The Schmooze

Fiddler in the Rough, Part One

Daniel F. Levin is a playwright, composer and lyricist living in Brooklyn. His newest play, “Hee-Haw: It’s a Wonderful Li_e,” was called a “delightful surprise” by the New York Times; his musical, “To Paint the Earth,” about resistance fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto, won the Richard Rogers Development Award. This is the first in a series of four posts about his summer directing “Fiddler on the Roof,” crossposted from Frontier Psychiatrist.

In 2002, I was selected to be one of the highly prestigious Steven Spielberg Fellows in Jewish Theatre Education. It was very special to have Spielberg in your name. Sure there was also Jewish, theater and education, but still… Spielberg. Culled from New York’s finest out-of-work theater people, we had the task of bringing meaningful theater to Jewish summer camps, or, as the promotional materials said: not just another year of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Poor Mr. Spielberg probably never knew exactly what he was funding, or who these Fellows were, dropping his name in camps across the country. After an intense week’s training seminar in Atlanta, I was sent to a summer camp in Starlight, Pennsylvania. There, as Mr. Spielberg’s representative, I was to restore single-handedly their theater program and thereby preserve Judaism in the United States of America.

I ended up adapting a story told by the great Rabbi Nachman of Breslaw into a new musical with the help of Chen, Israel’s answer to Elton John. We created a thrilling, Disney-esque opening number, “Here’s Hoping,” other passable songs to follow, and allowed the campers to improvise dialogue, all the while plumbing the depths of their Jewish identity. The product was a weird, quirky musical that Stevie would have certainly been proud of. It was also understood by pretty much no one in camp, including some of us who wrote it.

I had also, for no great reason, written a camp alma mater. Set to chords that are dangerously close to “Piano Man,” it begins:

There’s a town in Pennsylvania,

Right near the border line,

And it’s named with love, for the stars above,

And how at night they shine…

Written on a whim, it caught on and metastasized into something of a phenomenon, particularly after a techno version was recorded by Chen. Now found on a quarter of all iPods in Long Island, it’s easily the most popular song I’ve ever written, after a decade of writing original musicals. But I guess we don’t get to determine which of our creations become immortal — teenagers do.

Though my Breslaw-based musical extravaganza was no smashing success, I did form some strong relationships. I stayed in touch with the arts director, Bonnie, and would go to her house in New York yearly for Passover, Chanukah, and other big Jew days. Bonnie and I actually have our own language: one-part Yiddish, one-part Mel Brooks, one-part Eddie Murphy as the Jewish barber in Coming to America — “achaaa!” — one-part other movie quotes, and one-part original content. As each summer approached, Bonnie would call me and say, “Drama Dan, Alein v’ysthein, ven are you coming back to camp?”

“Bonnie Bubbe, do they remember the show I did? The audience was horrified. ‘Guess you’re not quite ready for that…but your kids are gonna love it!’”

“Drama Dan, writer of the camp song, you will return a hero! And remember, under the right circumstances…a flop…could become a hit!”

Some variation of this (using different movies) went on for eight years. Usually I parried Bonnie’s requests citing other obligations — a production, a day camp job, a whale expedition — but this summer, nothing. Nada.

“Bubbe, you know vat? I think I might just do it!”

Bonnie giddily had me call the camp director to negotiate terms. “Drama Dan,” he said earnestly, “We would be honored to have the writer of the camp song back this summer.” No one’s ever been honored to have me back! Maybe tolerant, but honored! How could I refuse?

Rather than sleep in the bunks, I would be given lodging in the “Adult Lodge,” or as my friends said, “that place where the slightly creepy older counselors live.” My responsibilities would be to direct the camp musical and lead an occasional drama workshop with interested bunks. This ended up being one bunk of Freshmore girls who continually signed up for my hobby, and loved playing the improv game, “Freeze.” They had no idea how to create an interesting scene, often just standing on stage saying,

“Go to your room!”

“No!”

“Go to your room!”

“No!”

“Go to your room!”

“OK.”

But when it was time to go, they had to be dragged off stage. After each class, no matter how dreadfully awkward I had thought an improvised scene must have been, they’d shout, “Thank you Drama Dan!” How can that not restore a little bit of your natural love for theater?

And what about the musical, my main squeeze? I had sent Bonnie five proposed musicals to do this summer and pitched each one, including

  • “Godspell,” Stephen Schwartz’s musical about the last days of Jesus (we could break religious barriers at a Jewish camp and delve into the essence of what religion truly is)

  • Once on this Island, a beautiful calypso show (think Romeo and Juliet set on a British Colonial island — hints of Palestinian/Israeli conflict?)

  • The classic, but off-the-beaten-camp-trail “Pirates of Penzance.” Kids and pirates!

Bonnie came back to me with “Fiddler on the Roof.” Oh Destiny, you wicked gamesman! It was the very show I was sent in eight years earlier to obliterate. Fine then, I say to myself. Fiddler on!

Part Two continues next Tuesday.

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Fiddler in the Rough, Part One

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