by Thomas Jenson, assistant dramaturg
If Anatevka is like a fiddler balancing on a roof, then the show Fiddler on the Roof also performs an impressive balancing act between its cultural specificity and enduring appeal. Whether or not audiences can relate to the practice of arraigned marriages in Orthodox Ashkenazi Jewish communities, they can understand the tension between personal desire and the social expectations around marriage. The relatability of Tevye’s world—made of hay and cows but also the love of family and dreams of wealth—stems from its timelessness. As a show that premiered 78 years ago and takes place half a century before that, Fiddler on the Roof’s greatest feat is that time does not chip at its relevance.
To understand why Fiddler is still important today, we asked the cast how they connected to it. Many of their comments touched on the role of tradition in their lives—not surprising given the similarities between Anatevka and the conservative religious culture of BYU. Weston Wright wrote, “What I relate to in Fiddler is Tevye’s love for his family; almost always, his love is what triumphs over the other influences in his life. He may be seen as ‘untraditional,’ but he tries to do what is right. Often, love and acceptance are what will make us happier than tradition for the sake of tradition, and that’s what I identify with.” Just as Weston pitted tradition against love and acceptance, Marion Pack saw tradition as opposed to her self-discovery: “The thing I find the most relatable is the idea of growing up in a very traditional society, finding out who you are among traditions that have been in place for generations. I feel a great deal of pressure to fit into my family’s expectations that surround our religious community. Finding out who you are and what you want is a very scary part of growing up, especially if it’s different from what those closest to you would expect.”
Their comments, among others in the cast, align with the perspectives of the young couples in the show, who break the practice of matchmaking to be with each other. It’s easy to think that Chava, the daughter who gets shunned for marrying outside of the Jewish faith, might also imagine Weston’s dichotomy between convention and love/acceptance. To a group of young, American actors, Tevye’s dilemma between tradition and his daughters’ untraditional marriages might not make any sense. If he loves them, why not just let them get married?
To some extent, the show does make the case that changing traditions can be beneficial. That said, if that were its only message, then it could be chopped down to half its length. The show takes two and a half hours because it simultaneously recognizes the dysfunction and beauty of tradition, as well as the chaos and miraculousness of change. As Fiddler argues, changing tradition is as precarious as removing the roof from underneath a fiddler’s feet.
Peter Morgan shared his complicated experience as a gay man playing Tevye: “The most relatable part and most difficult emotionally for me to play is exiling Chava. I have had the unfortunate experience of being exiled from social groups by those I trusted, all because they could not accept who I loved…Too many times have I been the one a parent or even a stranger has come to because they need to express the overwhelming anguish and guilt for rejecting their loved one or child for being gay. When I think of Tevye’s mindset during the scene with Chava, I imagine how heartbroken he must feel. I want to say the magic words of approval and have her jump into my arms in relief and joy like my previous two daughters. But I am so afraid. I am afraid of what people will think. I am afraid of what it would mean if I bent that far to accept them. I am afraid of losing my own identity. I am the traditions I live by; if I am to break them, I will be left with no sense of self. I am angry at myself for not being able to let go of who I think I should be in order to be who I am: a father.”
Even when change feels absolutely necessary—when the situation could mean a family’s permanent disintegration—Fiddler reminds us of all that is at stake when we deviate from tradition. As much as Tevye wants to maintain his relationship with his daughters, he must balance those with his relationships with the rest of his family, the community, God, and himself.
The cast’s misgivings about Fiddler on the Roof’s rigid traditions do not decrease the show’s pertinence. The ideological friction between the actors and action mirrors the musical’s internal conflict between tradition and change—the older generations and the young couples in love. How the cast might relate more to Tevye’s plight as they age is a matter of time. In the meantime, Fiddler will reign on as a relevant piece of culture.
Below you will find additional comments from cast members about how they connect to the show.
Camden Wawro: “I actually have family that emigrated from the area where Fiddler takes place right around the same time the show takes place. My great-great-grandfather, Andrew Wawro, moved from Przeciszow, Poland (near Krakow) to New York sometime between 1891 and 1914.”
Rachel Fonseca: “Fiddler is relatable to me because my mother is Jewish and lived Chava’s story of marrying outside of the faith and being dead to her family. She joined the LDS church when she was 18, and a few years later got married in an LDS temple, both events of which were hurtful to her family. Per tradition, her family didn’t speak to her for some time, and some of her relatives cut her out of the family entirely. Chava’s story is painful to watch each night knowing that my own mother went through the same thing when she was so young. However, I am grateful for her example of faith and following what she believes for herself.”
Anonymous actor: “I relate to Fyedka in the show. He’s caught between two worlds and recognizes the good and bad in both. In a world that can often feel polarizing, Fyedka reminds us that we don’t have to subscribe to only one way of thinking. We can use the good, rid the bad, and make the better.”
Justin Bawden: “I think Fiddler on the Roof has an intriguing parallel to our current circumstances within the Church. We have so many traditions and beliefs that aren’t necessarily doctrine, but have nevertheless been practiced and passed down for many generations. We are now witnessing some traditions change, with the first presidency giving new counsel and revelation about the various traditions we cling to. We, as Tevye, often find ourselves faced with the choice to follow the old traditions, or embrace the new. Sometimes these changes are easier to accept than others, but it is something we all must face. I sometimes find myself torn between the different views of my friends, family, and church leaders, and I wonder about which group is correct. I think Fiddler on the Roof shows us that no matter what traditions we have, we must always be careful of our traditions, and change them when necessary.”
Peter Morgan: “Fiddler is a snapshot of life. There is a lot of joy, a lot of talk, a lot of heart, and unfortunately, a lot of heartbreak. That’s why it’s so relatable. It doesn’t sugarcoat it. It’s life. It’s raw and it can suck, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get up and shout ‘l’chaim,’ and it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek to be with those we love, and it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight for our family. It’s just real.”
Jimmy Henderson: “I find Tevye’s monologues with God particularly relatable. I think we all go through times where our faith is not necessarily shaken, but we have a hard time understanding why God has put us in particular circumstances. I especially love how Tevye never shows resentment towards God in his trials, but he does look to God for guidance.”
Aaron Justvig: “I relate very strongly to the social events that are happening throughout the show (that culminate in the pogrom in act 1 and the forced exodus in act 2). The villagers talk about trouble and the changing political tones they live in. I don’t think I need to go into many details on why that feels somewhat relevant today (though I am very grateful that today’s turmoil is not resulting in the intense suffering that the people of Anatevka have to suffer).”
Brant Ellsworth: “Fiddler is relatable to me because it shows people rooted in tradition grapple with a changing world, a conflict that I find myself in often. It breathes humanity into characters who could have easily existed so long ago, so we can understand their struggles and see how we continue to encounter conflicts like theirs.”
Mikenzie Moon: “I identify with the commitment to my faith. I would do anything to defend it, and in that time I would move. This show reminds me of the Mormon pioneers that I relate to. I also love the focus on family and listening to your momma and pappa.”