News

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF: LOST AND FOUND IN TRANSLATION By Peter Filichia

Manhattan theaters have played host to THE THREE SISTERS in Russian,
RUGANTINO in Italian and PACIFIC OVERTURES in Japanese.

So with New York City as home to more Jews than Tel Aviv has, is it any wonder
of wonders that we should now have a production of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF in
Yiddish?

The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, located not far from The Statue of
Liberty, has a production on tap directed by Joel Grey – yes, that Joel Grey
that is extraordinary. It’s beautifully paced and performed, especially from
Steven Skybell as Tevye, Mary Illes as Golde and Jackie Hoffman as Yente.

Part of the experience is keeping an eye on one of the two screens that flank the
stage. There, both English and Russian supertitles reveal what the Yiddish-
speaking actors – most of whom had to learn their lines phonetically – are
saying.

In 1959, when Mexico City saw the premiere of MY FAIR LADY – correction: MI
BELLA DAMA – “The rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain” wasn’t literally
translated into Spanish, for it wouldn’t have resulted in four rhymes. Instead it
became “La lluvia en Sevilla es una maravilla” – or “The rain in Seville is a
miracle.”

And so in 1965, translator Shraga Friedman began the unenviable task of finding
lyrics that would sound as close as possible to what Sheldon Harnick had written.
In order for him to fit words to Jerry Bock’s music, some lines and concepts had
to be amended, discarded or replaced.

Now that we finally have the chance to see Friedman’s work, we find that his
efforts inadvertently remind us of the exemplary work that Harnick did in
capturing character, humor and rhyme.

Harnick’s most deft lyric occurs in “To Life!” the impromptu celebration after
Tevye has approved Lazar Wolf’s request for Tzeitel’s hand in marriage. After
Tevye sings “Here’s to the father I tried to be” Lazar responds “Here’s to my
bride-to-be.”

That’s as golden a line as one could expect in musical theater’s golden age. Not
often do we find a three-word phrase perfectly matched with a single
hyphenated term. Alas, Friedman wasn’t able to find anything as impressive.

One must be amused, however, with what Friedman did to Harnick’s “And if our
good fortune never comes, here’s to whatever comes.” He rewrote it as “And if
our good fortune never comes, pour us a drink.”

(Many, however, will see his point.)

A two-syllable word did work in Friedman’s favor. You’ll recall that in
“Matchmaker,” Harnick has Hodel and Chava want a man “as handsome as
anything.” Friedman’s line is “as clever as anything,” which does give the girls
more lofty values.

And yet, the song’s best payoff gets lost in translation. For after Hodel and
Chava’s older sister Tzeitel points out that Yente the Matchmaker could fix them
up with someone obese or old, Harnick has the girls realize “playing with
matches a girl can get burned.” The best Friedman could do is “playing with fire
a girl can get burned.” The concept is there, but the delicious play on words
isn’t.

Friedman turned “If I Were a Rich Man” into “If I Were a Rothschild,” which is
intriguing on two levels. First, Sholem Aleichem – whose tales provided the
fodder for Joseph Stein’s remarkable libretto – actually penned a story by that
name in 1902. What’s more, six years after FIDDLER had opened on Broadway
(and, in fact, was still running), Bock and Harnick collaborated for the final time
on a musical about the august family known as THE ROTHSCHILDS.

In this song, Friedman wrote “When you’re rich, you even understand the
cantor.” Alas, its meaning is lost on this Gentile. Can anyone out there offer an
explanation?

Will The Deity forgive the new lyric in “Miracle of Miracles”? Friedman removed
His name from Motel’s joyous “God has given you to me” and changed the line to
“I belong to you and you belong to me.”

After “Miracle of Miracles” ends and a blackout occurs, we hear that the scene-
change music is the melody to “Now I Have Everything.” Musical theater has a
time-honored tradition (!) of using the song that was just sung as scene-change
music. Why are we hearing a song that won’t be sung until Act Two?

The reason is that “Now I Have Everything” was originally in the “Miracle of
Miracles” spot, sung by Motel and later merely reprised by Perchik. Director-
choreographer Jerome Robbins and the authors realized that Motel needed a
more jubilant song to express his unexpected victory in winning his bride.
Perchik would get “Now I Have Everything” all to himself.

After Harnick went to his hotel room to write for Motel, one could literally say
that God was with him. The Gideon Bible in the desk drawer provided him with stories about Daniel, Jericho, Moses, Pharaoh, The Red Sea and manna – all of
which he inserted into “Miracle of Miracles.”

What else could Harnick have done in those pre-Internet days when research
meant the library? Those in the District of Columbia weren’t open after the
evening tryout performance when he repaired to his hotel room.

Once “Miracle of Miracles” went in, its melody should have been inserted as the
scene-change music. But poet Paul Valery’s statement that “A poem’s never
finished, only abandoned” applies to musicals, too. Those working on a show do
the best they can until opening night, but there’s rarely enough time to do
everything. Even taskmaster and perfectionist Robbins didn’t insist that the
scene-change music reflect the new song.

At Folksbiene, we find that Friedman followed Harnick’s biblical lead with such
lines as “You brought our people out of Egypt. Enough of being a slave.”

If that lyric seems a little harsh, note what Friedman did in “Do You Love Me?”
For after Tevye admits that on his wedding day “I was scared” and Golde
confesses “I was shy,” we don’t hear his “I was nervous” and her “So was I.”
Instead, both sing “My heart was so heavy.”

That’s a very different slant. Nervousness isn’t nearly as severe a condition as a
heavy heart; the latter suggests acute unhappiness and sense of dread that will
be hard to overcome. Even “Sunrise, sunset: this is your destiny” has a sternness
that Harnick had avoided.

Let it be noted, however, that the many lyrical changes don’t spoil the
magnificence of the performances or direction. Harnick, the sole surviving
creator of FIDDLER, thought so, too. As we filed out of the theater, he said to
me “This production has the spirit that is the closest I have ever seen to the
original.”

And imagine how many times Harnick must have since seen the musical! So if
he’s this pleased with it, won’t you be, too?

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com
and each Friday at www.mtishows.com .His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s
Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at
www.amazon.com