"Fiddler on the Roof" in Yiddish brings new life to a classic Broadway show

By Leigh Scheps

/ CBS News

More than half a century after "Fiddler on the Roof" premiered on Broadway, the musical is finding new life in an old language. The well-known story, mesmerizing bottle dancing and iconic songs ("Sunrise, Sunset," "Matchmaker," "If I Were a Rich Man") are still the same, but for the first time in the U.S. the show is being performed in Yiddish.

There are English and Russian subtitles projected on both sides of the stage at Stage 42 in New York City, where the show is now playing off-Broadway. Whether or not you follow along with the words on the screen, you can feel the raw emotions emanating from the characters whether it's the first or 50th time you've seen a version of the show. Nor do you have to know Yiddish — the language once widely spoken by Jews in Eastern Europe — in order to understand and appreciate the show. The plot of "Fiddler on the Roof" revolves around a milkman named Tevye (Steven Skybell) in the pre-revolutionary Russian village of Anatevka as he looks to find husbands for his five daughters with help from Yenta the matchmaker ("Feud"'s Jackie Hoffman).

Steven Skybell as Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish." Matthew Murphy

Performing in Yiddish "added a different layer that made it more authentic," explains actress Stephanie Lynne Mason, who plays Hodl, Tevye's second eldest daughter. "It makes for a really deep interpretation." It also brings the story back to its roots, since the show was based on a tale by the acclaimed Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem.

With a book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, this reimagined version was translated into Yiddish by Shragra Friedman in 1965 for performances in Israel. It recaptures the soul of the show, adding new depth and dimension to a story familiar to so many. "We are speaking the language that Sholem Aleichem intended these characters to be speaking," Mason said.

Oscar winner Joel Grey ("Cabaret") was first asked to direct and star in the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene production at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan last summer for six weeks — even though he doesn't speak or understand Yiddish. He never learned the language despite the fact that his father, Mickey Katz, was a Yiddish comedian.

"I loved this show from the very beginning," Grey recalls of seeing "Fiddler" for the first time in Washington D.C. during a pre-Broadway tryout in 1964. "I flew down there with friends who were involved with the production. I have seen almost every production of it since. I always thought I would take a shot at Tevye and it just never happened."

fiddler-2-10-19-1407-web.jpg
The cast of "Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish" performs in New York City. Matthew Murphy

He opted not to take on the role last summer and stuck to solely directing. Grey's downtown production got so much acclaim, the sold-out show kept extending. Celebrities including Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Tommy Tune, Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters, Mandy Patinkin and Bebe Neuwirth came to see it. The show moved to its off-Broadway home on 42nd Street in January and has now been extended to September 2019.

"The fact that we got from what was supposed to be a six-week run to this crazy uptown transfer is really exciting," exclaims Mason. This is Mason's sixth time playing one of the daughters in a "Fiddler" production, including the most recent 2015 Broadway revival starring Danny Burstein. It's also her third show with The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, even though she didn't know the language either.

"They have really great coaches and they give you good recordings," Mason explains of how she learned the Yiddish lines. "They're also very good of telling you word for word exactly what you're saying."

Drew Seigla, who plays opposite Mason as her love interest, the political agitator Pertshik, had two and a half weeks to memorize the role. Unlike Mason, he's never done "Fiddler" before but had performed some Hebrew songs in the past, so he felt a bit of confidence going in to it. "It was difficult at first," he says of the learning process. "They gave us a whole audio mp3 file of how to say every single line as slowly as possible, so you don't miss any minute detail. Then, they say it again in the right flow and cadence of the phrase."

fiddler-2-10-19-1513-web.jpg
Stephanie Lynne Mason, 2nd from right, plays one of the five daughters of Tevye the milkman in "Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish." Matthew Murphy

When the cast began rehearsals Grey started with the basics: the original script. "The first thing we did was we talked through it in English," Mason said. "We got [the show] up on its feet in English and then added the Yiddish back in so it made for really clear performances."

