It used to be a theatrical “Tradition” that could never be broken: 51 years of upraised arms, waving from left to right, accompanied by a rhythmic stamping of feet, to the first notes of the opening song from “Fiddler on the Roof” (lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, music by Jerry Bock and book by Joseph Stein). However, with the fifth Broadway revival of this legendary musical now being staged at the Broadway Theatre, a musical-dance revolution is taking place in the staging of this familiar story, based on tales by Sholem Aleichem and revolving around Tevye the milkman and his daughters in the Jewish shtetl of Anatevka.
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Whereas all four previous revivals were obliged to recreate choreography faithful to the original 1964 production of director/choreographer Jerome Robbins, the new production got the go-ahead to create brand new choreography. Enlisted for the task was none other than successful Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter.
As can be seen in photos and video footage of the new production, Shechter released his dancers’ bodies from the familiar arm-raising and prayer stances, opening them up in other directions. His partner in this shtetl revolution is composer-orchestrator Oran Eldor, one of the most sought-after Israeli musicians in the United States in recent years, who composed new scores for the dances choreographed by Shechter.
“There was an instant connection between us, partly because we are both Israeli,” Eldor told Haaretz recently, just before last week’s premiere of the revival. “We had an understanding regarding common sources of inspiration and a common creative language, with him creating part of a dance and me adapting music to it; with me continuing with an improvisation, and him creating a dance. The dance movements are strongly rooted in Israeli folk dances. We both went intuitively in similar directions, whether referring to Hasidic dances and how ‘authentic’ we wanted to leave the dancing and music, or how ‘modern’ they ended up appearing.”
Eldor, 32, was born in Tel Aviv. He says he used parts of the original popular songs from “Fiddler,” incorporating them into pieces played in the “klezmer” style that he composed during the course of rehearsals, inspired by Shechter’s choreography, the interpretation of director Bartlett Sher and the performances of the actors. As a result, his role in the production grew steadily, to include the composition of an overture and transition pieces that link the different scenes.
An Israeli triangle
High audience expectations for the new production, allied with material that is ingrained in the hearts of generations of theatergoers, allowed the creators to supply plenty of surprises along with the better-known elements, says Eldor. One such moment, as reported in Haaretz, is the tribute paid to refugees at the beginning and end of the show: Danny Burstein, who plays Tevye, comes onstage wearing a red coat and holding a book.
Initially, lyricist Harnick, now 91, wasn’t keen on the changes these young creators wanted to make, but it seems he’s happy enough with the end result.
“Harnick approached me during rehearsals and praised the music. And on the night of the premiere, he wrote a moving letter saying I’d managed to create music that was both new and original, which blends in smoothly with the existing score,” adds Eldor. The orchestrator stresses that there was actually an Israeli triangle in this production, completed by French horn player Zohar Schondorf.
In the first half of the last decade, after serving as musical director in productions at the Beit Zvi School of the Performing Arts and its theater in Ramat Gan, Eldor was awarded a scholarship to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he got a degree in classical music composition.
In 2008, he was in New York and saw a concert at the Barnes & Noble bookstore. After the performance finished, he plucked up the courage to approach the Tony Award-winning conductor Ted Sperling, to ask if he could be his assistant.
After two months of hard work, Sperling gave Eldor his first glittering opportunity – to arrange music for a quickly arranged concert at the Lincoln Center, to be given by opera singer Deborah Voigt. His arrangement was highly acclaimed and Eldor has now come full circle with Sperling, who is conducting the orchestra at the “Fiddler” revival.
Following that concert, Eldor became widely known, working and appearing with some of the greatest musicians and actors in the United States, as well as writing scores for different TV shows.
Earlier this year, Eldor was invited to orchestrate the music for a new piece written by Alan Menken, “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” (based on Mordecai Richler’s coming-of-age novel). He was also invited to write the music for a new Disney theme park in Shanghai and to orchestrate the music for concerts by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and to arrange music for singers as diverse as John Legend, Stevie Wonder, Andrea Bocelli and Rufus Wainwright. He was also invited to work with two of American theater’s greatest divas (in the best sense of the word), Julie Andrews and Bette Midler.
“In 2012, I orchestrated ‘The Great American Mousical,’ a play Julie Andrews directed and based on a children’s book she wrote with her daughter. In addition to being an excellent director, she was also a wonderful and exceptionally humble person. We worked together during Hurricane Sandy, and on the eve of the hurricane she invited a few people to her home, told us stories from her past and passed on a few tips that composer Cole Porter and actor Rex Harrison had given her. Learning these things firsthand was an extraordinary experience. We felt as if we were in the stormy night scene in ‘The Sound of Music,’ where thunder can be heard outside. When the production was over, she sent a cake to my house!”
Eldor was raised in a secular home, but stresses his deep affinity to Judaism. This expressed itself both in his work for “Fiddler” and the prayer music he composed for some synagogues in New York, which has now also reached down to Washington and Miami. “To see people connect to their faith through my music, singing my compositions every Friday, is one of my most moving experiences,” he says. “I’m happy to bring this connection with Judaism to Broadway as well.”
He is now in New York, working on the music for a musical that deals with Israeli spy Eli Cohen, who was caught and executed in Syria. The production will combine Israeli and Arab music, he says.
Even though he’s been living and working in New York for the past seven years, Eldor visits his family and friends in Israel several times a year, also working on Israeli productions. In 2010, he wrote the music for a children’s play called “The Angel,” which was staged by Tzipi Pines at the Beit Lessin Theater. And last year he orchestrated the musical “Greta and the Space Race,” which was directed by Shirit Lee Weiss and won a prize. He also wrote the music for last season’s songs on the Israeli version of “Sesame Street,” including the amusing “Oofnik Blues,” which can be heard on his website.
“I definitely regard myself as an Israeli artist, and keep myself updated on a daily basis on cultural developments in Israel,” he emphasizes.
“I was also in charge of a few fundraising evenings for the America-Israel Cultural Foundation in New York – my ties with Israel are very important to me. I’d love to do something big in Israel, whether as an orchestrator or light music conductor with the Philharmonic, or as a composer at a large repertory theater. I do get offers from time to time, and it will happen when a project comes at the right time. I have many friends in the theater world who started out at the same time as me and who are now in key positions, and we often dream of collaborations. I’m sure one of these will materialize in the future.”