By Kenneth Turan
This was not my first “Fiddler on the Roof,” not even close. So why was I sitting there transfixed, tears forming in my eyes?
As an impoverished college student, I’d bought standing-room tickets to see the sui generis Zero Mostel as Tevye in the original Broadway production. I’d seen the Hollywood version time after time, even taking part in the Christmas Eve “Rock the Shtetl!” Laemmle Theatre singalongs that are an L.A. tradition. So why was I feeling like I’d never really seen this celebrated Joseph Stein/Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick musical adaptation of Sholem Aleichem stories before?
The answer lay in the transliterated title: “Fidler Afn Dakh.” For this production was being acted and sung not in English but rather Yiddish, the language Aleichem wrote in and the characters would have used in real life, and that cross-cultural return to roots makes a difference that is heartening, entertaining and profound.
It is also a change that has resonated with theatergoers. Playing way off Broadway in a 350-seat theater in the Museum of Jewish Heritage near Battery Park, this “Fiddler,” featuring supertitles in both English and Russian, has had its run extended four times and is now playing through Dec. 30.
More than that, future possibilities like a cast album and even a road show production are being considered and the production has just announced a move to the 499-seat Stage 42, on 42nd Street, starting in February.
Not bad for a translation, written in Israel by Polish refugee Shraga Friedman more than half a century ago, that has never before been presented in this country.
Making the Sheldon Harnick lyrics fit the Jerry Bock music once they were put into another language was not simple, but Friedman made some shrewd choices.
“If I Were a Rich Man,” for instance, neatly became “Ven Ikh Bin a Rotshild,” if I were a Rothschild, referencing the legendary family of Jewish financiers.
Though put on by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, founded in 1915 and billing itself as “the longest consecutively producing Yiddish theater company in the world,” many of the production’s key personnel are not fluent in Yiddish.