There’s a famous story about a conversation that the writing team had during the creation of Fiddler on the Roof. The director, the great Jerome Robbins, was not completely happy with how the show was evolving. He asked the writers, Joseph Stein, Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, a simple question: “What is this show about?” After days of discussion, one of them finally replied: “It’s about the dissolution of a way of life.” Robbins told them to go back and show that way of life to the audience. That is how the opening number, “Tradition”, came to be. It is the through-line of the entire show.
Based on the short story by Sholem Aleichem, Tevye and his Seven Daughters, Fiddler on the Roof examines all of life, including persecution, poverty, and the struggle to maintain one’s beliefs in the midst of a hostile and chaotic environment. Fiddler on the Roof takes place in 1905 in Anatevka, a small, fictitious village in the Ukraine in which war and chaos lead to uprisings against the Jewish population in that town and many others in the Russian empire.
In the complex system of Jewish folklore, stringed instruments like the fiddle are among the oldest symbols for the voice of the human soul. In Aleichem’s work “The Fiddle”, he writes: “I only heard a singing, a sighing, a weeping, a sobbing, a talking, a roaring – all sorts of strange sounds that I had never heard in my life before. Sounds sweet as honey, smooth as oil, kept pouring without end straight into my heart, and my soul soared far, far away into another world, into a paradise of pure sound.”
The character of the Fiddler in this musical represents two main themes in the musical. First, the Fiddler represents any group of human beings who withstand the suffering that is inflicted upon them while still sustaining their sense of identity, purpose, and hope. If we view the fiddle as the sound of the human soul, every character in Fiddler on the Roof carries the idea of the Fiddler within them, just as everyone in this audience struggles with their own Fiddler. The second big idea is the larger story of the turbulent world both then and now. The world is teetering. Cultures are clashing. Wars are tearing apart countries, scattering families from their home and forcing them to become refugees. The music from the fiddle shares our souls’ stories and it is the role of the Fiddler to make sure those stories are told. It is up to the Fiddler to try to change the world for the better.
This is precisely what the Fiddler character seems to be in Fiddler on the Roof, as his sacred instrument gives voice to the full range of feeling that his people are experiencing while they attempt to navigate among the various worlds and forces that are surrounding them. No wonder we feel relieved at the end of the play, when Tevye invites the Fiddler to accompany the Anatevkans to the new worlds that await them.
Just as times were turbulent in the 1960s when Fiddler premiered, we now live in a polarized environment quickly adjusting to enormous global change. The story and themes of this musical tell a story from over one hundred years ago and yet it is the same true story happening now in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, the South Sudan, and many other countries.
This, I suppose, is one of the reasons why Fiddler of the Roof is beloved by so many people — people of all colors, creeds, cultures, and identities. No matter who our ancestors were, no matter where they came from or what they suffered, the truth is that we have all suffered from some kind of culturally sanctioned discrimination or persecution. We may not have experienced a pogrom or a Holocaust, but if we are honest with ourselves, we realize that we are the refugees from some form of societal affliction, some kind of culturally sanctioned disapproval, discrimination, persecution, or outright abuse. Sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, militant fundamentalism of religion or politics — these are among the myriad ways that human beings can shun and demonize each other, and we have all been the targets of one or more of these cultural afflictions.
The production of Fiddler on the Roof that you will see has a slight twist in its storytelling. The cast and crew are raising money for the Child Refugee Relief Fund through UNICEF USA, but in December we had a new idea. Even though we are telling a story from 1905, these characters show up in people living today — so why not include those refugees within the story we are telling? Our story starts with four modern child refugees reading a book entitled Fiddler on the Roof. When Tevye enters with his line “A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no?”, instead of speaking to the audience, he speaks to the children reading a book about his people. The audience will watch this famous musical through the eyes of four children wondering where home is and hoping that they will find one. As the children read the story, it comes to life before their eyes. The children and the Fiddler are one and the same, struggling both to stay atop that roof and to encourage others to listen to their story.