"The fact that most [in the cast] were not Jewish and under 30 — there was no turning back," Grey recalls of his directorial decisions. "We had three or four weeks to put it together and there was no time to second guess. [I] had to go with [my] gut. We were all really sort of like moonwalkers in that we were in unspecified territory."

With the dialogue in Yiddish, many of the actors wouldn't have the ability to improvise at all if they forget their lines. If Grey's watching, he says he wouldn't know if someone flubs a word but "would know if the moment was not truthful."

Grey doesn't know if this production will ever transfer to Broadway but mentions there's talk of bringing this version to Los Angeles, Chicago or Shanghai. Grey wants to do it in Berlin — which would bring him back full circle to where he filmed Cabaret with Liza Minnelli in 1972.

Mason isn't sure if she would ever do another version of "Fiddler" after this one. "Never say never. But I almost wouldn't want to do the show again because I don't want anything to ruin this experience of it." Then she adds, "Maybe someday, when I'm old enough to play Golda, but we have a little bit of time. I think that's what it would take in order for me to do the show again."

-Leigh Scheps is the senior digital reporter for InsideEdition.com

First published on March 20, 2019 / 4:24 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

fiddler-2-10-19-2823-v002-web.jpg fiddler-2-10-19-1407-web.jpg fiddler-2-10-19-1513-web.jpg

"Fiddler on the Roof" in Yiddish brings new life to classic show

"I loved this show from the very beginning," said Oscar winner Joel Grey, who agreed to direct it even though he doesn't speak Yiddish

6M ago

Sully blasts Boeing and FAA as "too cozy"

Hero airline Captain Chelsey "Sully" Sullenberger said the FAA needs more funding to do its job properly

13M ago

Trump says he was never thanked for John McCain's funeral — live updates

President Trump visits Ohio, days after he pressured GM to reopen its Lordstown plant

16M ago

Harvard accused of profiting from pre-Civil War slave photos

Descendant of slave forced to sit for photographs meant to advance racist theory wants school to return the images

24M ago

Levi Strauss IPO may be among biggest consumer offerings in a decade

It could get a valuation of $5.8 billion, thanks to investor interest in a well-run apparel company that isn't Nike

26M ago

Trump says he was never thanked for John McCain's funeral — live updates

President Trump visits Ohio, days after he pressured GM to reopen its Lordstown plant

16M ago

Trump slams McCain at Ohio event, but few Republicans are responding

Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson will denounce criticism of the late Sen. John McCain in a radio interview Wednesday

31M ago

Cow Twitter account mocking Devin Nunes surpasses him in followers

House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Devin Nunes is suing Twitter for $250 million

39M ago

Progressives urge 2020 contenders to address Puerto Rico

Progressive groups want presidential candidates to address the island's decades-long financial instability and other issues

47M ago

Trump's Lima, Ohio, visit: 5 things to know about the last U.S. tank factory

The plant, which makes the M1 Abrams, is adding jobs thanks to higher defense spending under the Trump administration

2H ago

FedEx a yellow flag on economy as stock falls

FedEx points to sluggish conditions in International markets and suddenly lighter express package business in U.S.

3H ago

Spain's far-right party pushes for looser gun laws

The Vox party still doesn't have any national legislators, but it has gained in popularity in recent years

4H ago

U.S. man allegedly stabs wife to death in Japan court

Police say suspect ambushed his wife as she walked into the Tokyo Family Court building before divorce proceeding

5H ago

Russia deports 2 U.S. Mormon Church volunteers after weeks in jail

Spokesman confirms young men's release, says Church "is closely monitoring conditions in Russia for all volunteers"

5H ago

U.K. leader asks European Union for 3 month Brexit delay

Prime Minister Theresa May intends to bring twice-failed Brexit deal back to the U.K. parliament for a third vote

6H ago

"Fiddler on the Roof" in Yiddish brings new life to classic show

"I loved this show from the very beginning," said Oscar winner Joel Grey, who agreed to direct it even though he doesn't speak Yiddish

