Monday, October 28, 2019

Found and Lost: Fiddler on the Roof, Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles and The Late Show

A scene from Fiddler on the Roof at Manhattan's Stage 42. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Since Fiddler on the Roof swept New York five and a half decades ago, there’s never been a shortage of productions. And no wonder: with its Tchaikovsky-inflected score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, Jerome Robbins’s exuberant dances and especially the big-boned, amazingly accomplished Joseph Stein book, Fiddler is a strong candidate for the best Broadway musical ever written. (Most likely contender: Gypsy. Extended lists furnished on request.) Of all the versions I’ve seen, Norman Jewison’s 1971 movie, which ends with images of some of the exiled Russian Jews making their slow, fateful way toward America, remains my favorite, but I loved Bartlett Sher’s 2016 Broadway revival, with Danny Burstein as Tevye and Jessica Hecht as Golde. Last spring’s West End revival, directed by Trevor Nunn, was less impressive – the performances were of highly variable quality and it contained an embarrassing quantity of schmaltz; by the time it ended every major character on stage had cried at least once, even the young revolutionary Perchik.

The idea of performing the show for New York audiences in Yiddish seems such an obvious one that it’s surprising no one thought of it before the current National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene revival, a runaway hit at Stage 42 on Theatre Row directed by Joel Grey. Grey, who turned 87 in April, has staged the musical with graceful simplicity, in the style of a Yiddish vaudeville, with a farcical Rabbi (Adam B. Shapiro) leading the ensemble of Sholom Aleichem folk-fable shtetl types, and the choice is inspired; it even lifts the second-act village-rumor chorus number, “I Just Heard,” which has always been a dud, and makes it work. Stein’s and Harnick’s libretto is mostly comic for the long (nearly two-hour) first act, the striking exceptions being the verse of “If I Were a Rich Man” where Tevye fantasizes longingly about having the time to pray in synagogue every day, “Sabbath Prayer” and “Sunrise, Sunset.” (Shraga Friedman, who did the Yiddish translation, has turned “If I Were a Rich Man” wittily into “If I Were a Rothschild,” which also provides a reminder for musical-theatre aficionados that Bock and Harnick went on to write The Rothschilds.) The pogrom that interrupts the joyous wedding party at the end of act one marks the tonal shift that prepares us for all the sadness in the last hour – Hodel’s joining Perchik in Siberia, Chava’s marrying out of the faith, and finally the eviction of the Jews from Anatevka. The robustness and stylized humor of the first act of this Fiddler give the downbeat elements more poignancy and more potency.

Beowulf Boritt’s set is simple, too: seven crinkled paper drops outlining the perimeter of the playing area, with the superb twelve-piece orchestra conducted by Zalmen Mlotek behind the three upstage ones. (We glimpse them in the gaps between the drops.) When the local police descend on the wedding celebration, they tear the upstage-center one – the one that has “tradition” printed on it in Hebrew. The supertitles, in English and Russian, are projected on the downstage left and right drops. Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes are in earth colors that extend to the dressing of the set, except for the occasional touch of color: when Tevye (Steven Skybell) introduces the Anatevka Gentiles in “Tradition,” they wear muted reds to distinguish them, and later the quilt on Tevye and Golde’s bed in “Tevye’s Dream” is multi-colored, and – movingly – when the Jews depart at the end of the play the Torah, concealed in its holy silk cylinder, is a glowing crimson. Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting design adds an expressionistic element in the “L’Chaim” scene, where the silhouettes have an unexpected emotional resonance, and a surrealistic element in the dream number, which climaxes when the ghost of Fruma-Sarah (Jodi Snyder), with her wild, shrieking soprano, enters and the entire stage turns to an eerie violent.

Skybell is a slender, physically agile Tevye. He handles the comedy with tremendous skill, but his best moments, naturally, are the touching ones – when he opts to accept the proposal of the butcher Lazar Wolf (Bruce Sabath) for the hand of his eldest daughter Tzeitel (Rachel Zatcoff) because he knows this man, the closest anyone in the shtetl comes to being wealthy, will always be able to care for her; the end of “Do You Love Me?,” when he puts his hand on the shoulder of his wife Golde (Jennifer Babiak, whose lovely, expressive mezzo is showcased in this duet) and she responds by resting her head on his breast; when his response to the news that Chava (Rosie Jo Neddy) has married a non-Jew, Fyedka (long-haired Cameron Johnson) is – devastatingly, in this version – to begin to intone the Mourner’s Kaddish. And most of all the moment, just before the finale, when Chava and Fyedka come to say goodbye to her family: Golde calls out her renounced daughter’s name and Tevye puts his hand over her mouth. (The gesture, which cuts you like a knife, makes the next thing he does – to give her his blessing indirectly, through through Tzeitel – even more powerful.)

