand new. No loose threads, no patches, no uneven seams, no holes. They’re not even dirty, they’re remarkably clean. Tevye’s home is likewise a bit too expansive and substantial. And the town of Annatevka itself? Set designer Michael Yeargan has seemed to take his inspiration from Marc Chagall, suspending the village buildings above the scene as a three dimensional tapestry. It is certainly fanciful. But I wouldn’t describe it as hardscrabble.
The drama of Fiddler on the Roof is about the crumbling of tradition, yes. But it is also about the struggle for survival, the dream of being wealthy when every day is a battle to keep a roof over your head and starvation from the door. The irony of Tevye is that he yearns for material wealth -- even demands it of God -- without realizing that God has bestowed upon him an even greater wealth: his five daughters and his wife Golde. And, as Tevye sees each of his three oldest daughters leave him one after another, it is only then that he realizes how wealthy he really was.
Of course, this is a fine production of Fiddler. It is beautiful and beautifully sung. You couldn’t ask for a more likable companion over three hours than Danny Burstein. And even though Jessica Hecht’s Golde seems a bit too shrewish too much of the time (oy!), it only makes us like Burstein’s Tevye all the more.
So I am not suggesting that readers shouldn’t go see this Fiddler – GO! It’s Fiddler on the Roof! What could be so bad!? I’m just suggesting that the production can feel like a bit of a lost opportunity. Like the Gwen Stefani version of the song, these Russian Jews seem to be shopping at Macy’s when they’d kinda rather have the money to shop at Bloomingdales. They’re not destitute folks keeping their traditions alive in the face of great hardship, they’re middle class folks aspiring to be rich(er). And for me, that’s a bit of an oy vey. - Mark Weston
Photo by Joan Marcus
Mr. Weston is best known as lead singer/songwriter of the '90s New Wave pop group Ernie And The Imports. In 1987 he was awarded the No-Bell Prize for his work in Applied Physics. (N.B. - The No-Bell Prize, the lesser known cousin of the Nobel Prize, is awarded every 27 months for ground-breaking work in a field in which the recipient has no prior knowledge or training.)