If it's true that societies have their own secular scripture, then Fiddler on the Roof would be part of America's canon; a treasured ritual with an accepted order of service including reassuring litanies, familiar hymns, and inspiring sermons. Each year, millions of the faithful flock to Fiddler reenactments, but this summer is special: touring the country is a production that features not only what is probably the most experienced Fiddler cast ever, but also staging and choreography that meticulously restore the vision of a church father, Jerome Robbins, director of the original 1965 version.
I was lucky enough to attend Fiddler last weekend in one of America's great theatrical cathedrals, the soaring wood-and-air amphitheater of Wolf Trap National Park near Washington, D.C. (the tour wraps up later this month indoors at the Fox Theater in Atlanta).
It's hard top pull off real theater in outdoor venues--there are too many places for the eye to wander. But Fiddler on the Roof commands full attention from the start, with the Russian milkman Tevye looking us in the collective eye and declaring the supreme importance of "Tradition!" The audience all but shouts its agreement, the play begins in earnest, and the familiar liturgy unfolds: The three daughters, the three unsuitable suitors, the argumentative but loving spouses, the terrifying (but fake) dream conjured up by Tevye to manipulate his wife. Among the couple of thousand faithful in attendance at Wolf Trap, there could not possibly have been more than a handful who had never been down this rutted road before. In the seats all around me and, I'm sure, out on the lawn, there were tears, laughter, and irresistible singalong sessions for standards like "Sunrise, Sunset" and "Do You Love Me?" In fact, at times it seemed to me the audience reactions were as scripted as the play itself, so familiar were those in attendance with the words and music, and so attuned were they to how they should behave at any given turn of the plot.
You see, there's a reason why Fiddler on the Roof ran for 3,242 performances on Broadway, and it wasn't because the Hadassah ladies bought out every matinee performance. Fiddler may have
started out as just a great show, but as time wore on it became something much more: It's a touchstone for the very kind of tradition Tevye first sings his devotion to and then finds himself dismissing. Fiddler doesn't mess with narrative conventions. it has a beginning, a middle, and and end, and each scene flows effortlessly from the one before. It acknowledges the inescapable downers of life, but lifts its eyes just in time to remind us that with a little bit of flexibility, a dash of good humor, and a healthy reliance on God, in the end you'll come out okay.
Dismissed into the Northern Virginia night by the wonderful John Preece-who may be the high priest of Tevyes, having played the role more than 3,000 times-the faithful headed for our cars, illuminated by a brilliant nearly full moon. For now, we were filled with the essence of Tevye's boundless spirit of goodwill.
But we would be back. It's a tradition.