“Fiddler on the Roof” is one of the best-known musicals out there, a staple of regional and high school productions (not to mention a regular candidate for Broadway revival). But somehow the current Off Broadway staging of “Fiddler” — directed by Tony and Oscar winner Joel Grey — makes it feel like an entirely fresh show.
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A big part of that comes from the fact that the production is performed in Yiddish (with English supertitles). Another contributing factor is Grey’s directorial approach: He aimed to strip the show of any distracting Broadway shtick, he explained on the latest episode of Stagecraft, Variety’s theater podcast.
“I wanted to tell it in a way that was more like Chekov than Broadway,” he said. “More about the play and the people, rather than the production. Plus,” he added with a laugh, “we didn’t have any money for a production.”
The modestly scaled staged originated in a limited engagement from the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene — and then proved so popular that producers picked it up for an open-ended run that’s still going.
Grey doesn’t speak Yiddish, and many of the performers in his cast doesn’t either. On Stagecraft, Grey explained the specifics of how he and his collaborators managed it — and also noted that the production gave him an opportunity to work in the language that his father, comedian and musician Mickey Katz, spoke when he performed, even after some Jewish audiences began to tell him they thought the practice was out of fashion.
“He never backed down, and somewhere that stood very strong in me,” Grey said. “I ended up thinking that I was, in a way, doing this [‘Fiddler’] for him.”
Grey, of course, has had a long career as an actor (“Cabaret”), but he didn’t want to play protagonist Tevye. He thought the role should go to a younger man — and besides, he’s a lot more interested in directing now, anyway. On the new Stagecraft he explained why, and also shared some of his favorite reminiscences of working with his friend Harold Prince, the late, legendary director-producer.
New episodes of “Stagecraft” are available biweekly in July, August and September, with a weekly schedule resuming in October. Download and subscribe to “Stagecraft” on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or anywhere finer podcasts are dispensed. Find past episodes here and on Apple Podcasts.