Interview with Fiddler on the Roof Director, Bartlett Sher
Posted on 12/09/2019
Life, love, and laughter will be filling the rafters at State Theatre New Jersey when Fiddler on the Roof comes to town. Bartlett Sher, director of Fiddler, provides his insight on directing the 2015 revival of this Broadway classic. Discover how he approached the show, both in his preparation and how he was inspired by its close connection to his family, here:
What are the differences between working on this show and some of your other past projects?
Talking about Fiddler on the Roof is actually a pretty great challenge when it comes to being a director because the show is deeply beloved and it has a very strong and rich history. It has been revived several times, and it lives within a tradition of literature that is much-beloved with very strong opinions about it. It’s a challenge in the sense that you want to summon the experience it evokes, and particularly now in history it’s a particularly interesting story to be coming back to. Fiddler takes on a series of these Tevye tales, and it follows the family through it. Our concentration is evoking the spirit of two things: one, of the pogroms and the intense world of where they grew up, and at the same time, the color and light and beauty and humor that’s in the actual spirit of the telling. So, it’s trying to marry those two things into making something fresh.
What kind of research have you done to prepare for the production?
I do a lot of research when I prepare for a show. I’ve read the Sholem Aleichem stories. I’m very familiar with the history that surrounds the Jewish diaspora throughout the 20th century. I look at a lot [of] contemporary politics and ideas, and the experience of the Jewish community in the United States and around the world at this time. I look at the many ways Fiddler has been performed before and how other people have approached it. I think there are a lot of interesting things the systems of matchmaking and how it sets up the plot, and how that wards against the ideas of love. I explore all of these elements that are part of building blocks of Fiddler, and then build my own block up from that.
The more specific this production gets to the Jewish community, the more I hope that people see it as a universal story. Whether it’s a family with a Pakistani cab driver who have immigrated to New York, or whether they are refugees flooding out of war-torn and complicated circumstances all over the world right now, these people should understand something similar in the story of Fiddler on the Roof, and the struggles of a family to look after their children when they’re being oppressed. I hope that story can resonate so people understand that, for example, a Jewish community in New York shares a lot with an Islamic community in Tunisia, or a community in Africa. I would like grandparents and great-grandparents and grandkids and families who are Jewish to love this story, but I want it to be experienced even more universally than that.
Fiddler is a unique project for you because your family has a close connection to the people depicted in the musical.
My father was born in a shtetl in Lithuania, and when he was three years old my grandmother put him on a train and came up through Canada; and all the way across to Southern California. My grandfather came through Ellis Island. So, I’ve always had a sort of connection to the tale, but it’s only an imaginary one. I don’t actually know what that was like. My grandparents spoke Yiddish, but I don’t have much of a memory of what that meant to me. In a way, I think that’s similar to a lot of people who read these tales. They think they should understand them better than they sometimes do. The stories are very powerful, but you can’t really explain why. It’s more in the spirit of them—the spirit of going forward, the spirit of enduring, the spirit of holding on, the spirit of living by your faith, the spirit of living by your family. This piece allows audiences to—in the same way as it did in South Pacific—discover their own past all over again, in the same way as I’m using the show to discover my past. There is a lot of joy in the journey, even though the journey is marked by suffering.
So many people know and love this show. How do you honor the tradition of the show while also making it appeal to 21st century audiences?
When you go to a revival of a show, you want two things at once—you want to experience what it was like when it was originally made and why people loved it so much, and you want to feel like you understand why it’s happening now. I have to deeply honor it, rediscover it, and push it forward.
Make it a tradition to visit State Theatre New Jersey for our Broadway shows. Fiddler on the Roof is one of the many offered, coming to the stage December 20-22.
By Victoria Wetmore