(David Jays’s article appeared in the Guardian, 9/22.)
The appeal of Fiddler on the Roof is paradoxical – it’s a celebratory musical about loss. The show opened on Broadway on 22 September 1964, and is still revived 50 years on. Why did it succeed then, and why does it still hold audiences?
Fiddler is a history musical, set in 1905 in a tiny Russian village called Anatevka (“underfed, overworked Anatevka”). Tevye the milkman and his wife Golde are scraping a living and raising a family in a state where indifference turns to hostility. His story is told in book, music and lyrics by, respectively, Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. They were badgered by Jerome Robbins, the show’s director, to define its emotional core, eventually replying “it’s about the dissolution of a way of life”. On a domestic level, Tevye’s daughters sidestep tradition, choosing husbands despite barriers of income, politics and religion. The entire Jewish community moves on in the wake of tsarist persecution – Anatevka’s fate figuring the upheavals across eastern Europe and the devastation of the shoah.