As Pauline Kael pointed out in her review, Jewison’s movie portrayed Tzeitel and Motel Kamzoil as a pair of Shakespearean lovers; here they seemed to have stepped out of farce, especially since Zatcoff towers over her Motel, Ben Liebert. But when, begging for Tzeitel’s hand after she’s persuaded her father not to marry her to Lazar Wolf, Liebert’s Motel insists that they gave each other a pledge and swears that he will see to it that she never starves, he acquires moral stature; he turns into a mensch before our eyes, and before Tevye’s. As Zatcoff plays Tzeitel, she’s the merriest of the three elder sisters; Stephanie Lynne Mason’s Hodel is the most soulful as well as the most proactive. I’d actually forgotten that just before the trio “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” it’s Hodel who insists on the importance of the matchmaker because “young people can’t decide these things for themselves”; when Tevye agrees to hire Perchik (Drew Seigla), the itinerant Kiev student revolutionary, to give his daughters lessons in exchange for meals, Hodel is initially put off by his arrogance, but it’s he who awakens her independence as well as her social conscience. When they tell Tevye early in act two that they’ve decided to marry and don’t ask for his permission – though they dearly desire his blessing – Mason makes clear Hodel’s absolute confidence in the rightness of her decision, in what both her heart and her brain tell her. For some reason actors who play Perchik tend to be a little insipid, but not Seigla, who brings more warmth to “Now I Have Everything” than anyone else I’ve heard.

Much of the choreography is recognizably by Robbins, but Staś Kmieć has added some playful steps of his own as well as staging the numbers with a pared-down elegance that matches the rest of the revival. The show is a brilliant addition to Fiddler’s rich production history, and it was sweet to see, at the Saturday matinee I attended, a strong Orthodox representation. This is the first time I’ve ever sat through the musical when there were more yarmulkes in the audience than there were on stage.

Samantha Massell and Ben Rappaport performing in Fiddler, from Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The enjoyable documentary Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles, directed by Max Lewkowitz, includes clips from a number of productions, including one in Japanese and one in Dutch that looks particularly good. (The Chichester revival, on the other hand, looks considerably worse than the one I saw in London and the Tevye is terrible.) Alas, there is no footage of the original Broadway Fiddler with Zero Mostel, only two excerpts of Mostel singing “Rich Man” on TV, one with Dick Cavett (!) Lewkowitz works a little too hard to make sure we understand how relevant the musical is to other ethnic groups besides the Jews, but his heart is certainly in the right place, and there are a number of articulate interviewees, including Bartlett Sher, Stephen Sondheim, the late Harold Prince (the show’s original producer), Fran Leibowitz, Austin Pendleton (the first Motel Kamzoil), Skybell, Burstein, Hecht and the three authors, only one of whom, Harnick, is still with us. The roster also includes some second-generation Fiddlerites – the actors Josh Mostel and Michael Bernardi (whose father, Herschel Bernardi, replaced Zero Mostel on Broadway and who has since played Tevye himself), and the sons of Joe Stein and Boris Aronson, who, famously, based the look of the 1964 Fiddler on the paintings of Marc Chagall. Josh Mostel addresses the tension between his famously blacklisted father and Jerry Robbins, who had been a friendly HUAC witness because the committee essentially blackmailed him by holding his homosexuality over his head. Neva Small, who played Chava in the movie, alludes to the moment when Chava and Fyedka announce that they are moving to Cracow because they can’t live in a place where people treat each other so badly and reminds us that three and a half decades later, during the Holocaust, being married to a Gentile didn’t save a single Jew from the ovens.  We hear some of the songs Bock and Harnick wrote for the show and then discarded, including the comic number “When Messiah Comes,” a favorite at backers’ auditions that they fully expected to bring down the house. (Its placement at the end of the show turned out to be disastrous at the first out-of-town tryout, in Detroit.) Harvey Fierstein, one of the Tevyes in the 2004 Broadway revival, makes the astute observations that after Chava runs off with Fyedka, her father stops talking to God. But my favorite interviewee is Chaim Topol, the great Israeli actor who played Tevye in Yiddish in Israel, in English in London, and finally, triumphantly, in Jewison’s film. Topol tells a wonderful anecdote about having to shoot “If I Were a Rich Man” for three days with a punishing toothache, though his best moment is when he tears up as he recalls how emotionally draining it was to shoot the “Far from the Home I Love” scene (with Michele Marsh as Hodel). Lewkowitz juxtaposes his story with a clip from the song and the evidence is right there in Topol’s face.

