The storied musical Fiddler on the Roof is coming to Morristown’s Mayo Performing Arts Center June 17 and 18. In case you forgot, it’s the marvelous story of a family led by a tough old father, Tevye, who puts up with a lot of change from his kids and struggles to hold his townspeople together in a changing and explosive political climate in 1905 in Russia.
A familiar theater story, right? You forgot one thing, though – the family lives in the Ukraine.
Here we are, 117 years later and what’s in all the headlines? Ukrainian families being pushed out of their villages – killed in their villages – by Russians in a changing political climate. And one of Tevye’s daughters falls in love with Perchik, who lives in Kyiv, embattled today as Tevye’s village of Anatevka was in 1905.
The play in Morristown is a sad and yet triumphant musical story of Tevye’s strength as a dad, husband and friend in a country torn by political dissension, just as it is today.
Fiddler on the Roof, often shown on television, was a hit play in 1964, one of Broadway’s longest running shows and a huge movie success in 1971. The play’s powerful book is by Joseph Stein, and based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem. The music is by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. The story humanized all the oppressed Jews in Russia in 1905 in the middle of the political pogroms. The pogroms were planned, orchestrated attacks against Jews by the Russian government in a move to force them out of Russia. The most famous took place in Kiev – three days of riots in which between 47 and 100 Jews were killed, over 300 wounded and millions of dollars in property destroyed. There were nearly a hundred pogroms in 1905 in Russia and thousands of Jews fled and went to Europe and America.
In 1964, when the play was first staged, there was peace in the Ukraine, not even a small hint of trouble. Over the years since then, the tale of Tevye and his daughters gained almost mythical proportions. Oh, people said, that was a long time ago. It could never happen again. No? Ask President Volodymyr Zelenskyy or any Ukrainian. Or just turn on the television news at night. Or read a newspaper.
Fiddler is the story of people and their strength against adversity. The Jews in Anatevka do it in story and in song. Who can forget songs such as Tradition, Matchmaker, Matchmaker, If I Were a Rich Man, “To Life”, “Miracle of Miracles,” Sunrise, Sunset,” and, oh, that fabulous bottle dance!
“I think the book, story, of Tevye is brilliant. It is one of the best stories in the history of the musical theater,” said Danny Arnold, who stars as Tevye in the touring play of Fiddler headed for Morristown’s Mayo Performing Arts Center. “The story has well-drawn characters that you never forget, conflict between parents and children, trouble in a small town, the Russian government, anti-semitism. It is very serious and, at times, it is very funny. I love it.”
Arnold has been with the show, on and off, with some COVID breaks, since 2018. When he heard of the Russian invasion of Ukraine he was shocked. “I mean, this was a full-scale invasion, not just some political talk,” he said. “It gave me a new love for the Jews in the play,” he said.
The musical, by the way, is dedicated to the residents of the Ukraine and includes a short speech supporting them.
Danny Arnold has been in love with the play all of his life. He went to see Fiddler when he was in high school. It was nearby at Roxbury High School. “I fell I love with Fiddler right there, that moment,” he said.
He graduated high school, went to college and found himself a teaching job in Morris County. He spent ten years behind the desk before leaving that job to become a full time actor. “I was in plays, on and off, for years – part time. Finally, I just could not stand NOT being an actor and jumped into show business,” he said.
What struck him about Fiddler was the way Tevye’s marriage and family are portrayed.
“This was 1905 and here we are a hundred and some years later with our marriages and relationships, some good and some bad, with our own spouses and kids. People come up to us after a show and say that was my life, my kids, in the play,” said Arnold. “That’s part of the power of the play - to reach out over decades to affect people in the same way.”
He sees Tevye as “a man of many colors.” “He’s a farmer, a husband, a dad, a member of the community. He has good times and bad times. He’s a deep, deep man who lived in troubled times. Everything about his life and religion is questioned in the play. In the end, you see his deep love for his family. I liked that,” said Arnold.
And he likes the ‘bottle dance,” too. “Oh, yes!” he said. “Our choreographer tried to stage the play as close as he could to the 1964 show. He loves the ‘bottle dance.’ We all do. It’s just inspired.”
This Tevye has a pretty thorough understanding of why this is such as memorable play over the years. ‘In most plays, the audiences remember the songs, but here they all remember the story. It’s the fight over change, plus the fight to survive the pogroms, that make this such an appealing play. People will be singing its praises 50 years from now,” said Arnold.
As for the actor, this isa bit of a homecoming. He grew up in Succasunna. “Actually, I’ve been to the Mayor Performing Arts Center several times for concerts and once to see a play. I have spent a lot of time in Morristown, too, over the years,” he said.
So, to Arnold and Tevye, “l’chaim!”
Photos by Joan Marcus