I have heard about ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ my whole life and don’t know why I waited so long to see this musical. I remember bits and pieces from seeing it as a child, but probably couldn’t begin to appreciate how true-to-life the play really is. ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ embodies the same challenges, struggles and changes that families have had for hundreds, I’d wager thousands, of years; from breaking arranged marriages, to falling in love with a teacher, and even falling in love with an outsider not of the same faith. The themes portrayed in this musical and set to amazing musical numbers and scores you can find in modern society.
For those who have never seen the play, ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ is a musical about Tevye, a poor Jewish milkman, and his five daughters living in the 1905 Tsarist Russian village of Anatevka. Tradition is a way of life in the village, where fathers are the bread winners and teach their sons their trades, like tailoring, butchery and farming; the mothers are the keepers of the household and teach their daughters to sew, cook, clean and maintain a household for their husbands. Throughout the play, Tevye attempts to maintain his religious traditions and his family’s happiness while outsiders, and outside forces, threaten their simple way of life.
The most prominent storyline focuses on Tzeitel, Tevye’s eldest daughter, who objects to the village matchmaker’s ‘match’ for her with the butcher. She confesses to her father her love for the village tailor and beseeches her father to allow her to marry him, thus defying tradition of matchmaker’s making matches for young girls (matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match, find me a find, catch me a catch). But what if you were forced to walk away from the one you love to marry someone your father chose? It was a harsh reality for girls, and a tradition that was thankfully broken long before my generation. In the play, it’s Tevye who must decide if the proposal of marriage with the butcher (a match that would ensure prosperity and financial security) be broken for his daughter’s happiness or if he sticks with tradition and deny his daughter’s heart (but inevitably save her from a life of a tailor’s wife and financial hardship). Sweetly, he rescinds the offer and he allows Tzeitel and the tailor to wed.
Don’t think that sounds scandalous? Well let’s put this into perspective, shall we? In 1905, males ruled the household, tradition ruled the day, and beggars were not choosers. Tzeitel and the tailor were defying a father’s decision, a big no-no in patriarchal society. Also, a ‘match’ like one that Tevye and the village matchmaker struck, would allow a poor man’s daughter to marry into a rich and prosperous marriage. It was one of the greatest things a man could ask for; the betterment of his children (and his female children at that). Tevye embodies a man who chose the happiness of his daughter over that of his better judgment. Which leads him to one of the best numbers in the musical, “If I Were a Rich Man,” a song so true and timeless that Gwen Stefani sampled it in her 2004 hit ‘Rich Girl,’ (a fact which an enthusiastic twelve year old in our audience was too happy to share with us). It was challenge enough for Tevye to allow his daughter to choose her husband, but Tevye is challenged further when his second eldest daughter, Hodel, falls in love with her tutor, Perchik, the idealistic outsider from Kiev. In the second act his next eldest daughter, Chava, elopes with the Russian gentile, Fyedka, whom her father has forbidden her to see, let alone marry. A Jewish girl marry an outsider and a man not of their faith? It was Tevye’s breaking point which made him disown his daughter. Don’t worry, Tevye makes amends before his family and the villagers are viciously cast out of their homes and village by the Tsarist Russians.
‘Fiddler on the Roof’ is a wonderful show that captures Jewish and family culture and the happiness and hardships that eclipsed the village of Anatevka. The humor and love in the musical are timeless, the humor priceless, and the lively Jewish Klezmer tunes will have you dancing on the Auditorium Theater’s roof. Let’s hope the wandering Fiddler hitches a ride to Chicago on Tevye’s wagon soon, and when he does you won’t want to miss it.