Bill Macy in The Late Show (1977).

When Bill Macy died at 97 on October 17, the New York Times obit focused, as one would have expected, on Maude, the hit 70s TV sitcom in which he co-starred with Bea Arthur. The obit also mentioned a number of his movies, but there was no reference to Robert Benton’s 1977 The Late Show. Of course there wasn’t; the film made no splash when it was released and has been utterly forgotten. Yet it was, I believe, Macy’s finest moment. He gives a fully lived-in performance as Charlie Hatter, a has-been talent agent toiling as a bartender and trying to find a big score. It’s acting utterly devoid of vanity, acting that’s understated – not at all what Macy was generally known for – and complex, with streaks of both survivalist desperation and self-loathing. The finest compliment I can give him is to say that, in the largest supporting role in the picture, he earns the right to share scenes with the two stars, Art Carney and Lily Tomlin. In tribute to Macy I watched The Late Show again this week for what was, as far as I can recall, the first time since I saw it in the theatre. It’s a quirky, affecting unconventional film noir, with a surprise element of romantic comedy, about the many varieties of indignity, especially those visited upon us by the passing of time. Carney plays Ira Wells, an aging gumshoe who gets around L.A. by bus – now there’s an indignity – dragging around a bum leg, the result of an ancient bullet wound. The first thing that happens to him in the course of the film is that he has to watch the death of an old colleague (a lovely cameo by Howard Duff) who’s been shot. Tomlin is a one-time aspiring actress named Margo Sterling, a Hollywood hippie who is trying to get back her stolen cat; Charlie introduces her to Ira, who works out in short order that the two cases are linked.

Though the movie isn’t perfect – the murder-mystery plot is frayed, and some of the staging is clumsy – the characters are sharply etched and memorable and the dialogue doesn’t sound like the dialogue in anyone else’s movie. And after all, Benton, who also wrote the script, was behind the camera for only the second time (his first was the western Bad Company, in 1972). He went on to make some movies that garnered him wide acclaim, like Kramer vs. Kramer (for which he also won a pair of Oscars) and Places in the Heart, but I don’t think he’s ever made another movie as good as The Late Show - though I liked a lot of Nobody’s Fool (1994) and Twilight (1998), which share this movie’s autumnal mood and show off Benton’s best quality as a director, his gift for directing actors. Eugene Roche and Joanna Cassidy are among the ancillary pleasures of The Late Show. And I think that Carney and Tomlin’s performances deserve to go down in the annals of movie acting. Carney had become a movie star, belatedly and unexpectedly, when Paul Mazursky starred him in Harry and Tonto two years earlier, an off-the-beaten-track sort-of comedy about the odyssey of an old man that sounds perfectly awful – soppy – when you try to describe it but which, through the combined talents of its writer-director and its leading man, turns out to be quite wonderful. Carney is even more astonishing here. Tomlin, too, had just recently moved from TV (and in her case, stand-up) stardom when Robert Altman picked her for a non-comic role in Nashville; it’s probably no coincidence that Altman produced The Late Show, which lists some of his collaborators among the credits, most notably the editor Lou Lombardo (co-credited with Peter Appleton). As Margo, Tomlin has one scene – after managing to chase down a perp, with Ira in the front seat of her car, she can’t stop floating on the adrenaline or her pride at discovering instincts she didn’t realize before – that’s stunningly sustained. Sometimes, watching Tomlin, I think she might be the greatest actor on the planet. This is one of those times.

The DVD I took a look at must have been struck from a crappy print; I don’t remember Chuck Rosher’s cinematography being this flat. But Bob Gould’s set decoration is marvelous, especially when we get to Margo’s apartment. The Late Show is low-rent in the best way – it’s the genuine glories of the acting and the writing that dazzle us. It cries out to be rediscovered.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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