Fiddler on the Roof, one of the all-time great American musicals, feels shamefully relevant once more. Would that it didn’t. When it premiered in New York in 1964, this story of an imperilled Jewish community attacked by Russian pogroms struck a chord with a generation that had lived through the horrors of the Holocaust. With anti-Semitism on the rise again however, Trevor Nunn’s top-drawer revival lands like an early warning call about where it can lead.
Set in a Russian shetl in 1905, ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ is a hearty celebration of Jewish customs and community as they come under threat. Based on a series of Yiddish short stories by Sholem Aleichem, it drops in on a poor milkman Teyve (played by Andy Nyman) and his wife Golde as they seek suitable husbands for each of their five daughters.
But a show that starts with a broad comic touch takes darker turns as a pogrom closes in on this close-knit community and Teyve’s loved ones find themselves turfed out on the road. Joseph Stein’s book does justice to those that were expelled from their homes: yet another exodus to endure.
For all its humour, ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ is a musical of ideas – not least about the importance of tradition in terms of identity. Jerry Bock’s score mixed lively kletzma with mournful laments, but it builds to a crescendo with ‘Tradition’ – a hymn to the rituals that keep the past alive and glue us together. It vies with progress: ‘If I Were a Rich Man’ lays bare the inequalities of an impoverished society yearning for the Russian Revolution to come.
Past productions of ‘Fiddler’ have fallen foul of sentimentality, but Nunn’s revival, which began life across town at the Menier Chocolate Factory, aims for the utmost of authenticity and with it, atmosphere. Not only does Robert Jones makeshift design stretch around the auditorium of the Playhouse Theatre, pulling audiences right into the show’s world, the staging emphasises the contrast of light and dark, and as the forces of history close in, a candlelit stage is swallowed by shadows.