6M ago

"Stranger Things" season 3 trailer released

The trailer is filled with 80s nostalgia – and former mallrats are reveling in it

2H ago

Jay-Z, Cyndi Lauper, "Schoolhouse Rock" added to National Recording Registry

Library of Congress' list of recordings to be preserved for future generations includes music by Cab Calloway and Earth Wind & Fire, the Broadway musical "Hair," and the radio series "Gunsmoke" (with audio samples)

13H ago

MoviePass reintroduces unlimited plan — with a catch

Subscription film service is giving another go to the marketing offer that nearly drove it under

22H ago

First full-length trailer for "Toy Story 4" released

As always, Woody will stop at nothing to return home – or will he?

Mar 19

Google fined $1.7 billion by EU for blocking advertising rivals

The EU said its investigation found Google broke the EU's antitrust rules by imposing contractual restrictions on rivals

8H ago

MySpace deletes 12 years' worth of music

Social network points to server issue in explaining why videos, audio files and other material is no longer on the site

Mar 19

Google to announce a new cloud-based gaming service

The search engine giant is expected to make its foray into online gaming during the 2019 Game Developers Conference

Mar 19

"Marine MacGyver" boot camp helps troops confront modern enemy

At a hands-on training course, U.S. Marine Corps is learning to use some of the same tools and technology the enemy does

Mar 19

Nunes sues Twitter and others for $250 million

Accuses the social media giant of defamation, negligence and "shadow banning" conservatives; Twitter has denied that in the past

Mar 19

Kale added to list of fruits and veggies with most pesticides

Consumer advocacy group finds chemical residues on nearly 70 percent of conventionally grown produce in the U.S.

1H ago

Smoking strong pot daily linked to increased risk of psychosis

The research adds to previous studies that have found links between marijuana and mental health problems​, but still does not definitively pinpoint marijuana as the cause

4H ago

Take this pill! Or not… Making sense of medical studies

On this episode of "Where Did You Get This Number?" we go behind all those medical studies you see in the news.

6H ago

Tech's fight against anti-vaccine content prompts free speech debate

"We're slipping ever closer to tyranny and these tech companies are the ones driving the bus," said the producer of "The Greater Good"

8H ago

Nation's first e-cigarette ban proposed in San Francisco

Bill would bar them until FDA reviews their health effects; anti-tobacco activists say e-cigarette makers such as Juul target young people

11H ago

Harvard accused of profiting from pre-Civil War slave photos

Descendant of slave forced to sit for photographs meant to advance racist theory wants school to return the images

24M ago

Levi Strauss IPO may be among biggest consumer offerings in a decade

It could get a valuation of $5.8 billion, thanks to investor interest in a well-run apparel company that isn't Nike

26M ago

Kale added to list of fruits and veggies with most pesticides

Consumer advocacy group finds chemical residues on nearly 70 percent of conventionally grown produce in the U.S.

1H ago

Federal Reserve cuts growth forecast for U.S. economy

Central bank stands pat on interest rates and signals there may be no more hikes in 2019

2H ago

Trump's Lima, Ohio, visit: 5 things to know about the last U.S. tank factory

The plant, which makes the M1 Abrams, is adding jobs thanks to higher defense spending under the Trump administration

2H ago

Mom accused of abusing kids who starred in YouTube videos

Machelle Hackney has been accused of abusing her seven adopted children who starred in her YouTube videos

4H ago

Father and son, 15, are first mosque shooting victims buried

Khalid and Hamza Mustafa fled the civil war in Syria for "the safest country in the world"

17H ago

Pipe bomb discovered at Alabama sheriff's office

The sheriff's office said investigators brought in evidence to the sheriff's office not knowing a bomb was inside

18H ago

Another suspect arrested in deadly Dutch tram attack

Police said two other men who were arrested after Monday's shooting have been released and are no longer considered suspects

21H ago

Concern grows over feds' sluggish response to rise of right-wing extremism

Law enforcement veterans told CBS News federal authorities have struggled to keep up with the rising threat

21H ago

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here