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Fiddler on the Roof: A Cherished "Tradition" Returns to Broadway

January 20, 2016 - by Griffin Miller
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Before stepping into the role of Golde in the luminous revival of Fiddler on the Roof, Jessica Hecht had never been involved in a musical—let alone one on Broadway. Her vocal skills were pretty much limited to her synagogue choir, which, along with singing lessons, proved solid ground for her character, the “Mama” who, as she and her fellow Mamas sing in “Tradition,” must make a proper, quiet, kosher home “...so Papa’s free to read the Holy Book.”

“It interested me how in a musical actors wait for their next song, whereas I find myself waiting for scenes,” says Hecht, whose background is straight plays with eight person casts. “Because I connect from a different place—not being schooled in American musical theatre—I had to play catch up.”

Jessica Hecht in Fiddler on the Roof

Jessica Hecht in a pensive moment in the extraordinary revival of Fiddler. Photo: Joan Marcus 

The production itself is a unique experience as well, even for theatregoers familiar with Fiddler. The seminal role of dairyman Tevye, Golde’s husband and father to their five daughters, is played by Danny Burstein. In a performance rich with humanity and humor, five-time Tony nominee Burstein’s Tevye is a kind and lovable man caught in the crosshairs of long-held beliefs and inescapable personal and political challenges.

Under the direction of Bartlett Sher, who worked with Burstein in South Pacific and Golden Boy, the actor is placed both in today (in a lovely bookended opening and closing), and in 1905 Czarist Russia in the fictional Jewish village of Anatevka.

Fiddler’s two-pronged storyline—the loves and marriages of three of Tevye and Golde’s daughters, and the undercurrent of Jewish persecution under the dictate of Czar Nicholas II that leads to a forced exodus from Anatevka—is based on stories penned by Sholem Aleichem, which, surprisingly, were Hecht’s sole connection to Fiddler prior to being cast.

“I had never seen it...not once. And when I got the job I didn’t want to reflect on previous performers,” she says, adding that when doing revivals, it’s customary to read the script over and over, “But I wanted to enter the story fresh...and I stuck to my guns on that.”    

Still, she did not enter the show unfamiliar with Tevye the Dairyman and his family. She had been introduced to Aleichem’s original stories by her Russian-born grandmother, whose legacy extended to Hecht’s exposure to Yiddish and the customs/protocols that are second nature to observant Jews. These inspired the finely etched “Sabbath Prayer” scene early in Act I, in which home after home is illuminated in a shared invocation that begins “May the Lord protect and defend you.”

“I think the beauty of Fiddler is that while it presents conflicts around these people, at the same time it shines a positive and peaceful light,” says Hecht, who sees the production as a historic touchstone for many young people who have no sense of their own heritage.

Fiddler on the Roof

(l-r) Jessica Vosk, Lori Wilner, Jessica Hecht, Alix Korey, Tess Primack and Jennifer Zetlan. Photo: Joan Marcus

 

The dance numbers—by Jerusalem-born choreographer Hofesh Shechter (incorporating elements of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography)—have a unique vibrancy. “Like Israeli folk dances, how one imagines Hasidim might dance—spiritual and uninhibited and free,” observes Hecht.

Much can be said for the production’s ballads—songs of longing, like daughter Hodel’s (Samantha Massell) heartbreaking “Far From the Home I Love” and Tevye and Golde’s exquisitely awkward romantic duet, “Do You Love Me,” in which the simple act of holding hands becomes the ultimate show of affection.

“Bart was meticulous about the intimacy of that touch of a hand, and you see the release of their connection,” says Hecht. “From that point on—and it’s very subtle—they become more open to one another.”

Fiddler on the Roof is playing at the Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway at 53rd St. For tickets call 212-239-6200 or visit fiddlermusical.com.


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