Family, faith and suffering are resonant chords in the symphony of life and harmonizing themes for countless plays and musicals. “Fiddler on the Roof,” the story of Jewish community and tradition in turn-of-the-century Tsarist Russia, is the iconic example.
Inspired by Sholem Aleichem’s book “Tevye’s Daughters,” the 1964 Broadway production won nine Tony awards, was re-created for film in 1971 with Chaim Topol as Tevye, and is performed regularly on school and community stages around the country. A bit too regularly, some would say.
Nevertheless, this week, Scottsdale Musical Theater, under the direction of executive producer David Hock, offers their version. One they hope is as fresh and folksy as it is timeless.
Though using the original Jerome Robbins choreography and a live, 20-piece orchestra, Hock wanted to go deeper. He turned to history and tradition for help, consulting Rabbi Rony Keller of Congregation Beth Israel.
“The roundtable discussion between the cast and Rabbi Keller was quite intriguing,” Hock said. “It touched on areas of Jewish culture that aren’t in Fiddler, but the cast found it so educational that general questions came up and we all found ways in the discussion to bring it back and apply whatever was being discussed to what we’re doing with this production.”
Aaron Jacobsen, who plays Tevye, decided to go back even further, spending months researching and reading the original stories to inform his role as the long-suffering Jewish papa.
“I didn’t have anything superimposed as to what Tevye is supposed to be, and that’s why I had to depend on Sholem Alecheim,” he said.
According to Jacobsen, Aleichem — the pen name of a late nineteenth century Yiddish author and playwright — was writing at a time when Yiddish was not considered a literary language. Educated Jewish authors wrote in Russian or Hebrew, but Aleichem turned that paradigm on its head.
“He was the Mark Twain of the Yiddish language,” said Jacobsen, as both wrote with pen names, wrote for both children and adults and had a similar style. “They were both telling literary stories in folkish form,” he said.
Legend has it that when Mark Twin heard of the comparison, he said, “Please tell him that I am the American Sholem Aleichem.”
Jacobsen, a decendant of Ukrainian Jews from the region of Kiev (the city closest to Tevye’s mythical village of Anatevka), received a collection of Sholem Aleichem stories at his Bar Mitzvah. He’s almost 40, but had never touched them.
This year, it was time.
“There are only 5 stories of Tevye, so I read them and re-recorded them as audio books, and then I played them day after day and learned the stories, translated from Yiddish.” said Jacobsen. “It’s oddly human, original and real.”
DETAILS >> 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 16; 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 17 and Saturday, Aug. 18; and 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 19. Phoenix Country Day School, 3901 E. Stanford Dr., Paradise Valley. $24.50 for adults, $19.50 for seniors and students, $10 for military and their families. (602) 909-4215 or www.scottsdalemusicaltheater.com.
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