Yiddish ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ returns to New York with director Joel Grey and original Tevye Steven Skybell
After over two years offstage, the New York Theatre Folksbiene’s award-winning run of the Yiddish-language “Fiddler on the Roof” will return to New York with original director Joel Grey, original Tevye Steven Skybell and a renewed relevance owing to the war in Ukraine.
“Needless to say that the timing couldn’t be — I want to say better but I really want to say worse — in terms of how prescient it is at this moment,” said Folksbiene artistic director Zalmen Mlotek.
The musical is slated to open off-Broadway at New World Stages on Nov. 13 and play through Jan. 1, 2023. It follows the life of Sholem Aleichem’s fabled dairyman, his wife and their daughters in the fictional shtetl of Anatevka, located outside Kyiv. The play ends with a scene of Jews forced to leave their homes by an antisemitic edict of the czar.
Skybell, who won a Lucille Lortel Award for playing Tevye, noted the play’s resonance. At the start of the show, Tevye, speaking to the audience, anticipates their question: Why remain in a precarious position – fiddling on the roof – if it’s so dangerous?
“He says, ‘We stay because Anatevka is our home.’ And that to me, with the Ukraine and the events going on there, that is now such a deeply resonant line,” Skybell said. “It may not be an ideal situation, but it’s our home. That should be the end of discussion. But unfortunately, it isn’t always the end.”
A new urgency
This is not the first time Yiddish “Fiddler” felt urgent. During its original run downtown in 2018, the Tree of Life shooting made the show’s call to tolerance, and examination of antisemitism, tragically topical.
Mlotek says the New World Stages run aims to “reignite” the enthusiasm for the show, which was poised to tour the U.S., China and Australia before the pandemic. Mlotek hopes its new venue, near the Theater District, will reach audiences who missed the show when it played at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and, when it was extended, at Theatre Row.
Skybell expects to be starting rehearsals shortly after he dons Tevye’s vest in an English production of “Fiddler” for the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Now preparing for that show – which was originally staged at the Komische Opera in Berlin with a 100-voice choir – he says his Yiddish performance is helping flesh out the original English book, which he feared might lose its luster after playing it in the language of Sholem Aleichem.
Revitalizing the story
“The English in some way feels a little clinical,” Skybell said. “’The Good Book’ versus the ‘Toyrah’ and ‘Sabbath’ versus ‘Shabbos.’ There’s just something you can wrap your arms around with the Yiddish. And I have been finding as I’ve been rehearsing for myself, the English, that I’m bringing a lot of the depth of the Yiddish back into the English. I’m actually really surprised and delighted by that.”
Back with the Folksbiene, he expects the intervening years will color what the cast brings to the material.
“With the pandemic, and just dreaming ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ in Yiddish, there will be, I hope, deeper and new insights,” Skybell said. “Nobody will be wanting to resurrect what was put away, but it’s about revitalizing, finding again, what we know to be there.”
The Folksbiene’s “Fiddler” has yet to announce its full cast. Tickets go on sale Wednesday, July 27.
For more information, visit https://nytf.org/fiddler/.