REVIEW: Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish – 2018 Revival Cast

Recording CoverWith 92 previous recordings of Fiddler on the Roof in our database, including at least two in Yiddish, it's only fair to ask: do I really need the 2018 cast recording of the off-Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish.

Yes, you really do.

Beyond capturing this truly beautiful production – if you haven't seen it and you're anywhere near New York, please do treat yourself – this deluxe set offers treasures for the Fiddler expert and neophyte alike. It's as though record producer Robert Sher began his process by asking the very question you're probably asking: what could possibly make a new Fiddler on the Roof recording an essential addition to one's collection?

First, this is the most musically complete recording of Fiddler on the Roof you'll find. The album includes all the scene change music and dance music, the entr'acte, curtain music, bows, and exit music. Although the production does not utilize the full original orchestrations, Larry Blank has expanded his work to include an additional 10 players, bringing the total to 23. Blank's charts, adapted from his klezmer-infused work for the 2007 British production (which were in turn adapted from Don Walker's originals), sound particularly lively under the baton of Zalmen Mlotek.

Mlotek, artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, was the driving force behind making this production happen to begin with, having fallen in love with the original cast recording of the Israeli Yiddish production from 1965 when he was a kid. Firmly grounded in both theatrical music and klezmer, Mlotek knows exactly when to rein in his players and when to give them license to let loose. (The wedding music has never sounded better!)

The cast is ideal, and given how late in the life of the production (which debuted at the Folksbiene in the summer of 2018) the album was recorded, they have had ample time to grow with their roles and deepen their characterizations. In line with the more intimate scale of the production, Steven Skybell gives us a more introspective, human-scale Tevye. Still boisterous or towering when called for, Skybell strips away the vaudevillian, borscht belt schtick that occasionally clings to the character. Similarly, Jennifer Babiak sings Golde without the affectation of a character voice; in their hands "Libst Mikh, Sertse?" ("Do You Love Me") actually feels like a love song rather than a routine.

Don't think that this more human-scale Fiddler falls into the maudlin trap of the previous Broadway edition. "Shadkhnte, Shadkhnte" ("Matchmaker, Matchmaker") still sparkles with musical comedy verve, "Ven Ikh Bin a Rotshild" ("If I Were A Rich Man") retains its wry playfulness, and "Der Kholem" ("Tevye's Dream") is ever the hysterical showstopper. Note that this production adds the song "Es Kumt a Tog" ("Any Day Now") for Perchik (Drew Seigla), which was originally written for (and then dropped from) the 1971 Fiddler on the Roof film. (You can hear that version as a bonus track on the 30th Anniversary edition of the soundtrack.)

All of this would be plenty justification for the album, but we haven't even reached disc two yet. Here, we get 11 songs cut from the show performed by an assortment of Broadway names, some associated with previous Fiddlers (Neva Small, Alexandra Silber, Joanna Merlin, even Sheldon Harnick himself, among others) and some... less expected. (Tom Wopat? Donna McKechnie? Sure, okay, why not?) 10 of these songs are presented with full orchestrations by Larry Blank (only "Letters from America" is accompanied by piano).

While many of these songs have popped up over the years as bonus tracks, cabaret numbers and cover versions, hearing them together - performed in character with appropriate orchestrations - is a delight. I don't think there's one among the bunch that will make you question the wisdom of their excision from the score, but many of them are lovely outside of the context of the show, and all offer a fascinating glimpse at the process of creating the show. (Quite a few have bits that were better used in the songs that replaced them.) There are two further bonus tracks documenting Yente's monologues, performed in Yiddish by this production's matchmaker, Jackie Hoffman.

The liner notes include explanations (by James Gavin) of how each of these cut numbers functioned in the show and why they were dropped. The also include extensive photography (of both the production and the recording process) by Gavin and Matthew Murphy, a number of essays reflecting on the meaning of Fiddler on the Roof, the history and purpose of a Yiddish-language production in 2019 New York, and a note from director Joel Grey (who also sings on two of the bonus tracks). Lyrics are available via a link to the Folksbiene's website, where they are offered in Yiddish, transliterated Yiddish, direct translation English and their original English. Given that the booklet only seems to come with the physical CD edition of the album, I strongly recommend purchasing that rather than digital download.

There has been a bit of grousing among fans that it took so long for this album to appear, coming as it does more than a full year after the first performance of this production. I am pleased (and relieved) to say it was entirely worth the wait.


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