It’s a long way from Yente the matchmaker to eHarmony.com, and this world needs an occasional revival of Fiddler on the Roof to remind us to examine, from time to time, our deepest truths, our hopes and dreams—our traditions. “Because of our traditions,” Tevye confides near the beginning of the Prologue, “we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. . . . Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.” At the end of the Prologue he adds, “Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as—as a fiddler on the roof.”
In the ensuing two acts, a total of seventeen scenes and two prologues, we see those traditions observed, altered, accepted, cherished, challenged, and proscribed. In the end, forced from their beloved, “little bit of this and that” Anatevka, “the circle of [their] little village” is shattered, and all the “special types”—matchmaker, butcher, beggar, rabbi, dairyman—disperse “at different times and in opposite directions” (closing stage directions). Yet they go with a vague sense of hope, supported by their traditions of family and faith.
Fiddler on the Roof opened on Broadway in 1964 and ran for eight years, becoming the first musical to break the then-impossible 3,000-performance ceiling, a record it held for a decade. Critically acclaimed, it won nine of the ten Tony Awards for which it received nominations, including best musical, producer (Harold Prince), direction and choreography (Jerome Robbins), book (Joseph Stein), and score (Jerry Bock). Moreover, the show made a lot of money for its investors and continues to bring in royalties from the myriad revivals and school productions.
One must conclude that audiences love to cry. The summary above suggests tragedy, but this play so runneth over with humor and song and irony and love that we, the audience, know we are joyfully redeemed. Tevye, for example, sincerely believes the traditional matchmaker will make the best marital choices for his daughters; he is genuinely shocked and dismayed when they have other preferences. Yet something in his heart trumps his devotion to tradition—“But look at my daughter’s eyes! / She loves him”—an emotion he doesn’t recognize in his own life and can’t quite understand or reconcile with his beliefs. After he reluctantly grants Hodel and Perchik his permission and blessing for their engagement, Tevye warily asks Golde, “Do You Love Me?” We have filled our traditional roles, they sing; what else matters? Their daughters are teaching them the love their traditions overlooked.
The wedding of Tzeitel and Motel paves the way for the younger sisters, once Tevye breaks an agreement and fabricates a superstitious dream to undo the matchmaker’s work. Of course, he doesn’t like Lazar Wolf to begin with, but, on the other hand (as he loves to say), he can’t provide a dowry and Lazar has wealth to spare. Tevye struggles to maintain both the tradition of matchmaking and the honor of agreements: “Marriages must be arranged by the papa. / This should never be changed.” Only the audience recognizes the irony of Tevye’s prediction, “One little time you pull out a prop, / And where does it stop?” Nevertheless, Motel’s surprising persuasiveness and the “look [in his] daughter’s eyes” draw Tevye’s heart to their union. “Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles,” Motel sings out; “God has made a man today” and “God has given you to me.” Love triumphs and we weep.
Tevye—on the other hand—looks heavenward: “Golde! What will I tell Golde?” We laugh as he summons Fruma-Sarah and Grandma Tzeitel screaming from the grave to convert Golde; and the wedding, though arranged untraditionally, epitomizes the sweetness of traditional ceremonies. I first heard “Sunrise, Sunset” in a Kodak commercial, where a succession of photos, from toddler to bride, accompanied the refrain. Unbelievably, I choked up over a television commercial. Here, though, in its original context, the song bears deeper, soul-stirring verities: the inevitable passage of time, the “loss” of our children as they move from our homes into adulthood, the changing roles of changing generations, parents relinquishing authority and doubting the wisdom of their “wisdom”—while bride and groom glitter with all the promise of invincible bliss. “One season following another, / Laden with happiness and tears.” Our pride and hope, their future joys and heartaches—are your tissues ready?
Act One ends in tears, but not before the Villagers enjoy their squabbles about gifts and promises. Tradition wavers as Perchik dances with Hodel, and Tevye follows with a surprised Golde. Happiness, of course, follows tears, and vice versa: “There are the others in our village,” Tevye sang in the Prologue. “They make a much bigger circle. . . . His Honor, the Constable, his Honor the Priest, and his Honor—many others. We don’t bother them, and so far”—such irony!—“they don’t bother us.”
“Personally,” says the Constable, “I don’t know why there has to be this trouble between people, but I thought I should tell you [about] a little unofficial demonstration . . . just some mischief, so that if an inspector comes through, he will see that we have done our duty.” The “unofficial demonstration” takes place at the wedding party. “I see we came at a bad time, Tevye,” the Constable apologizes.
Perchik, the activist, challenges tradition and the Russians, but while new to Anatevka, he shares the faith. When a letter brings news that he is imprisoned and Hodel leaves for Siberia to become his wife “under a canopy,” Tevye sorrowfully sustains their union. In contrast, when Chava, the third daughter, marries Russian Fyedka before a Christian priest, Tevye avows, “Chava is dead to us! We will forget her.” At what point, we ask, can a parent repudiate a child? At what point could you repudiate your child? I, mine? At what point do we say with Tevye, “On the other hand . . . there is no other hand”? The thought is paralyzing, and, as Tevye chooses, we mourn with him.
Why do we love three-hankie theatricals? All our lives we’ve had to “be strong,” “be a big boy/girl,” “set an example,” “don’t let ‘them’ see/make you cry.” We have to choose when we don’t know the answer. We have to keep going, as the Villagers leaving Anatevka trudge toward the kindness (or tolerance) of distant families. Like Tevye and Golde, we clean up messes after “little unofficial demonstrations” and sweep our floors before moving on. Fortunately, we can cry at weddings and funerals; but to weep for our most difficult choices and deepest fallibilities, we need the theatre and plays like Fiddler on the Roof. In the theatre, we collectively purge the apprehensions we suppress while living our adult lives.
In the theatre, we can overhear Tevye, stubbornly maintaining his attitude of repudiation toward Chava and Fyedka at their final farewell, prompting Tzeitel in a whisper to give them his blessing. We revel in floods of relief: relief that Tevye cannot, after all, deny his daughter; relief that it was not our choice to make; relief that those tears we’ve swallowed are spent; relief that redemption is possible. Great theatre does that for us.