First performed in 1964, Fiddler on the Roof, created by Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick and Joseph Stein, is one of the world’s most enduring and well-loved musicals, telling the story of the inhabitants of a Russian Jewish village, whose traditional lifestyle is challenged by political and cultural changes beyond their control. A new production by Music & Lyrics in association with the Mayflower Theatre, Southampton is currently showing at the Birmingham Hippodrome.
The play is set in 1905 in the build-up to Russia’s first wave of revolutionary unrest. Like its characters, it begins with a narrow perspective, largely ignoring the world beyond its own little setting. Its first act is overwhelmingly comic, its humour and dogged optimism masking a darker undercurrent and sidelining the emerging threats to the community’s way of life. Finally though, the cracks begin to show: Act One ends with a pogrom at a wedding, and in Act Two, everything falls apart.
This being my first experience of Fiddler on the Roof, the biggest surprise for me was finding out how much of it I actually already knew. This is a musical which has seeped so fully into our collective consciousness that references abound in film, TV, theatre and even pop music, from Mrs. Doubtfire and The Lion King 3, to The Muppets and Gwen Stefani’s “Rich Girl”. One might well wonder, then, whether it’s possible to bring anything new to a show already so firmly established in popular culture. This is, however, something that Director/Choreographer Craig Revel Horwood (Strictly Come Dancing) and Musical Director Sarah Travis have amazingly succeeded in doing.
In this production, there is no pit orchestra, with all of the music instead provided by the cast on stage. The actors carry around their instruments, incorporating them into the performance and making them an extension of their characters. I’ve seen similar things done before (the RSC’s Heart of Robin Hood in Christmas 2011 saw musicians transformed into animals, their instruments providing comic sound effects) but never anything on this scale, with an entire, complex musical score being played only by an impressively multi-tasking cast who sing, act, dance and play all at the same time. This has the effect of really bringing music to the forefront of the show, making the audience acutely aware of the importance of the orchestra, not only in this show, but in musical productions generally. The instruments are shown to be an essential part of the storytelling, not only where they blend in naturally in the gleefully riotous dance sequences and party scenes, but even in terms of conveying emotion elsewhere. Lazar Wolf’s (Paul Kissaun) rising anger and frustration, for example, is translated into an ominous double bass line, while Motel’s (Jon Trenchard) flute is perfectly suited to his endearing combination of quiet timidity and youthful enthusiasm.
It’s an ambitious concept, but one that the exceptionally talented cast pull off with great aplomb, their acting and singing not suffering for all the additional work required of them. Paul Michael Glaser (Starsky and Hutch), returning to Fiddler on the Roof 43 years after the release of the film in which he played the revolutionary Perchik, here presents a rich and complex Tevye, treading the tightrope walk between humour and sadness as adeptly as the title character balances on the roof. He’s well matched by as his bossy wife Golde (Karen Mann), and nowhere is their shared balancing act more compelling than in the uproariously funny yet deeply poignant “Do You Love Me?”, where we learn that, for all their complaining, 25 years together has fostered a deep bond between the couple. The moment of nostalgia they share during “Sunrise, Sunset” at their daughter Tzeitel’s (Emily O’Keefe) wedding is also beautifully bittersweet. These are undoubtedly the production’s most nuanced performances, though Steven Bor as Perchik and Liz Singleton as Hodel come close, with Perchik’s “new-fangled” ideas adding to the comedy, while their eventual separation from the family is deeply moving. Elsewhere, though, a more excessive kind of melodrama is sometimes welcome, as in the case of Yente, the matchmaker and the spectacularly grotesque, pantomime-like ghost of Fruma Sarah, Lazar Wolf’s dead wife, both played by Susannah Van Den Berg.
Along with the music, another interesting touch was the casting of Jennifer Douglas as the Fiddler. Having this part played by a woman (dressed up in a colourful waistcoat and trousers in contrast to the other women’s long skirts and blouses), works as a sign of what is to come, further undermining Tevye’s already rather unconvincing appropriation of her for his analogy about the village clinging to its traditions: we feel almost as though she has been stuck up on the roof out of the way, rather than staying there by choice. Like the story’s other female characters, she is expected to passively observe and accept what happens while others drive the action, remaining essentially powerless despite seeing everything from a unique vantage point. When she finally climbs down from the roof, Tevye’s invitation to her to follow him works as an acknowledgement of her as a real, equal character with her own independent will, symbolising his acceptance of the new order of things and his willingness to let his daughters choose their own fates.
Fiddler on the Roof is showing at the Birmingham Hippodrome until Saturday 15th March. A limited number of tickets are still available. Visit the Birmingham Hippodrome website or call 0844 338 5000 to book.