Tradition Looms Over New Yiddish Production Of ‘Fiddler’


When it comes to the famous bottle dance from the wedding scene in “Fiddler on the Roof,” Staṥ Kmieḉ, the choreographer for the upcoming Yiddish production of the show, won’t hear of using anything but real glass bottles. In fact, he prefers Korbel champagne bottles.

But when it comes to other parts of the iconic show, which is one of the longest-running shows in Broadway history and one of the most beloved, Kmieḉ is more comfortable breaking with tradition.

“I performed in 1,682 performances of ‘Fiddler’; I know the original really well,” said Kmieḉ, who spoke this week by phone a day after an open casting call for dancers at a Midtown studio. “I’m going to build upon that, and I think the only way that you can do that is if you actually know and respect the original.”

Produced by the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene (NYTF) and directed by Joel Grey, the new production — which opens in previews on July 4 and officially on July 15 — is already a major departure from the original 1964 show. The all-Yiddish script is based on a translation from the 1960s by Shraga Friedman, a Holocaust survivor. But in light of the last two revivals of the show on Broadway, which were criticized for veering too far from the original staging, the creative team behind this Yiddish production is trying to tread a new path without losing the soul of the original. They are quick to point out that the change of language is actually a return to the original stories by Yiddish author Sholom Aleichem.

“We’re now in the language of Sholom Aleichem, and we kind of want to reflect that world even more,” said Kmieḉ.

“Not that English or any other language isn’t expressive, but there’s a particular emotional connection that people, especially our audience, has to hearing things in Yiddish,” said Motl Didner, associate artistic director of NYTF. “Nostalgia’s the wrong word for it, it’s something more deeply ingrained in the soul than that.”

For many of those auditioning for the show, this would not be the first time they’ve performed the iconic musical. “It’s remarkable how many of them are veterans of ‘Fiddler’ productions elsewhere, not just once or twice, some of them have had four or five on their resume,” said Didner. “We saw a few women who had been Chava or Tzeitl or one of the daughters 30 years ago who are now coming in who are reading for Goldes and Yentes.”

Producing the first Yiddish-language “Fiddler” in the country is no easy feat today (the show runs through Aug. 26; discounted tickets are available through May 1). Most of the actors auditioning have never spoken Yiddish, let alone heard more than a bissel. The entire script has to be transliterated for English speakers. Staff will spend two weeks working with the cast before rehearsals even start, making sure the actors can properly produce the Yiddish accent and cadence.

“It’s the rare person,” said Zalmen Mlotek, artistic director of NYTF, who can sing, dance, and act in Yiddish. Over 500 actors, singers and dancers have already auditioned for the 26-person cast.

There’s even a challenge in casting the dancers, despite the fact that they do not have to speak Yiddish in the show. The Russian dances and the bottle dance, which are performed almost entirely on bent knees, is trying, even for experienced dancers. “They could do everything else and not be able to get down there,” said Kmieḉ. “It takes a very specific type of dancer.”

That challenge was on display last week at the open casting call. Running through the original Jerome Robbins choreography for the Russian dance and a ballet set to “Matchmaker,” the dancers were panting and sweating after just a few minutes. “I hope you warmed up,” Kmieḉ warned the dancers. “No amount of dance training will prepare you for this thigh work.”

Though Kmieḉ is planning to introduce new choreography throughout the show, the bottle dance at the wedding, in which the Jewish residents of Anatevka perform a dance for the bride and groom while balancing wine bottles on their heads, is one he cannot bear to touch.

“That’s part of the tradition and there are certain things you just don’t mess with,” said Kmieḉ, “I can’t mess with that.”