Theater Producer Brings ‘Tradition’ Back to Broadway

By P.G. Kain

Published February 13, 2004, issue of February 13, 2004.
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“This is a shande,” said veteran producer Stewart Lane when he realized his oldest daughter had never seen a live production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” The classic tale of a Ukrainian Jewish shtetl battered by revolution and modernity, “Fiddler” is a musical theater icon — and so is Lane. For the past 25 years he’s been producing Broadway shows, earning three Tony Awards in the process. When his latest effort opens at the Minskoff Theatre on February 26, Lane will be bringing “Fiddler” to a new audience.

During a recent interview in his midtown Manhattan office, Lane told the Forward why “Fiddler” is such an important show. “When ‘Fiddler’ first came out in 1964, it spoke to a generation,” he said. “My grandfather was a tailor who came over with a few sewing machines and set up shop in the Bronx. He was Motel the tailor. This was their story. Keeping the traditions alive and taking them to the new world. Now, there’s a little more distance to that world but there is still that connection.”

The narrative in “Fiddler” resonates with many Jews whose families emigrated from Russia or Eastern Europe, but the show has also become a certifiable cultural phenomenon. It’s as likely the audience will be humming the most popular tunes from the score when they enter the theater as when they leave. “Tradition,” “If I Were a Rich Man” and “Matchmaker” have entered the modern American Jewish folk tradition.

Lane is fully aware of the cultural impact the show has had. “Every wedding, every anniversary, every bar and bat mitzvah played half the score of ‘Fiddler.’ I used it for my daughter’s bat mitzvah last year. There’s a whole generation that defined rites of passage with these songs.”

Recent revivals of major musicals have often chosen to reveal the social truths that their original productions only alluded to, like Lincoln Center Theater’s “Carousel,” which brought out issues of domestic violence, and The Roundabout Theatre Company’s “Cabaret,” which made explicit the implied threat of the Holocaust. According to Lane, this production of “Fiddler” is marvelously reconceived. “In a sense it is a little darker,” he said. “The original piece had Chagall-styled sets with bright colors and broad strokes. Our set is very Chekhovian. You could do ‘Uncle Vanya’ on this set. It’s the best I’ve seen for the Minskoff Theatre. Wonderful large trees expand over the audience. It creates a whole world that makes everyone feel part of the enclave.”

Lane has high praise for Alfred Molina, who plays Tevye in the revival. It’s a difficult role, since it was played so definitively by Zero Mostel in the original production and by Topol in the 1971 film adaptation. “Molina does a tremendous job,” said Lane. “He is funnier than Topol and has more weight than Mostel.”

Randy Graff, a consistent Broadway MVP since her 1990 Tony-winning turn in “City of Angels,” brings a truthfulness to the role of Tevye’s wife, according to Lane: “This Golde is no fishwife. She’s a loving mother who is truly concerned about her daughters and their future in the world.”

Barbara Barrie, who played Nana to Brooke Shields’s character in the sitcom “Suddenly Susan,” plays Yente the Matchmaker. Lane revealed that this production was fortunate enough to have the original composers — Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick — write a new song specifically for Barrie’s character. “That’s a rare thing in a revival of a show that’s 40 years old,” he said.

Lane first saw “Fiddler” when he was barely a teenager, but he had known he wanted to be involved in the theater since he was 11. “I always loved the business,” he said. “I attended Boston University and was originally an acting major. As I got older my priorities changed. I wanted to have at least the illusion of having control of my life.” Lane made the shift from appearing onstage to working backstage. He started as the assistant stage manager at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre and gradually worked his way up.

He quickly learned that there are no guaranteed successes on Broadway. One of the first shows he produced, “The Grand Tour,” starred Joel Grey and was written by Jerry Herman, but ran for only a few months. While the early closing was a disappointment, Lane said, “there are no failures, only learning experiences.” One thing he learned from “The Grand Tour” is that timing is everything. “At that time no one wanted to see Jews chased by Nazis. Today everyone loves to see Jews chased by Nazis. Just ask Mel Brooks. It’s all about timing.”

Lane continued to produce Broadway musicals and had his first taste of success when his 1981 production of “Woman of the Year” starring Lauren Bacall was nominated for four Tony Awards. By that point he realized that he had a talent for producing, and decided to take one of the biggest risks of his career: staging “La Cage aux Folles,” which explores the romantic relationship between two men. “Everyone told me I was crazy,” he said. Yet Lane believed that the musical by Herman and Harvey Fierstein was everything a Broadway show should be. “You put yourself on the line. If ‘La Cage’ does not work, I thought, I have no business being in this industry. This show had everything I wanted to have come together in a show.” Of course, “La Cage” became a huge success, scoring Lane his first Tony for best musical and changing Broadway forever.

Lane’s love for the theater has sustained a career that has survived many changes, and his return to “Fiddler” in some way brings his experience full circle. “I was a teenager when I saw the show for the first time, and now I have three daughters,” he said. “To see it from this perspective is very moving.”

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