Fid­dler on the Roof

The Guardian - G2 - - Live Reviews - Mark Law­son

★★★★★ Me­nier Choco­late Fac­tory, Lon­don, un­til 9 March

Al­though much-loved and of­ten re­vived, Fid­dler on the Roof has been charged with ex­ces­sive sen­ti­men­tal­ity and piety. As the poor Rus­sian-Jewish milk­man Tevye at­tempts to marry off five daugh­ters, sev­eral of the songs have the form of pray­ers, and a star­tling per­cent­age of the di­a­logue is de­liv­ered up­wards.

But as Trevor Nunn’s mag­nif­i­cent re­vival am­pli­fies, the show dar­ingly con­trasts light­ness and dark­ness. With the Rus­sian tsar’s thugs pa­trolling the shtetl of Anat­evka in 1905, the ro­man­tic machi­na­tions are shad­owed by ex­ile and geno­cide. In an em­blem­atic mo­ment, a wild wed­ding party is in­ter­rupted by the vi­cious ar­rival of a pogrom.

In 1964, when Fid­dler on the Roof pre­miered in New York, many in the city had suf­fered ex­ile or be­reave­ment through the Holo­caust. When a vil­lager ex­cit­edly an­nounces plans to “go to Poland”, we know the likely fate of their de­scen­dants. Re­spect­ing this, Jerry Bock’s score de­fies con­ven­tion by end­ing not with a cho­rus line but a si­lence, stalling a fi­nal tune from the ti­tle char­ac­ter.

The ter­ri­fy­ing resur­gence of an­ti­semitism makes the mu­si­cal cru­elly topi­cal once more, and the fi­nal se­quence of the vil­lagers flee­ing in­vokes other forced di­as­po­ras. Char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally, Nunn roots the lines in vivid so­cial and phys­i­cal de­tail. The en­tire panoply of a Jewish wed­ding is crammed on to the Me­nier’s tiny stage for Sun­rise, Sun­set, which, like the refugees’ vale­dic­tory an­them Anat­evka, is sung as a shiv­ery cho­rale, the 20-strong cast packed in like chess pieces.

The non­sen­si­cal word-doo­dling (“dibba dibba dum”) that Shel­don Har­nick’s lyrics give Tevye be­tween verses of If I Were a Rich Man be­come cries of sci­atic pain from his work­ing day. Through­out, Andy Ny­man makes sear­ingly real the pro­tag­o­nist’s strug­gles be­tween tra­di­tion and com­pas­sion, and per­fectly times both the notes and the jokes. As Tevye’s wife, Golde, Judy Kuhn – a wel­come Broad­way im­port – also makes her songs into cries from a real life, and shows us that the sup­pos­edly pa­tri­ar­chal so­ci­ety was re­ally ma­tri­ar­chal.

Mu­si­cally, geopo­lit­i­cally, emo­tion­ally, this Fid­dler raises the roof.

Cru­elly topi­cal … Andy Ny­man as Tevye

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