Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’re aware that the iconic Fiddler on the Roof is buoyantly back on Broadway. (See my earlier piece.) Sunday night, 92Y Talks presented an intimate conversation with some of the people making this latest revival successful. Lyricist Sheldon Harnick, the only living member of the musical’s original creative team, was joined by Danny Burstein, this production’s Tevye, Jessica Hecht (Golde), Adam Kantor (tailor, Motel Kamzoil), and Melanie Moore (daughter, Chava). Alisa Solomon, who teaches at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, moderated. Sincere mutual appreciation and respect made the event feel like taking a warm bath.
Solomon began by asking about the sound of the show including orchestration details. She then inquired of the panel how each developed his/her own sound. Burstein commented that Director Bartlett Sher had first wanted heavy Russian accents, a decision he thankfully reversed. “I wanted it to be done in Yiddish!” quipped Harnick. Burstein’s accent comes straight from the Russian Jewish Lower East Side.
Hecht, who herself has an extremely distinctive voice, responded that she always starts with the way a character sounds. The actress’s inspiration was her grandmother who had a Yiddish/Ukrainian accent. Surprisingly, based on performance, this is Hecht’s musical debut. Kantor took his “cues” from the rhythm of the original Shalom Aleichem stories. Moore, whose first full role this is (she was a dancer), gratefully learned from the people around her.
The actors shared preshow rituals and how they felt when cast. “I called my mother,” Hecht replied, “and she said you?!” Moore mentioned that her own sisters are jealous of the amount of internet posting she does on her stage sisters.
Harnick told us origin stories of the songs “Do You Love Me?” and “Miracle of Miracles,” both created on the road. The first, an extremely intimate two-hander with Tevye and Golde, was what its lyricist thought of as prose, yet Jerry Bock set the song exactly as written. One couldn’t imagine it otherwise. “I found out only later how emotional it was. At the time, I only thought he (Tevye) needs an answer… About the third time I saw it, I found myself sobbing. My parents fought constantly. All I could think of was if only…” Harnick recalls.“The more we play it,” Burstein adds, “the more it becomes a scene. Music is cradling us, but it feels like dialogue.” Sheldon Harnick (behind: Melanie Moore)
Fiddler on the Roof was almost titled Where Papa Came From, referring to the fathers of Sheldon Harnick, Jerry Bock, Joseph Stein and Jerry Robbins who had immigrated from “the old country.” When asked about research, in addition to the Shalom Aleichem stories, Harnick cited “Life Is With People: The Culture of the Shetetl” by anthropologists Marc Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog.
The book was based on interviews with Jewish people fleeing their homelands just before World War II. Its authors assumed there would be more differences between that population and the community here. There were not. Harnick remembered sitting in the Detroit audience near an elderly couple who looked as if they may have survived a pogrom. When pillows were torn on stage as citizens were forced from their town of Anatevka, the pair were viscerally and visibly shaken.
Years after Fiddler’s first production, the lyricist discovered an additional Aleichem story in which daughter Chava left the husband from another faith who took her from her family causing Tevye to disown her, and rejoined them. “The husband turned out not to be a nice guy. I like our ending better.” Harnick smiles. In the existing script, as she tearfully departs thinking not only will she never again see her beloved family, but that they have condemned her, Tevye quietly says “God bless you.” Sobs can be heard from the audience.
“Miracle of Miracles,” tailor Motel Kamzoil’s exuberant reaction to Tevye’s allowing him to marry daughter Tzeitel, was originally “You Could Have Had The Richest Man in Town,” referring to a prearranged marriage with butcher, Lazar Wolf. Jerome Robbins felt strongly that the moment needed to express the suitor’s joy. “The last spoken line before the number was it was a miracle. So I went back to the hotel room,” Harnick tells us, “hoping and praying there was a Gideon Bible for research. And my prayers were answered.”
This evening ended with Adam Kantor’s infectious rendition of the song. Even watching the performer sitting on the stage in civvies, one can’t help but be deeply moved.
92Y Talks Photos by Joyce Culver
Opening: Back Row: Adam Kantor, Jessica Hecht, Melanie Moore
Front Row: Alisa Solomon, Danny Burstein, Sheldon Harnick
92Y Talks presents
Back on Broadway: Fiddler on the Roof
With Danny Burstein (Teyve), Jessica Hecht (Golde), Adam Kantor (tailor, Motel Kamzoil) & Melanie Moore (daughter Chava)
92Y at Lexington and 92nd Street