The revival of an old musical has new lessons for a city which is a modern melting pot
Published in the Evening Standard
I saw Fiddler on the Roof before I was born. Or rather, I heard it. My parents were in Her Majesty?s Theatre on the night of February 24 1967 watching the now-legendary Topol production of the show ? and I was born the very next day. I?m sure that as he belted out ?If I were a rich man,? I was tapping my foetal feet in the womb.
Maybe that?s why the show, now energetically revived at the Savoy Theatre with the spirited Henry Goodman in the lead role, strikes such an instant, visceral chord with me. I only have to hear the opening strains of the Fiddler?s melody to feel myself welling up. Somehow this story of Tevye, the impoverished Jewish milkman struggling to bring up five daughters in Tsarist Russia, goes straight to the Jewish gut ? via the heart.
Part of it is the sheer technical skill of the show. Unlike so many of the musicals which followed it, Fiddler packs one cracking tune after another, from Tradition to Matchmaker to Sunrise, Sunset ? such a contrast with the one-melody- multiply-reprised efforts of more recent times. Andrew Lloyd Webber, take note.
The story has an almost classical simplicity. Tevye has three older daughters to marry off and each girl?s choice presents a successively greater challenge to the existing order. Tevye wants to see his children happy ? but he also feels compelled to honour the traditions of his people and his past. It is a timeless, universal dilemma.
What?s more, it?s a great pleasure to see a parade of Jewish characters on stage who are not the product of an outsider?s imagination but are crafted lovingly from within. Some critics have suggested that Goodman?s gestures and shrugs inch uncomfortably close to caricature. Many others will wonder why we don?t mind seeing Tevye this way, but would recoil at a similarly-styled Fagin or Shylock (whom Goodman has also played).
But there?s a crucial difference. Unlike Dickens or Shakespeare, the creators of Fiddler on the Roof were rooted in the Jewish community they chose to depict. Tevye, Golda and Yenta were not alien, exotic creatures, but the composers? own ancestors. There is little ethnic tourism in this show; rather it is a genuine Jewish cultural expression. One small example: when Perchik the radical wants to indoctrinate Tevye?s daughters about the wickedness of all employers, his chosen example is the deception perpetrated on the biblical Jacob by his boss, Laban. (Given all this, I?d liked to have seen a few more Jewish performers playing the Jews on stage: these days, you don?t find many non-Asians taking Asian roles, or white actors playing black characters. Why can?t that logic extend to Jews?)
The overall effect is to make Fiddler on the Roof a show which speaks to contemporary Jews like no other. I look at the fictional shtetl of Anatevka and I see the small rural hamlet of Dunilovich, the tiny speck on the map (now in Belarus) where my father?s family lived more than a century ago. I watch Tevye warned by the Cossack constable that a pogrom is coming and think of my own great-great-grandfather, Iddle Mindel the tailor, who was himself warned by the local nobleman that trouble was on the way. When I see Tevye and daughters pile up all that they own on a wagon as they leave their beloved Anatevka, I can picture my own forebears, packing up their own lives and heading for a new start ? as immigrants in newly-Edwardian London.
And I am not the only one for whom Fiddler performs this function. Plenty of today?s Jews would admit that the clearest sense they have of their ancestors? lives comes from a Broadway show that is just four decades old. Hard to believe, I know: but the immigrants of a century ago barely talked about the lands they had left behind. Instead most set about changing their clothes, their language, even their names ? and settling into their new country. Their eyes were set firmly on the future.
I?m sure that partly explains why Fiddler is still so moving, even to those who are now four or five generations away from the experience it portrays. It shows us a world that would otherwise have slipped from the collective memory, a vanished realm of Yiddish, of wedding dances, of rabbis and matchmakers, all scratching out a precarious existence, surrounded by perils ? like a fiddler on a roof.
But this is not only of value to Jews. The enduring success of the show, and the film, testifies to an appeal which goes far beyond one narrow ethnic constituency. It has become one of the great musicals, taking its place in the canon alongside Guys and Dolls or West Side Story. For those non-Jewish audiences, Fiddler serves primarily as a good night out. Yet it does something else too: it shows them where many of today?s Jews came from. Now any Londoner can go along to the Savoy Theatre and see that Jews did not always live in Golders Green or Stamford Hill; that they have a history.
It strikes me that in this city of immigrants, where close to 40% of Londoners were born outside Britain, we need rather more of that. Until now, the films or novels about Britain?s ethnic minorities that have broken into the mainstream have tended to be about the immigrant experience, from Brick Lane to Bend it Like Beckham to East is East. There has been all too little that tells us not about the life of these communities once they got to Britain ? but about the worlds they left behind.
Black Londoners still speak of the early segments of the 1970s TV mini-series Roots the way I speak about Fiddler on the Roof - as one of the rare moments where their own heritage was made visible. The scenes of Kunta Kinte in the African village from where he was stolen into slavery live on in the collective memory ? they were a glimpse of the life before.
There have been some efforts in this direction, with the likes of Monsoon Wedding and, in the West End, Bombay Dreams. But we need more of it. A Polish Fiddler on the Roof perhaps, or a Nigerian one. Something that will tell us that the people driving the mini-cab in Streatham or working at Starbucks in Soho did not start like this: that they have a story. Who knows, it could even become a tradition.