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Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish
Reviews by Rob Lester

For your listening consideration this time around, it's again proven that "everything old is new again." We've got one of musical theatre's sturdiest properties, which is frequently produced, its score heavily recorded, but it sounds new in an Old World language, presented along with a bounty of its score's cut songs in English.

Time Life Records
On CD | mp3 | iTunes

Fifty-five years ago this month Broadway saw the debut of what some initially scoffed would have limited audience appeal and connection. Instead, Fiddler on the Roof, about a Jewish village in 1905 tsarist Russia, would break the record for the Great White Way's long runs, be produced around the world, and spawn a film adaptation, its songs recorded by countless artists. Just a few years after the latest of its several Broadway returns, a smaller-scale production sung in Yiddish showed up in downtown Manhattan, and this National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene version moved uptown and settled in a few blocks from where that 1964 original version began.

The audience-pleasing score has spawned many long-playing albums of the bulk of its numbers (including an instrumental treatment led by Mickey Katz, father of the current production's director, Joel Grey). And, among many discs representing actual productions and studio casts of the iconic musical, this isn't even the first one to be sung in Yiddish. But the release (two full discs in the physical format) offers more than that: Broadway veterans and others singing—in English—11 extremely entertaining numbers cut from the show. And there's a lot of instrumental music. I'll get to that after confronting what, to the reluctant, is the elephant in the room: Beyond the novelty aspect or curiosity factor, is experiencing all that singing in a language you likely don't understand really rich in rewards? Is this the odd luxury purchase only for the rabid fan? Although I will fess up to being a rabid fan finding satisfactions in this and other foreign-language cast albums I've collected, I can understand the sensibilities and suspicions others may have, and I certainly return to English-language counterparts far more often. But, as elephants in rooms go, this metaphorical pachyderm is no deal-breaker.

The Folksbiene cast's skills, flair, and pleasing voices break through the language barrier to engage and move us. Most especially, the more elegant, prettier singing of the actors playing Tevye and Golde, the parents of the central family, make them warm and "human-scaled," rather than edging always toward cartoon buffoon and shrew as can be the temptation of the material. But when big energy and broad playing are needed, as in the sequence about a supposed dream that argues against their daughter marrying the butcher, the two comically throw caution to the wind. As Tevye, Steven Skybell (who played the butcher in the most recent on-Broadway revival) offers the best of both worlds in balancing the character's brashness and sensitivity, and Jennifer Babiak as Golde radiates concern. Thus, their singing on "Do You Love Me?" is cozy and contemplative. And the cast is full of fine, theatrical voices.

The song list for the Yiddish portion includes Skybell's sensitively rendered ruminations of Tevye not included on the very first cast LP (and many latter-day ones) as well as a rather under-the-radar item written in English as "Any Day Now," intended for the film version; it was cut, but included on the soundtrack album. An acknowledgment to the star quality of audience-pleasing, well-known comic performer Jackie Hoffman is the inclusion of two tracks featuring spoken material in Yiddish, showcasing her high-energy sass; she's cast as pushy Yente the Matchmaker, who has little singing.

The brio, loveliness, or bittersweet qualities needed in so many songs definitely come through. Jerry Bock's melodies on their own captured all that, a rather good argument for the theory that "Music is the universal language." And those fondly followed footsteps of the 1964 Don Walker orchestrations are duly credited. Larry Blank, who had that assignment for a 2009-10 tour, is co-credited and did the outstanding orchestrations for the bonus tracks. The orchestra, conducted by Zalmen Mlotek, sounds sensational. Ten musicians are added to the original dozen employed for the theatre. There is the generous inclusion of 11 purely instrumental tracks of scene change music and an entr'acte.

The many theatre lovers who don't know Yiddish beyond a sprinkling of words, but are very Fiddler-familiar, can most easily leap across that imposing language barrier and allow the English words etched in memory to inform and guide them. (It worked for me.) One effective pathway for fuller immersion and comprehension is to take advantage of the information at the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene website where you can see, in close proximity, the lyrics made for singing in both languages as well as the literal translations of each Yiddish line. Some of these veer from the English in interesting ways, making some thoughts more serious and some references more specific to the milieu. (Of course, some paraphrasing is necessary simply to make words scan and have the matching number of syllables for a phrase.)

What may be the main attraction for some is the inclusion of the aforementioned 11 delightful newly recorded English-language tracks of material written for the show but cut before its 1964 Broadway opening. Sung by others, some of these have appeared on various recordings over the years. Just as the Yiddish performances bring a ring of authenticity and roots to the Jewish saga of Fiddler on the Roof, based on stories by Sholom Aleichem, plenty in the bonuses is graced by the history of associations with the material that artists bring to the table. That starts with the source: the score's lyricist Sheldon Harnick is happily and heartily on hand for his laugh-out-loud romp intended to engender respect for "A Butcher's Soul" (Don't dare treat the guy as "a piece of meat."). Austin Pendleton and Joanna Merlin, co-starring couple in the original Broadway company, belatedly (!) preserve their would-have-been duet, doting on their "Dear Sweet Sewing Machine." How's that for sentimental value? And those who played Tevye's daughters over the years join this family reunion, too: There's Alexandra Silber, of very recent vintage, who also authored the sequel to the original stories, joining two from the movie's cast, Neva Small and Rosalind Harris, effectively for "To Marry for Love." Also on board is Nancy Opel, a Yente from the 2004 Broadway revival, among a group of six women for a proposed opening number called "We Haven't Missed a Sabbath Yet." And Joel Grey persuasively brings his sly wiles to the cheeky "When Messiah Comes."

Most of these dropped numbers favor the amusing and heartfelt possibilities in the story, all well crafted and well worth rescue. But, indeed, there were some long-ago rescues, as you'll hear ideas in both music and lyrics that were recycled for what ended up in the score. Most is not in that category. A special comedy highlight is Richard Kind acing the frazzled mindset of Tevye in kvetching about his horse and other circumstances ("What a Life!"). Also raising their voices in song are Sharon Azrieli, in the big group and sharing two amiable duets with Tom Wopat, as well as Hal Linden, Donna McKechnie, Shaina Taub, Alysha Umphress, Lauren Molina, Mimi Bessette, Tam Mutu, and composer of The Prom Matthew Sklar.

Everything, including the rejected numbers, is put into perspective in the booklet's text, which traces the show's history, authored by various informed sources. This results in a bit of repetition, but that's a tiny matter. There's a detailed plot synopsis for newcomers or those wanting a refresher course. Director Grey adds a few brief comments, but master of liner notes and music biographies James Gavin, given wide berth of space, offers the most in insights, analysis and perspective. There are also a dozen color photos (plus one caricature) of this still-playing cast in action. Everyone is attentively credited, and certainly producer Robert Sher deserves major kudos for another sumptuous addition for the collectability factor for a more completist mindset's set of post-original original cast album companion pieces. The sound is satisfying throughout and loving care is evident. It seems that Fiddler has come full circle.

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