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Fiddler on the Roof marks 50th

Thu, Apr 3, 2014

The musical Fiddler on the Roof celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership has planned three commemorative events on April 6-7. The play debuted at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway in 1964.

Fiddler on the Roof was written by Joseph Stein with music and lyrics by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. The play took its inspiration from the work of Sholem Aleichem, the pen name of Shalom Rabinowitz, who was born in the Ukraine in 1859 and who came to the United States after a pogrom in 1905.

The original Broadway production of Fiddler featured Zero Mostel as Tevye the milkman (who had five unmarried daughters) and Bea Arthur as Yente the Matchmaker. It won nine Tony Awards, became the first musical production in history to surpass 3,000 performances. Along with the film version that followed in 1971, the play has become a global and cross-cultural icon, performed on stages from rural U.S. high schools to Tokyo.

“You don’t have to be Jewish to love Fiddler,” said Spertus Institute Director of Programming Beth Schenker. “Its themes are universal. It speaks about changing circumstances, family dynamics and the tension between old and new.”

In the first Fiddler event Sunday April 6 at 2 p.m., journalist and dramaturg Dr. Alisa Solomon, author of Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof, will discuss the musical’s roots and its relevance. Solomon teaches at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. A longtime theater critic and general reporter for the Village Voice, she has also contributed to The New York Times, The Nation, Tablet, The Forward, American Theater, and many other publications.

Dr. Solomon was born in Chicago and grew up in Highland Park. She earned her BA from University of Michigan and her MFA and Doctorate from the Yale School of Drama. She lives in New York City.

In a review of the book for the New York Times, Marjorie Ingall said Solomon’s book explores not only the making of the musical, but its relationship to Jewish identity.

“It’s about how gentiles see Jews and about how Jews see themselves. It’s about a particular moment in American history when identity politics, feminism, generational rifts, ethnic pride, concerns about authenticity and an interest in immigration history came together in a rich cholent. It’s about a particular time in Broadway history when the musical was changing from something stagy and stilted to something more musically and formally challenging.”

Solomon produces the “Fiddler’s Fortunes” blog, in which she describes its influences in daily American life. Last November, she noted that in the lead-up to the Illinois General Assembly’s vote in favor of marriage equality, State Rep. David Harris (R-Mount Prospect) urged a “no” vote by citing Fiddler. “ ‘How do we keep our balance? TRADITION!’ ”

On the other hand, Solomon noted that lyricist Sheldon Harnick has adapted the Fiddler song “Sunrise, Sunset” for same-sex weddings by changing boy/girl references to boy/boy and girl/girl.

Cost is $18 for the public, $10 for Spertus members, $8 for students and Spertus alumni.

Also on April 6, Spertus Institute will present a free screening of the MGM classic movie Fiddler on the Roof at 5:30 p.m. Fiddler is rated G and runs 181 minutes, with one intermission. Advance reservations are necessary because a capacity crowd is expected.

And at 6:30 p.m. Monday, April 7, the 1939 non-musical movie Tevye (in Yiddish with English subtitles) will be screened. Andrew Patner, critic-at-large for 98.7 WFMT Chicago and wfmt.com as well as opera critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, will lead a post-show discussion. Tickets are $18 for the public/$10 for Spertus members/$8 for students and Spertus alumni.

Please call 312.322.1773 for reservations to any of the three events.

Suzanne Hanney, from prepared materials

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