A Rare Opportunity: SMTD Musical Theatre Students Undertake Extensive Preparation for Roles in UMS’ Production of Fiddler on the Roof
By Judy Galens
Musical theatre students in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance (SMTD) have countless opportunities to learn from world-class scholars and practitioners: in courses taught by faculty, in masterclasses conducted by industry professionals, in visits from alumni working on Broadway.
An upcoming production offers a group of musical theatre students an entirely different educational opportunity: the chance to perform alongside Broadway actors, in a production led by a professional creative team—including Broadway director Sarna Lapine and music director Andy Einhorn—and accompanied by major orchestras.
The University Musical Society (UMS) is producing lightly staged concert performances of Fiddler on the Roof in Hill Auditorium, February 19-20, starring Broadway performers Chuck Cooper (Tevye) and Loretta Ables Sayre (Golde), along with 14 musical theatre students. An additional six students serve as understudies for the production.
The Ann Arbor performances will feature the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra and will be the first live performances of John Williams’ orchestral arrangement of the movie score. The Williams score had not been preserved in written form in the 50 years since the film’s premiere and had to be reconstructed. Two weeks after the Ann Arbor performances, the production will head to Philadelphia, where it will be performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
“I think that this show speaks to everybody. And the idea of how we’re born into traditions and how we push forward as a society, so when we see the struggles of this one particular family it’s really an extension of everyone,” Music Director and Conductor Andy Einhorn said.
The beloved stage musical and film – based on the Yiddish-language stories of Sholem Aleichem – explores the tension between tradition and evolving norms in Anatevka, a poor Jewish shtetl (village), in early 20th-century Russia. Tevye the dairyman extols the traditions that govern Anatevka, dreams of a more comfortable existence, and seeks to arrange favorable marriages for his daughters. His daughters, on the other hand, long to depart from tradition, and the shtetl faces imminent threats to its existence from pogroms, the deadly anti-Semitic massacres that displaced scores of Jewish communities in Czarist Russia.
Seeking to raise awareness of the relevance of Fiddler on the Roof to contemporary events, including a rise in anti-Semitism and global migration crises, UMS partnered with several University of Michigan departments – the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies, the Center for Russian and East European Studies, the Copernicus Center for Polish Studies, and the Center for European Studies – to present programs for the public in conjunction with the performance.
Michael McElroy, chair of the Department of Musical Theatre and the Arthur E. and Martha S. Hearron Endowed Professor of Musical Theatre, says that examining Fiddler’s context was a vital component of the experience for the students in the production. “We’re looking at all these traditional musicals through a new lens. How do we explore our history—which is steeped with a lot of baggage—and find the things about traditional musical theatre that are worth celebrating,” he said.
Keenly aware of students’ concerns about telling the stories of communities they aren’t a part of, McElroy wanted to take the steps necessary to help his students feel more comfortable in their roles. It’s a question, he noted, of “how we as artists step into other spaces that don't necessarily represent our own lived experience.” He acknowledged that all artists do that, but, he asked, “if we're saying yes, that's what we're going to do as a community, then what is our responsibility?”
The answer, McElroy determined, was to learn and understand – about Jewish traditions, about Yiddish language and culture, and about the lives of Jews in Eastern European shtetls. Before the roles in Fiddler had even been cast, he gathered all of the musical theatre students to meet with Rabbi Lisa Stella, director of religious life and education at U-M Hillel, Rabbi Josh Whinston of Congregation Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor. Students also met with Christi-Anne Castro, interim director of diversity, equity, and inclusion for SMTD.
“I was really honored to be asked to talk to them,” Stella says, “and I think it showed sensitivity on the part of everyone involved.”
McElroy began the process by asking whether the Jewish students in the department and the rabbis felt it was appropriate for, as McElroy states, “a diverse group of artists to tell a story that is steeped in Jewish culture and tradition, like Fiddler on the Roof.” The answer was a resounding yes.
The characters of ‘Fiddler’ come to life this weekend with the help of costume designer Beth Goldenberg.
Once the roles were cast, McElroy scheduled for the students a series of sessions with U-M professors and other educators, inviting them to meet with the students and address a wide range of topics. One of the guests was Mira Sussman, a Jewish educator and the resettlement resource development manager for Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County. Along with Stella, Sussman spoke with the students about Jewish identity and history, explaining that “Judaism is not just an ethnicity or a religion, but it is also a way of life and a culture.”
And while there are abundant examples of persecution throughout Jewish history, Sussman emphasized the joyfulness of her Jewish identity, noting “that trauma and discrimination is not the totality of our lived experience.” The session concluded with the teaching of the hora, the traditional circle dance that is a feature of many Jewish weddings and bar and bat mitzvah celebrations.
Levinson told the students that the era depicted in Fiddler was a time of significant transition in Eastern Europe; many people were embracing revolutionary ideologies, he noted, and “rejecting tradition and rejecting religion and rejecting hierarchies of all kinds.”
At the same time, Levinson asked the students to think about the fact that Fiddler reflects not just the era depicted in the musical, but the era in which it was written. He encouraged them to consider the musical, written in the early 1960s, as “an expression of postwar American Jewish culture.”
Levinson pointed out that the themes explored in Fiddler – “conflicts between tradition and modernity, conflicts about gender, about the role of individual decision, love, [and] yearning in relation to the needs of the community” – resonate with people of many cultures worldwide.
In support of the performance, you can find a collection of Polish posters of Fiddler on the Roof from the last four decades on display through March 18 at Weiser Hall (Gallery Space, 5th Floor).
In another session, Stella gathered with the students to discuss Shabbat, sharing relevant passages from the Torah. “I wanted to ground them a little bit in the context of what the Jewish Sabbath is,” she says, “and how significant it is in the framework of Jewish life.”
Stella also gave the students a sense of how Eastern European Jews in the time of Fiddler would have celebrated Shabbat. And finally, she shared with them her own Shabbat traditions, setting up a table with a tablecloth, her grandmother’s candlesticks, and a kiddush cup, the special receptacle for the wine that accompanies the blessing for Shabbat.
Mikhail Krutikov, chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and the Preston R. Tisch Professor of Judaic Studies, met with the students via Zoom and painted a picture of life in the shtetl, sharing images, describing the marketplace, and explaining that Jews and Christians coexisted in these villages and surrounding areas.
"Understanding the historical context adds depth and complexity to the performance and helps actors create more nuanced and multilayered characters,” Krutikov says.
The process involved in preparing for this production of Fiddler was not without its challenges. But this work is essential, says McElroy.
“How do we earn that right, to step into an experience that is not our own? By doing the work and bringing your empathy, bringing your humanity, and honoring [that story] through telling it in the fullest possible way,” he says.