TRADITION! A NEW FIDDLER ON THE ROOF
GET OFF my land,” growls Andy Nyman, who is not quite in character as Tevye for a new production of Fiddler on the Roof. In fact, he is not even in costume. But as fans of the Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick classic musical will know, this is the scene in which Tevye is standing up to being told to leave. This being a rehearsal of Trevor Nunn’s production, the rifle being pointed at Tevye is imaginary. But the grey timber of the shtetl that embraces the Menier Chocolate Factory’s compact yet sprawling performance space, designed by Robert Jones, is very real. It is the shtetliest shtetl of any production of Fiddler on the Roof you are likely to have seen. And there have been quite a few.
“What I wanted to do was a culturally respectful, traditional production,” says the Menier’s founder, producer and artistic director David Babani. “I don’t think we have had that for 15 years.”
With that declaration, Babani includes the 2007 London production of Fiddler that starred Henry Goodman and was directed by Lindsay Posner. Babani says it struggled to overcome the obstacles of transferring from Sheffield’s in-the-round Crucible to the much squarer stage of the Savoy.
He didn’t manage to see last year’s critically acclaimed Chichester revival starring Omid Djalili and TracyAnn Oberman, which for some reason didn’t make it to the West End. Babani doesn’t know why that was but he does know that the sadly truncated commercial life of that production left the door open to his version .
“So I just picked up the phone to Sheldon Harnick,” he says. It must have helped that the Menier had staged a terrific revival of Bock and Harnick’s rarely seen She Loves Me.
Yet still, a case had to be made to the 94-year-old lyricist to secure the rights to possibly the most popular musical ever written. And the pitch idea was to go back to basics.
“I was informed mainly from the last two big Broadway revivals I’d seen,” says Babani. “The one David Leveaux directed wth Alfred Molina and the one that Bartlett Sher directed with Danny Burstein playing Tevye. For me, neither of them were particularly true to what I think the story and the writers made out of the Sholem Aleichem stories. And then I started to think back, to the one I saw with Topol [at the Palladium in 1994]. I’m sure he was just doing whatever he wanted with everyone else just having to slot in behind him.”
And Harnick’s response to this “back to the source material” pitch?
“I can’t remember the exact words,” says Babani, “but it was akin to ‘manna from heaven’; finally someone had come along who didn’t want to shoehorn this or that concept on to the show or stick that crazy actor in.”
Babani took Nyman — “the only actor I’m interested in working with for the role” — to visit Harnick in his New York apartment.
“It was just wonderful. Sheldon gave really great advice. Fiddler has had a very chequered past as far as the authors are concerned. It has been hijacked by its star on numerous occasions. And famously when they did the original  production, Zero Mostel would go off-script, improvise with the audience and do all those things that the audience may have loved but were not part of the storytelling that Jerome Robbins [the director] and Sheldon and Jerry were after.”
These days, there are resonances that powerfully make the case for a new production. For Babani they have less to do with the rise of antisemitism than they do with the way migrants are received the world over.
“I’m talking as a producer who works very hard to create work that is relevant for audiences — rather than a this-is-just-a-nice-thing-to-see kind of show” So the parallels between Fiddler and today’s immigration issues, “whether it is a caravan heading to the Mexican border or refugees in the Calais Jungle” are stark.
He also reckons there is a particular virtue in having a non-Jewish director at the helm of musical theatre’s most Jewish show, which stars a Jew and is being produced by another.
“It has been such an emotional journey for me and Andy because of our emotional heritage, and similarly being so proud of who we are as Jewish people yet at the same time not necessarily subscribing to the Orthodox ways of our communities. Again for me that’s the root of what Fiddler is about — change.”
“For example, there is a moment in the main wedding scene, in the climax of the first act, where the character who, as it were, is MC-ing the wedding asks everybody to take a moment to remember the people who are no longer with us. And the company sort of break out into simplified versions of Kaddish. And as somebody who is at least culturally Jewish, that will have a resonance. But if you are not Yiddish in any way and have no understanding you won’t enjoy it or understand the show any less, but still the level of intrinsic detail is there to be mined and enjoyed at whatever level you choose.”
Fiddler and Babani “go way back”. Whatever his reservations about that production with Topol, when he saw it at the age of ten or 11 it made sense of “everything my family had been telling me for years about being Jewish, everything I had done at Sunday school,” he says.
“I don’t think I can name any other show that got to me at my core,” he adds. And that excitement stayed with him all the way to the song that was the first dance at his barmitzvah. Yes, it was the Fiddler classic, Sunrise Sunset.
Andy Nyman and the cast ofFiddler on the Roof in rehearsal
Tevye’s daughters, played by Harriet Burton, Kirsty MacLaren and Molly Osbourne‘Fiddler on the Roof’ is at the Menier Chocolate Factory until March 9