Bartlett Sher has become a master at reinventing the classic American musical. With iconic shows like “The King and I” and “My Fair Lady,” the Tony Award-winning director eschews high-concept gimmicks. Instead, he digs deep into the works to unearth what makes them resonate in the world today.
“Any time you do a classic, you have to look at it through the time you’re living in and ask yourself a few questions,” Sher says in a recent interview. “Why am I doing the piece now? What is the immediate significance to the world at this time? We’ve changed so much as a culture that we just don’t listen to the texts the same way we did when these stories were first told.”
For his sparkling revival of “South Pacific” in 2008, he excavated several pages worth of discarded dialogue from the original production to underscore the internal struggles of Nellie Forbush and Lieutenant Joseph Cable to overcome their deep-seated racism. In his ravishing 2018 staging of “My Fair Lady,” he shifted perspectives ever so slightly so that audiences could see how Eliza Doolittle fosters her own liberation and empowerment.
In fashioning his 2015 revival of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s “Fiddler on the Roof,” Sher says his direction was inspired by both the personal and the political. Sher’s father was born in a shtetl in Lithuania in 1920, and his grandfather immigrated to America after Russians plundered his business. “My father was a Yiddish speaker from birth, but I didn’t learn I was Jewish until I was 14 because he was seriously assimilated into American culture,” says Sher, who everyone calls Bart. “So, for me, there was a deeply personal significance.”
A touring production of the musical, presented by Broadway in Boston, comes to the Emerson Colonial Theatre Feb. 25-March 8.
Set in the Ukrainian shtetl of Anatevka in 1905 Imperial Russia, “Fiddler” tells the story of Jewish milkman Tevye, wife Golde, and their five daughters facing the headwinds of change. At the time Sher was working on “Fiddler,” the Syrian refugee crisis was also unfolding, with countries across Europe taking in hundreds of thousands of displaced migrants fleeing civil war. Sher wanted to link the characters in “Fiddler,” who are threatened with religious persecution and violent pogroms, with the plight of refugees across the globe.
“I got to understand a lot about the differences between immigration and migration, when you choose to leave your home to improve your circumstances and when you’re driven out because of political or religious persecution,” Sher says. “It feels like the larger questions that face Jews and Jewish history [are] connected to this history of oppression for many people who are driven forcibly out of their land.”
To underscore that connection, Sher created a new framing device to open and close the show. It consists of two brief, wordless moments, one featuring the actor playing Tevye wearing contemporary clothing standing on the outskirts of Anatevka, suggesting a tourist on a trip to “investigate his heritage and walk in the steps of his ancestors,” says Sher. At the end of the show, when Tevye and his fellow Jews from Anatevka are forced to leave their homes, the man joins the shuffling line of uncertain, fearful refugees, presumably his ancestors, as they embark on a new life in an unfamiliar world.
“I want people to feel that connection between then and now,” Sher says. “It’s a very small gesture. It doesn’t wipe anything away. But I’m just giving it a bit of a frame in which you can say: How do I relate to this? When I see people struggling to come to the US, do I imagine where they’re from and what their lives could be like?”
Harnick, who’s 95 and the only surviving member of the “Fiddler” creative team, approved of the alterations after considerable debate and then watching it in front of audiences. “We were hesitant to make any changes, but we were open to Bart’s ideas because we recognized that they were intelligent and thoughtful and made within the spirit of the show,” he says.
Theater's mission, Sher says, is to hold a mirror up to ourselves and reflect our humanity, but also to "make audiences remember their culture and history, ask questions about who they are now, and renew their sense of themselves through the stories told for generations."
"When 'Fiddler' was on Broadway, kids would be walking through the aisle saying to their parents, 'Dad, what's a pogrom?' And these were Jewish kids!" Sher says. "So they're getting to have this real conversation about their own history."
Previous Broadway revivals of “Fiddler” were largely based on Jerome Robbins’s original staging. But Sher enlisted Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter to create new movement and dance. “[Shechter] grew up in the culture and traditions of very intense Jewish folk dance and contemporary dance, so it seemed to me that he would bring something refreshing to a show that’s so familiar to many people,” Sher says. “And I think he really brought a physicality and a muscularity and passion and authenticity to the choreography and the dance.”
Still, the production, Sher insists, stays true to what people know and love about the show — from the rousing, indelible opening number, “Tradition,” to the bottle-dance at Tzeitel’s wedding.
The tension between tradition and progress, after all, is the central conflict in "Fiddler." Tevye's daughters want to make their own choices and marry men they love rather than have a matchmaker select their husbands, while Tevye opposes that break with the cultural norms.
“People always see Tevye as a sort of genial, jovial older parent who accepts change and eventually allows two of his three daughters to marry who they would like. But people always overlook that in [middle daughter] Chava’s story, his Jewish faith is so important to him that he refuses to accept her choice of Fyedka [a gentile] and he allows her defiance to tear apart his family.”
Tevye's decision may be hard to reconcile, but it comes as the people of Anatevka are facing incredible pressures from both inside and outside their community, with news trickling in about pogroms and expulsions of Jews from their homes. He understands that the traditions and rituals of the Jewish faith help to hold their community together and stay strong in the face of violence and persecution, even if those rules can sometimes be cruel and destructive.
"The world is changing around these characters, and they have to adapt to it," Sher says. "That resonates because we live in a country now that is being torn apart by its own questions of its traditional perception of itself and what it wants to become, and we fight about those things."
Sher wants audiences to remember how the waves of immigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries transformed the United States, and how many of those people were forced to leave their homes. “At a time when we’re closing our borders, what does it mean about the kind of country we’re becoming now?” he wonders.
“America has been a place of religious freedom for generations, going all the way back to the Puritans leaving England because of religious persecution. And it was one of the first places where it was possible to be openly Jewish, instead of having to live as a separate culture inside of another culture. That’s a big part of who we are as a country. So I wonder: Is America still honoring its own origin story?”
FIDDLER ON THE ROOF
Presented by Broadway in Boston. At Emerson Colonial Theatre, Feb. 25-March 8. Tickets start at $44.50. 888-616-0272, www.broadwayinboston.com
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at email@example.com.