TRA­DI­TION! A NEW FIDDLER ON THE ROOF

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - JOHN NATHAN

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 [1964] 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

PHO­TOS: JO­HAN PERS­SON

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

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