One of the great experiences of my theatre-going life was seeing Zero Mostel as Tevye on Broadway in the original 1964 production of Fiddler on the Roof. He was unforgettable. But that wasn’t always a given. Mostel had a reputation for being unpredictable and undisciplined. When the mood struck, he would veer from Joseph Stein’s brilliant book (based on stories by Sholom Aleichem), preferring to indulge in eccentric on-stage antics that did the show no favours. Clearly I got him on a good night.
Three years later I was at the opening of Fiddler at Her Majesty’s theatre in London watching the great Israeli actor Chaim Topol commit grand larceny by usurping the role of the struggling milkman and – miracle of miracles – making it his own. So much so that he was chosen to repeat his performance on film. Over time I have seen several Tevye’s, and though each possessed qualities unique to themselves, none had the gravitas, swagger and poignancy of its two extraordinary career-defining originals.
The latest exponent of this coveted role is Andy Nyman, who, although a tad too young-looking and without the necessary physical stature or gravitas of his two famous predecessors, grows into the part as the evening progresses. As does Trevor Nunn’s intimate revival, the first 15 minutes of which began tentatively on opening night. The jokes didn’t land, and neither did the show’s two best-known songs, "Tradition" and "If I Were a Rich Man," with the latter losing the assorted poultry squawks associated with it (but not actually in the text) and with the “daidle, deedle, daidle” riff now accentuating the sciatic pain Tevye experiences hauling his cart, Mother Courage-like, around the little village of Anatevka, in which the story is set.
Fortunately, as the act progresses, so does the central performance, abetted by Nunn’s inventive direction and the almost foolproof brilliance of the piece itself. After its shaky start, what I particularly admired in Nyman’s performance was its lack of histrionics. He plays it as an ensemble piece rather than as a star vehicle, integrating seamlessly with Judy Kuhn as Tevye’s stoic wife Golde, Joshua Gannon as the humble tailor Motel Kamzoil, Stuart Clarke as Perchek the scholar, Dermot Canavan as the butcher Lazar Wolf and Molly Osborne as Tevye’s oldest daughter Tzeitel.
The show’s original director/choreographer was Jerome Robbins, many of whose ideas and dance routines have been reworked by Matt Cole for the more modest space provided by the Menier, and it works beautifully, especially the difficult bottle dance energetically performed by a group of Anatefkan Russian youths who, on orders from the czar, will turn on Anatevka’s Jews and force them out of their homes and out of the country. Nunn’s handling of the final moments of this superbly crafted musical, with its hauntingly beautiful score by Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) speaks volumes about the dispossession of Russian Jewry at the turn of the 19th century, culminating for many in the Holocaust.
Though it boasts a cast of just under 30, this is very much a chamber production of an iconic Broadway musical conceived both for a large stage and a large theatre. The intimacy of Nunn’s modest staging pays dividends in the way it involves the audience in Sholom Aleichem’s enduring characters, their lives, their loves and their struggles. It uplifts you but also breaks your heart.