The other night I watched a Channel 13 program about the Jewish influence on Broadway. It is amazing when one realizes how many of the great composers and lyricists of beloved Broadway shows were Jewish and how many shows have a Jewish sensibility.
A new book Devil’s Mile: the rich, gritty history of the Bowery has a chapter called simply “The Jews.” Yiddish theater began on the Bowery. Seats cost 25 cents and everyone from mothers with their babies to workers and politicians would attend.
Author Alice Sparberg Alexiou says that it was “on the Bowery that Yiddish theater took root, bloomed and leapt into American culture: to Broadway and then to Hollywood.”
In fact, Stella Adler, whose famous acting school trained American actors such as Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro, was the daughter of Yiddish theater star Jacob Adler.
Yiddish theater never totally disappeared from the world stage. Although it suffered greatly from the ravages of World War II, many of its actors continued to perform in the United States.
Currently getting rave reviews, The National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene is presenting the first Yiddish staging of Fiddler on the Roof. It is amazing. Even if you speak or understand little or no Yiddish, the acting in this production is effective and the supertitles are clear but not obtrusive: you’ll miss nothing.
Don’t expect elaborate scenery. A few chairs, a table or two and long sheets of butcher paper are all it takes to recreate Anatevke. The actors are fully costumed with a few accessories added as the scenes change.
If you follow the supertitles but know the English lyrics, you’ll notice that the translations sometimes differ. The Yiddish translator, Shraga Friedman who debuted the Yiddish Fiddler in Israel in 1965, went for sense and rhyme. “Rich Man” becomes Rothschild, for example.
The dialog and songs resonate as if these were real people. There was a lot of sniffling and cheek-wiping as Tevye, his family and shtetl dwellers went from comparative happiness to exile.
The reviews were excellent and the small theater at the Museum of Jewish Heritage even added chairs so that more people could be seated.
Fiddler-Fidler Afn Dakh- plays through September 2.
A Fiddler related booklist:
From Hester Street to Hollywood: the Jewish-American stage and screen
Adler, A life on the Stage: a memoir
Buhle, Jews & American Popular Culture
Caplan, Yiddish Empire: the Vilna Troupe, Jewish theater & the art of itinerancy
Isenberg, Tradition! : the highly improbable, ultimately triumphant Broadway-to-Hollywood story of Fiddler on the roof, the world’s most beloved musical
Perlow, Rifka Takes a Bow (J)
Solomon, Wonder of Wonders: a cultural history of Fiddler on the Roof