A Story That Speaks to Us All
Director’s notes by Donna Feore
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. That is how the opening number, “Tradition,” came to be. It is the through-line of the entire show.
Fiddler on the Roof is about universal human values, the individual, the family, the society. It speaks directly to all of us, regardless of race, creed or colour. It touches anybody who has ever had to suffer thoughtless cruelty or injustice. It is also very much an actor’s musical, with complete characters, and one in which every scene, song and dance moves the story forward.
When Scott Wentworth spoke his first lines as Tevye, alone on the Festival’s historic thrust stage, I was overwhelmed and even more convinced that this was the perfect space for this show. This theatre was designed to serve soliloquy: the actor is close to the audience and truly thrust in among them. This is one of the few musicals that has true soliloquies. Like Hamlet, Tevye shares his thoughts in communion with the heavens and his audience alone.
Fiddler’s vocabulary of movement must be consistent with the culture. Jerome Robbins researched endlessly to create his iconic “Bottle Dance” and “Tradition,” and I felt it essential to respect that spirit. In “To Life,” for example, I looked to authentic Russian and Ukrainian dance. I am blessed with some of the best dancers in our country, and the thrust stage brings you close to their work, giving you what I hope will be an exciting, intimate experience.
In my first meetings with set designer Allen Moyer and costume designer Dana Osborne, we agreed that we wanted to celebrate the undeniable influence of Marc Chagall on the original design of the show. Chagall’s renderings of shtetl life beautifully capture a bird’s-eye view of the community from which the central stories emerge. The Fiddler and the iconic images floating above the shtetl homes all have important roles to play.
I felt it was important for the actors to have a very strong understanding of the history of both Sholem Aleichem’s book Tevye’s Daughters (on which Fiddler is based) and the musical itself. We have spent a great deal of time working with our consultant on Jewish culture, Dr. Darren Marks. We have all been very fortunate to be able to learn so much about the deep roots of this culture, and I wish to thank Dr. Marks for his thoughtful contribution, which has been invaluable to our process. L’chaim!
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