“I am a feminist,” director Bartlett Sher says, leaning into this reporter’s microphone for emphasis. After seeing the Tony Award winner’s recent production—including revivals of South Pacific and The King and I, which feature strong, female protagonists—this declaration did not come as a surprise.
If any doubt was lingering (it wasn’t), sitting down with three of the leading ladies of Sher’s 50th anniversary revival of Fiddler on the Roof to talk about the production would have quickly dispelled it.
The musical tells the story of Tevye, a Jewish milkman in early 1900s Russia, as his life progresses through drastic political and societal change. His eldest daughters break with their culture’s precious traditions while he witnesses anti-Jewish sentiment grow and change his life forever. Since premiering on Broadway in 1964—and running for eight years—the musical has been revived four times, most recently in 2004. Bringing a new vision to familiar stories is nothing new to Sher. After making his Broadway directorial debut with The Light in the Piazza, he led revivals of Joe Turner's Come and Gone and Golden Boy in addition to the aforementioned. Many of the productions spotlight women in situations challenging their personal values and strength. This season, Sher lends his perspective—one with a feminist slant, if you will—to his incarnation of Fiddler.
The audience first meets Tevye’s three eldest daughters, Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava, as they discuss Tzeitel’s upcoming marriage, which is being arranged by Yente, the local matchmaker. The daughters’ first song together, “Matchmaker,” is a musical theatre staple. But, true to Sher’s form, this performance is different from any other.
So much so, even lyricist Sheldon Harnick noticed. Harnick, 91, told the actresses he had never seen the song performed the way they did it. Melanie Moore, who plays Chava, recalls Harnick telling them, "'Now I realize why I wrote the word terrified. I never realized why I wrote it like that, but really, it is terrifying. They could end up with somebody horrible!'"
Though Hodel and Chava start the song daydreaming about being paired with intelligent and wealthy husbands, Tzeitel jolts them back to the reality that they have no control over their marriages. Soon all three confess fear of their futures. “It’s something that we really delved into,” Silber says of the scene. “Bart was really strict with us about the fact that this is the problem and this is the first moment of the play. We have to set up, ‘What are these young women, on the cusp of modernity, going to do about this problem?’ The anxiety permeating the scene is most distressing for Tzeitel, played by Alexandra Silber, who is already in love with Motel, the local tailor, and dreads her inevitable pairing with a different man.
“If we don’t create the reality of it, in all its intensity, we don't have a piece,” Silber continues, adding that Sher described Yente’s position in Anatevka’s culture as being similar to that of “The Godfather,” due to the authority and power she possessed.
“The way we portray Yente is not the funny Yente, but the racketeer,” Sher says. “Yente is muscling Golde [their mother] into taking this choice because she controls who gets to be with whom. She has enormous power in the community. Saying no to her is dangerous.” The moment is so pivotal, Silber realizes, “If we don't set it up in ‘Matchmaker,’ we don't have the play.”
Tzeitel is the first daughter to challenge her father and break with tradition, and Hodel and Chava are quick to follow. “This was 1905,” says Danny Burstein, who plays Tevye. “Disobeying a father’s wishes was scandalous in a small community. To even think it was a scandal!” The courage and determination of the characters are not lost upon the trio of actresses, who rapidly developed a sisterly bond offstage. Over drinks at URBO, they are quick to finish each other's sentences, laugh over inside jokes and affectionately tease each other.
“Bart calls us ‘The Coven,’” Silber says. “We’re always talking and giggling, Moore adds. Samantha Massell, who plays Hodel, describes them as ”just a pack of witches, cackling.”
The laughter (and cackling) began at the actresses’ final audition, where they instantly bonded before singing “Matchmaker.” “The three of us went into the room and, I don’t know about you guys, but walking in as a trio, I felt it,” Silber says. “Then we sang the whole song, they gave us a couple of adjustments and then we got to the final verse—and we breathed perfectly together and spontaneously burst into perfect harmony.”
“There was a pause and then Sheldon [said], ‘That’s it. Send them on the road!’ Massell says.
“It was magical,” Silber says. “So chemically perfect that if the three of us didn’t get it, we were going to die.”
Dressed in stylish outfits contributed by the website Modcloth, they embody 20th-century women—who live in a world of feminist strides and marriage equality—as they reflect on the antiquated society of their characters. But it's those provincial limits that make Silber and her co-stars so impressed by the girls’ conviction. It's that strength that leads Tzeitl to push her father beyond tradition.
“I think of Tevye as being quite progressive for his time,” Burstein says. “Instead of forbidding his children to marry in an unorthodox fashion, he acquiesces. He understands his daughters’ desires and even advocates for them. I think everyone can relate to children helping their parents to adapt to the new norms of the present day.” Silber even thinks of Tevye as an “open, liberal, loving heart—but an inexperienced life.”
The present-day themes are extremely obvious to Burstein. “I have a lot to draw on with all the upheaval currently occurring in Syria,” he says. “I have a lot to draw on from the growing anti-Semitism rising throughout the world. People being forced from their homes is, sadly, nothing new. But having this awful Syrian migration has affected the way everyone in the show feels and portrays their characters. We aren’t just people in a musical. We are representing millions of people currently relegated to this awful exodus, relegated to the awful bigotry that continues to plague societies all around the world.”
“It’s really incredible to watch a generation challenged and go through it and come out on the other side, which is what we have with Tevye in the show,” Silber says. ”One of the things I've been so fascinated about with my generation, confronting the generation above us, is there have been all of these movements about social equality—obvious racial issues that have not gone away in hundreds of years and this movement of marriage equality. To us, it seems so innately obvious, but to our parents...it’s not that they're close-minded or not liberal.”
While the actions of the daughters could be considered feminist, Massell pointed out that the word “feminist” didn’t even exist to Tevye’s daughters. “That’s not even a thought that would cross their minds,” she says. “It’s exciting to see those thoughts creep in and have the [women] all transform and make their own choices... I think it’s really thrilling to have women onstage this season on Broadway in our show that are strong women who maybe don’t start off understanding they can be strong. They become strong. They become powerful and they learn to make decisions and they understand they have that power for the first time, which is really thrilling.”
“Bart is really amazing about having us know what the stakes are,” Moore says. “This question [of marriage for love] has never been asked before. It has to be this revolutionary idea. They’ve done such a great job of making sure it’s a reality.”
“It’s not about female power. It’s about female strength,” Silber says. “I think power is a dirty word in our society because it talks about disempowerment, whereas strength is different because it is innate and discovered and personal. These three women are innately and indelibly strong, and I think the thing that’s so beautiful about it is that they each discover it about themselves at great cost. And we see it, and as an audience we pay for it and grow. And that's the price of change.”
Audiences have witnessed Tevye and his daughters discovering their strength for five decades, and, yet, the message never dulls.
“The themes of it are present today,” Massell says. “It’s actually really sad how real it is... A feminist on the roof. Sounds crazy? No?”