In sixth grade, Adam Kantor made his theatrical debut playing Mendel the rabbi’s son in a middle school production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” On Sunday, when the show’s fifth Broadway revival officially opens in New York, Kantor will be onstage singing “Miracle of Miracles” as the tailor Motel. Sure, it’s one of those “career-comes-full-circle” moments. But for Kantor, it’s also a milestone in a personal journey of heritage, history and self-discovery.
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“‘Fiddler’ is, in many ways, the story of my ancestors,” Kantor tells Haaretz. His great-grandmother was born in Lithuania, one of 13 children. A photo of her at age 2 sits in his dressing room. “She, like Tevye, had a very, very personal relationship with God and spoke with him often,” he adds.
Kantor says she inspired him to have a similar spiritual relationship when he was young. But throughout his teens and early 20s, he found himself drifting away from his faith, immersing himself instead in the religion of theater. Then a fiddler’s melody called again: “When I was cast in ‘Fiddler,’ I saw it as the perfect opportunity to explore my family roots.”
“Fiddler on the Roof” has been a vessel for many Jews (Ashkenazi ones, at least) to explore their collective roots since first premiering on Broadway in 1964, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins (of “West Side Story” fame). It was a hit from the start: The show won nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and for a decade held the distinction of being the longest-running show in Broadway’s history.
Half a century later, the new production still feels like flipping through a family album, or listening to zeyde tells stories around the Shabbat table.
But it’s not just a flashback. “Fiddler” is the dramatization of the eternal struggle between tradition and change viewed through the politics of home, which this production cleverly evokes in its design by Michael Yeargan: Houses hover above the stage, threatening to disperse like clouds, and a barn descends like a jail cell. It is a story that has something to say to every generation, especially now.
“We’re now dealing with the largest refugee problem in Europe since World War II,” says Bartlett Sher, the revival’s director, who has previously staged acclaimed revivals of “South Pacific” and “The King and I,” examining these classics with sharp, modern eyes. “The idea of leaving home is profound, and I think we’re insulated from that in the United States,” he adds.
Sher recalls listening to audience members at preview performances explain a “pogrom” to their children – something they would not have had to do in 1965, when the trauma of the Holocaust was still fresh. In light of how secure U.S. Jews feel right now, returning to Anatevka – the fictional village where “Fiddler” takes place – is “worth a visit to see the level of sacrifice and complexity,” Sher believes.
The power of faith
The audience’s guide through this small Eden of Jewish culture and conviction is Tevye the dairyman, the warmhearted, hardworking and hapless father of five daughters who is the protagonist of a series of stories by famed Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem. Tevye was first introduced to readers in 1894 and is now played by Broadway veteran Danny Burstein, who infuses him with a gentle playfulness and stubborn streak. He is the physical embodiment of dilemma.
“Even though he sings of tradition, he changes,” says Sher of Tevye. “He endures transition, he responds to his own time, he finds a way to make sense of it.”
The power of faith is also an anchor of the show. It is presented mostly as a source of strength, but Sher acknowledges its complex layers. “We live in times of extremely orthodox adherence to religion, whether Islam or Judaism, or Christianity in the United States,” he explains. “Those dogmatic readings are still intrinsic in the modern world.”
Sher’s own connection to the Pale of Settlement (the Western area of the Russian Empire in which Jews were allowed to reside) is complicated. His father was born in a shtetl in Lithuania; his grandmother was a Yiddish speaker. But this was a story he only learned later. “I was raised in a Catholic family in San Francisco,” he recounts. “My father rejected everything about his Judaism. We had no idea. He was totally, completely assimilated.” Reinvestigating “Fiddler” became an opportunity for Sher to excavate his own family background. “For me, it was a journey of personal learning,” Sher admits.
For Hofesh Shechter, the London-based Israeli choreographer charged with reimagining Robbins’ dances, the journey took him back to his childhood in Jerusalem, where folk dancing was a link to the past. He performed traditional Jewish, Arabic and Russian dances before he became a member of renowned Israeli troupe the Batsheva Dance Company – moving from tradition to modernity, just like “Fiddler.”
The choreography of “Fiddler,” like some of Shechter’s contemporary work, is “grounded in group circles, deconstructed ‘grapevine’ steps, and arms shaking to God in both appreciation and anger,” he says. (Robbins’ iconic “Bottle Dance” in the wedding scene remains largely intact and still mesmerizes.)
“It connects to something tribal and ancient,” Shechter says of folk dancing, “and I try to bring that tribal feel to ‘Fiddler.’ It’s about the group celebrating something together.”
The show wasn’t a big part of Shechter’s upbringing – he watched the film but never saw a live production until his current involvement. With ancestors from Odessa, Germany and Romania, he vaguely understood its personal significance, but the connection only clicked recently. “I caught myself thinking, ‘People actually went through this crazy stuff, and the fact they survived is the reason I’m here,’” he says, “and thinking about how much of their suffering and their struggle is in my DNA.”
To greater understand that lineage and struggle, Kantor decided to return to the land of Anatevka. Last summer, he traveled with the Yiddishkayt organization to the former shtetls of Lithuania, Latvia and Belarus, visiting the places where Aleichem gave birth to Tevye, and immersing himself in the stories’ literary history.
“I felt a sense of the culture of the shtetl, the landscape in which my ancestors lived and left, and imagined how Motel might exist in these environments,” he explains. It is serious research for a Broadway role, but then again, for many Jews “Fiddler on the Roof” has always been more than a musical. It is a text of wisdom, a communal history, handed down from generation to generation – not unlike a certain sacred scroll that is reread and reinterpreted in every age.
“In a sense, ‘Fiddler’ has brought me closer to my roots, closer to myself and, yes, perhaps closer to God,” concludes Kantor.