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The Score of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF: An Appreciation

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Reference recordings:
1. Fiddler on the Roof: Original Broadway cast (1964)
2. Fiddler on the Roof: Broadway revival cast (2004)

The video above shows the Bottle Dance, highlight of Fiddler on the Roof’s wedding scene and arguably the most famous musical number ever choreographed by the great Jerome Robbins. At the wedding of Tzeitel to Motel, a line of Hasidic Jewish men balance wine bottles atop their hats as they perform intricate dance steps, eventually stepping and sliding in unison. Like the Hora that precedes it in the scene, the Bottle Dance I had always guessed to be both authentically Jewish and centuries old. So imagine my surprise when I finally googled the dance and found that it’s only as old as Fiddler on the Roof itself: Robbins devised it, having once seen a Jewish man try to entertain a crowd by balancing a bottle on his head. Robbins’ sighting was felicitous; the dance he invented does look festive and exotic. It certainly fooled me. But now I understand why the Bottle Dance is, arguably, more famous even than Robbins’ Prologue or “Cool” in West Side Story: it has had a life outside the show. There are Bottle Dancers in New York today, and the dance has been done at Jewish weddings worldwide.

The Bottle Dance music was composed, of course, by Jerry Bock (I’d assumed it was “traditional,” too), who with lyricist Sheldon Harnick wrote the show’s score; that clarinet solo that sounds so authentically “Klezmer” dates from 1964. As I’d underrated Robbins’ talent I’d underrated Bock’s–and in fact the whole score of Fiddler on the Roof. Like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum or 1776, Fiddler on the Roof is a musical I felt had a more distinguished script (by Joseph Stein) than score. Revisiting the show on both the original Broadway cast recording and the (more complete) later, Broadway revival cast recording has taught me how sophisticated the supposedly simple score of Fiddler actually is.

Broadway in the 1960's saw the rise of several composers adept at pastiche; Bock was among these. By 1964, New York audiences had heard several musicals (West Side Story, The Music Man, Bye Bye Birdie) that often resembled something other than “typical Broadway.” Yet of these scores it is Fiddler’s that seems the most atypical: not only the songs but also the orchestrations sound consistently “Jewish,” “Eastern European,” or “Imperial Russian”–rather than “20th-century American.” The man who orchestrated Bock’s score was Don Walker.

It has always surprised me that no Broadway orchestrators have been household names, since they’re the ones ultimately responsible for a show's characteristic sound. It’s impossible, in other words, to imagine Fiddler without Walker’s violins, woodwinds, or accordion–all Klezmer instruments. Here they are in the evocative “Sunrise, Sunset”:

An oboe solo introduces the equally evocative song “Sabbath Prayer”; near the end Walker inserted chimes. Are these supposed to be emanating from the local Orthodox church? If so, they emphasize the precariousness of the villagers’ situation. In “Tradition” the orchestra sounds like the village: earthy, robust–and stately (i.e. Czarist Russian). Yet there are welcome (and necessary) concessions to “the Broadway sound,” with the brass instruments so prominent in “To Life” among other numbers.

Of course, the music itself sounds “Jewish.” Hear the cantatorial “slide” and cadenza Bock accommodates, from Tevye, in “Sabbath Prayer”; hear how he begins Hodel’s “Far from the Home I Love” in a liturgical-sounding, minor key. The lyric for Motel’s “Miracle of Miracles” is the utterance of a Torah scholar; the lyric for Perchick’s “Now I Have Everything” is relatively secular yet concerned with life-purpose. “If I Were a Rich Man” is a typical Broadway character-defining number disguised as a folk song; the wedding-dance music is merely based on the Hora. Indeed, none of Fiddler’s numbers would have found favor on Broadway had they been too “authentic”–or too "heavy." True, those who attend musicals do not necessarily “analyze” what they hear; but if audience members cannot relate to the style of a score, then they will not accept it, and the show will fail. Thus the folk-like “Matchmaker” and “Rumor” are musical-comedy numbers; Motel’s, Perchick’s, and even Hodel’s solos could pass for “standard” Broadway ballads; “Tevye’s Monologue” is a subtle reprise of “Tradition.” Nothing in the score–not even the through-sung Dream sequence–is ponderous or obvious; nothing sounds unsuitable for Broadway.

Still, the score is loved so widely not for being subtle but for being fun–and for transcending cultures. Because all cultures have their own communal dances, literally anyone can relate to the wedding or tavern scenes. The wedding dances, “To Life,” and the rest of the numbers are strongly rhythmic; most people respond instinctively to rhythm. Then there’s the fact that much American music is (whether the listener realizes this or not) “Jewish sounding.” It’s not only a matter of rhythm. Take, for instance, the “blue notes” written by Jewish composers Harold Arlen and George Gershwin in their “black” songs like “Stormy Weather” and “Summertime”: those blue notes are also the “cantatorial" ones of “If I Were a Rich Man” and “Sabbath Prayer.” Audiences at Fiddler, then, in one sense have and in another sense have not heard its music before. While few Broadway audiences will accept “old” music, they will and do accept music that reminds them, if only subliminally, of music they already know.

All too often, Fiddler on the Roof is written of as though its creators simply took some Jewish music and customs and slapped them up onstage; while its exuberance is always acknowledged, its sheer artistry usually isn’t. Yet the artistry should be apparent especially to those who hear the score more or less complete (as on the revival cast CD). Any informed listener to the uncut score will quickly realize that Fiddler on the Roof is–like Robbins’ Bottle Dance–deceptively traditional. Original, in fact.

Updated Sep-23-2017 at 03:55 by Bellinilover

Tags: musicals
Classical Music , Non-Classical Music , Recorded Music