Zalmen Mlotek, artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre (aka Folksbiene) doesn’t seem too surprised — indeed, he sounds matter-of-fact — that the iconic theater is marking its 100th birthday and still going strong. But, he acknowledges its founders, who opened the theater’s doors on the Lower East Side for Yiddish speaking Eastern European immigrants, would undoubtedly be stunned at its longevity and global influence.
In an almost surreal confluence of events, the landmark and ground-breaking musical, “Fiddler on the Roof,” is commemorating its 50th anniversary and its Pulitzer Prize and Tony winning lyricist Sheldon Harnick is turning 90.
To celebrate the trifecta in grand style, an all-star benefit concert, Raising the Roof, will be bow tonight, Monday, June 9, at Town Hall in New York City. The roster of big name performers include Chita Rivera, Karen Ziemba, Joshua Bell, Andrea Martin, Adrienne Barbeau, Austin Pendleton, Pia Zadora, and Jerry Zaks, though the latter is best known as a Tony winning director.
Norman Jewison, Oscar-winning director of the film version of “Fiddler” (1971); original Broadway producer Harold Prince; Harvey Fierstein, star of the 2004 Broadway revival; and Oscar and Tony nominee Topol, who originated the role of Tevye in London and reprised his role on screen, will also join the lineup along with dozens of former cast members and Ambassador Ido Aharoni, Consul General of Israel.
But perhaps most remarkable, writer Bel Kaufman, the 103-year-old granddaughter of the internationally renowned Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, who wrote “Tevye and His Daughters” (in 1894), the original story and source material for “Fiddler,” will be on hand as well. The cross-generational through-lines are profound says Mlotek.
The gala, whose proceeds will benefit the Folksbiene, kicks off a year-long celebration (lots of special theatrical and musical events) culminating in a New York based international festival in June, 2015 that will bring together Jewish theater companies, individual performers, films, children’s programming, and scholars from across the world. The unprecedented event is designed to highlight the current crop of artists who embrace and express the cultural legacy of Eastern European Jewry.
“There are at least five Yiddish speaking theaters today and dozens of Jewish theaters at all levels — from amateur to semi-professional to professional,” he says. “It’s a growing trend among Jewish artists who want to create work based on their experiences.”
Still, Mlotek is keenly aware that contemporary Jewish artists are not expressing the worldview or embodying the esthetic— often melodramatic and/or broadly comic — of their Great Grandma’s Lower East Side Yiddish theater and modern Jewish theaters have to accommodate the shift. “The nostalgia is not there among the young people,” he says.
Indeed, the Folksbiene’s determination to broaden its audience base and reflect an eclectic vision onstage has contributed to the Drama Desk Award winning theater’s longevity he contends. Consider the range of its shows — from “The Golden Land,” a look at the American Jewish immigrant experience; to the Yiddish version of “Yentl;” to “Songs of Paradise,” a kind of SNL spin on The Book of Genesis.
The Folksbiene is seeking new theatrical works about the Jewish experience—contemporary, historical, straight plays, musicals, adaptations–and is conducting a playwriting competition to help find them. Semi-finalists will see their projects presented at the 2015 festival, which could in turn be a stepping stone to a full production .
But none of it would be possible without “Fiddler on the Roof,” which spawned a renewed interest in Jewish culture in general and its theater in particular he points out. The extraordinary artistry of its creative team–book writer Joseph Stein, composer Jerry Bock, choreographer-director Jerome Robbins and, as noted, lyricist Sheldon Harnick—married the sensibility of Sholem Aleichem, Marc Chagall, and Yiddish Theater with a high level Broadway esthetic.
But equally important, “When it arrived in 1964, it was the first time in a post-Holocaust era that Jews and their children could see a world they knew little about,” notes Mlotek, adding that for many it was a subject hitherto off-limits, especially among “Holocaust survivors, who didn’t speak about pre-war Poland at all. But the production didn’t only resonate among Jews. Its themes of adversity, exile, and survival are universal. ‘Fiddler’ has been presented globally in virtually every language and 50 years later it is still being performed someplace in the world.”
If the past foreshadows the future, Mlotek is mighty optimistic about what’s coming down the pike. Tonight’s gala is a backward glance, but also a launching pad.