Friday, January 11, 2013

A Blessing On Your Head

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Fiddler on the Roof (film soundtrack). I've got no time for Les Miz, whose insipid music drove me running from the theater at intermission years ago, but in hearing anew about the special place it occupied in so many young people's lives (and seems destined to again), I'll confess a certain familiarity. I too spent hours of my childhood memorizing  musicals about faraway people in previous ages, prancing around the house in my own imagined version of Oliver's Dickensian London, Oklahoma's American frontier, Camelot's medieval England, and, of course, a Russian shtetl beset by the occasional pogrom. This last world may have been the most exotic for this Lutheran boy raised in Arizona, where I don't think I even knew any Jewish people until sixth grade, well after every note of Fiddler was ingrained in my consciousness.

I'm happy to report that while some youthful obsessions don't hold up well upon later examination (hello, Monkees!), Fiddler does. Upon a fresh listen, it remains one of the few cast albums on which I love the instrumental dance sections as much as the songs. The trick with period musicals is to give them a convincingly period-ish or regional sound, and mid-century Broadway composers came up with a lot of creative solutions for conveying the sound of different locales and times, even as all of their scores inevitably sound distinctly of the time they were written (I'd include all the ones mentioned above, but I'm also thinking of The King and I, The Music Man, not to mention Sondheim's period shows). And not to put too fine a point on it, but what Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick did with the Fiddler score was work a lot closer to home, mining Yiddishkeit and folklore so expertly and wholly that Fiddler still works as kind of folk musical.

And to my ears, this working close to home is the key not just to the score's earthy aesthetic integrity but also to the huge-heartedness of its sound. It's as if, by exploring the voices of their forebears, Bock and Harnick opened a vein of direct feeling that, to me, is unmatched by any other Broadway show.

William Lewis Salyers On a much more prosaic note, how awesome was Chaim Topol?
Jeffrey Sweet FIDDLER is a strange show. It is written with real humility. Very little overt flash. But the craft is extraordinary and it builds to a tremendous finish. One might argue that Tevye and Mama Rose are the two greatest roles in musical theatre.
Cathy Reinking Rob, we r nearly the same person. Or at the very least Musical Theatre Soul Mates.
Diep Tran I saw Topol a couple of years ago when I reviewed the show in SoCal. The man still got it.
Sam Thielman I was Tevye in my tiny little Appalachian Christian high school's production of this show. I'm roughly as Jewish as a leprechaun and YHWH only knows why the drama teacher picked it, but I agree with Jeff—it is all substance, no fireworks, and it retains much of its force and intimacy across religious, geographic and cultural lines.
Sharon Yablon This song kills me!
EM Lewis I love Fiddler.
Paul Mullin I felt the very same way about Les Mis's music and left in the very same way: at intermission.
Shaheen Vaaz Perfectly said, Rob, and exactly why I and my sisters, growing up in Bombay, often pretended to be the girls (and boys and parents and most importantly, the butcher's wife's ghost) in this amazing musical. And why I chose to direct it at a Catholic girls' school.
Douglas Green This WASP played Motel in high school, and I share your opinions fully. Was actually thinking about FOTR as well when I saw the LM movie. I thought "It's like someone took "Fiddler" and thought, what's the best song in this show? Maybe it's 'Far From the Home I Love.' So let's improve the overall play by making EVERY song sound like 'Far From the Home I Love!' Not have Tevye sing different from Perchik, not have Challa sing different from Motel, everyone gets to croon this lovely ballad for themselves, for three straight hours!"
Jessica Taghap Confession: I've never seen FIDDLER and have had a DVD copy sitting in my collection unearthed for ages. This status may have just convinced me to watch it now...
David Tobocman Thanks for introducing the concept of the folk musical. Nice essay.
Allison Adato I can see how Les Mis would be dull for you, raised as you were in France. Before the revolution. Also, this:
Rob Weinert-Kendt Allison, that's a revelation. I found a clip with better sound quality:

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