Plymouth Rock and the Pilgrim Fathers are all very well, but in this multiethnic country, we need all kinds of myths -- including some non-WASP ones -- to celebrate who we are and how we got here. "Fiddler on the Roof" provides such a myth. Yiddish purists have attacked it for sentimentalizing Sholom Aleichem's tales of shtetl life, but "Fiddler" is no mere wallow in bittersweet nostalgia: in the struggles of Tevye the milkman with his independent-minded daughters, we can see, in immediate, emotional, personal terms, the modern world impinging on the snug cocoon of "Tradition!" in which the villagers of Anatevka, those future Americans, have lived.
And how is "Fiddler" holding up these days, 40 years after it was first produced? After 40 years, we should all look so good. Joseph Stein's adroitly constructed book (one of the best ever written for an American musical), Sheldon Harnick's plain, straightforward, warm-hearted lyrics, Jerry Bock's klezmer-inflected music -- all retain their luster. The original choreography by Jerome Robbins has been restaged by Jonathan Butterell, but this is otherwise a new "Fiddler," handsome and lively, directed by David Leveaux with affection but not too much schmaltz (thus leaving it open to attack for having no "Jewish soul"). Alfred Molina is a vigorous Tevye, likable without being cute, who knows how to take stage and how to put over a song. In the solid supporting cast, Randy Graff is stalwart as Tevye's wife, Golde, and John Cariani, with his collapsible joints like an unstrung marionette, is very funny as Motel the shy tailor. The spare scenery by Tom Pye, under Brian MacDevitt's evocative lighting, avoids shtetl kitsch.
At the end of the show, we see the exiled villagers of Anatevka, somberly silhouetted, trudging along the road toward a faraway future, and we are poignantly reminded that the Pilgrims were not the only refugees to come to America in search of better lives. And the Jews of Eastern Europe are not the last.
This review first appeared on Backstage.com on 3/1/04.