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Fiddler on the Hot Seat: Molina & Co. Chat

To the delight of the overflowing audience at the August 15 American Jewish Historical Society-sponsored Dialogue Forum Series at the Center for Jewish History, Alfred Molina, Broadway’s current Tevye, shared Rabbi William Berkowitz’s “hot seat” with “Fiddler on the Roof” composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick.

Asked how he dealt with playing a role immortalized by Zero Mostel, Topol, Herschel Bernardi and Theodore Bikel, Molina replied: “If you keep obsessing about how they played… you’ll never attempt it.… For a time the role is yours…. [While] I occupy the space — Tevye is me.… There are now a couple of dozen Tevyes around the world.” Berkowitz then quoted Sholem Aleichem’s granddaughter, Bel Kaufman: “‘I have seen a dozen Tevyes, and Alfred Molina is the most believable.’”

“We’re not dealing with a revival, but a rediscovery,” Molina continued. “This is a love story… living, vibrant…. The conflict tragedy in the story is something that continues beyond the story’s ethnic or nationalistic boundaries.” Molina told of a friend from Culcutta who came to see the show. “He was in tears. ‘This is so Indian!’ he said. Tevye agonizes about what Indian parents agonize about — their children marrying out.” Bock said: “When Joe Stein (who wrote the book) was in Tokyo for the opening of “Fiddler,” the producer asked him, ‘How can an American audience appreciate a show that is so essentially Japanese?’”

Once congratulated on his “California” accent, Molina explained: “My father was a refugee from the Spanish Civil War who came to England in 1938. My mother was a post-World War II immigrant from Italy. “I grew up in a London [slum] — Notting Hill… full of immigrants, first-generation English… kids from Africa, the West Indies, Poland, Spain…. In the 1950s, British TV was 70% dominated by American programming. As kids we played cops and robbers with American accents.” Molina’s impeccable English accent then morphed into Jimmy Cagney-ese, as slouching back in his chair, he mimed a shootout and croaked: “Ya got me!”

Bock recalled the1964 production when choreographer Jerome Robbins “kept coming back week after week repeatedly asking, ‘What is the show about?’… Someone finally remarked it was [about] the strength of tradition in these peoples’ lives and how it began to disintegrate.” Harnick added: “Robbins, whose family name, like that of Sholem Aleichem, was Rabinowitz, was taken to Poland by his parents when he was 6…. It remained a vivid, emotional memory.… He was a driven man. Post-World War II, he’d hoped to give the shtetl another 25 years of life.… It is now 40 years.”

According to Harnick, Hal Prince (who originally reneged on “Fiddler,” claiming: “I come from a German-Jewish background”) came on board because of Robbins. In an aside, Rabbi Berkowitz noted that when Prince once received an article in Yiddish, he sent it to be translated to his son, who was studying Yiddish at Oberlin College. “It sparked Hal Prince to learn Yiddish.” Harnick continued: “Raising money for the [1964] production was a challenge, and Prince helped.… Most theater parties are headed by women. [Their] reaction was: ‘The first act ends with a pogrom! The second act with exile! This is a musical?’” Bock interjected: “Over 100 countries have taken the show as their own! I’m planning to revisit this magical restaging of ‘Fiddler.’”

* * *|

In 2003, art collectors Jerome and Ellen Stern (who built an art barn on their 16-acre estate in Quiogue to house their extensive art and photography collection) saw the Batsheva Dance Company of Israel at Lincoln Center for the first time. (Batsheva was founded in 1964 by Martha Graham and the Baroness de Rothschild.) “They were amazing!” Mr. Stern told me. “I said to them, ‘What are you doing in New York?… Everything is out in the Hamptons.’ So I decided why not make it happen?… I had a vision, and the people were blown away!”

On August 7, the Sterns hosted the Batsheva troupe at their Hamptons spread. Organized by their son, Michael Stern, a party planner, 550 invitees watched members of the company, fresh from Jacob’s Pillow, perform “Deca-Dance.” Guests later wended their way past artist Menashe Kadishman’s pine forest “necklace” of yellow placards to a memorable post-performance party on the estate’s lawn, where many reclined on Bedouin carpets.

A few days earlier, the August 4 “An Evening with Batsheva” at the Jewish Community Center on New York City’s Upper West Side was a different venue for the troupe. Arriving guests witnessed solo dancers in rehearsal garb practicing a cappella chiropractic-challenging contortions. The seemingly unconnected spastic exercises then segued into a viscerally riveting excerpt from Ohad Naharin’s opus “Naharin’s Virus” set to Arabic music and drums, punctuated by the dancers’ rhythmic shouts of rage. The evening’s crowd pleaser: a participation opus set to the theme of “Over the Rainbow.” As a techno-beat pulsed, Batsheva dancers plucked guests from their seats onto the dance floor, engaging them in a choreographed work set to Dean Martin’s rumba-beat crooning of “Dance with me, sway with me.” It was a hoot.

Post-performance, Naharin, for 14 years the company’s choreographer and director, fielded questions from the audience. “Does the company embody the Israeli people?” someone asked. “I don’t think in those terms,” he replied. “[We’re] not representative of an ethnic, nationalistic, religious context…. [We’re] about humanity… a special model of Israeli society.”

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