Tradition: A Miracle of Miracles

by Pat Launer July 1, 2012


By Pat Launer

Early in the creation of the original “Fiddler on the Roof,” legendary director Jerome Robbins heard Jerry Bock’s music and Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics, and he was impressed. Still, he asked, “What’s the show about?” The collaborators said, “A little town in Czarist Russia at the turn of the 20th century.” And Robbins repeated, “But what’s it about?”

It took three days for Bock and Harnick to ponder the deeper question. Finally, they came back to Robbins and said, “The breaking of tradition.” And once they said it, they knew what they had to do; they rewrote nearly half the show, taking out everything that didn’t fit the stated theme. To underscore their decision, Bock and Harnick made “Tradition” the opening number.

And that’s exactly what David Ellenstein plans to emphasize in his portrayal of the beloved character, Tevye the dairyman.


Tevye and Theo and David

The acclaimed actor, director and artistic director of North Coast Repertory Theatre is making his debut in the coveted role this summer, at Moonlight Stage Productions in Vista (July 25-August 11).

“Often, in ‘Fiddler,’” Ellenstein says, “when Tevye stops the action and talks directly to the audience, actors take that as a time to mug, joke and kibitz. But those are really important moments, when he’s deciding whether to stick to his hardline tradition, or move on with his daughters and with the times.”

Ellenstein, who recounted the Jerome Robbins story, takes his Tevye responsibility very seriously. He’s grown a bushy and serious beard. He even consulted Theodore Bikel, the 89-year-old Vienna-born character actor who has performed the role of Tevye more often than anyone else: more than 2,000 times, most recently in 2010, at the age of 86. (Ellenstein has directed Bikel in plays several times — and he feels old for the role at 55!)

“Theo first reported what John Gielgud once said to a colleague who was going to play King Lear for the first time: ‘Get a light Cordelia!’ [The king has to carry his youngest daughter onstage at the end of the play]. ‘For you,’ Theo continued, ‘that means get a light milk can!’”

So, Ellenstein needs a light milk can and a light touch. He’s had time to think about Tevye, though it hasn’t been foremost in his (very busy) thoughts.

Eight years ago, he reports, he first talked to Moonlight founding artistic director Kathy Brombacher about doing a production of “Fiddler” together. But the rights to the play were unavailable, held up by national tours.

“We wistfully said, ‘One day…,’” Ellenstein recalls. And now, that day has finally come.

So, what’s it all about?

“Fiddler on the Roof” is based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem (pen name of Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich), a leading Russian/Yiddish author and playwright (1859-1916). The primary source was one particular tale of the dairyman, “Tevye and His Daughters.”

The original name of the musical was “Tevye,” in fact, but the final (more interesting) title was taken from a painting by Marc Chagall (born Moishe Shagal, 1887-1985). It was one of the Russian/French/Jewish artist’s many surreal representations of the life of Eastern European Jew.

The Fiddler, who appeared frequently in Chagall’s work, is a symbol of survival in a world of uncertainty and imbalance, “trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck,” as the opening of the musical puts it. “And how,” Tevye asks, “do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in a single word: Tradition. Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as… a fiddler on the roof.”

A funny, imaginative and worldly-wise milkman, Tevye aspires to being a learned man, spending his days studying in the synagogue. Instead, he only dreams about it (“If I Were a Rich Man”). Tevye is mired in poverty, struggling to provide for his wife and five daughters and coping with a harsh existence in the fictional shtetl of Anatevka, circa 1905.

The show defied the accepted rules of commercial success for a musical. It wasn’t a romantic comedy with an upbeat ending. Instead, it dealt with somber themes like persecution, poverty and holding onto the old ways in a hostile and ever-changing world.

Early in the play, Yente the matchmaker comes around to arrange a marriage for the three oldest of Tevye’s daughters. Being more modern than their parents, each girl insists on making her own choice, and each selection falls further from the family and cultural tradition.

Tzeitel, the first-born, marries a poor tailor, though she had been promised to a well-heeled, middle-aged butcher. Hodel, the second in line, chooses a revolutionary and winds up following him to Siberia. Chava, the third daughter, falls in love with a Russian and violates all tradition by marrying outside the religion.

Each time, Tevye talks to his God, weighing the options, possibilities and departures from tradition. He bends the rules as far as he can, but he can’t let them break. He stops short at Chava and banishes her from the family, declaring her dead to her parents, as is the custom.

“But even with Chava,” Ellenstein says, “he relents enough at the end to address her through Golde. ‘Tell her, May God be with her,’ he says, though he never looks directly at her. But he’s so warmly human. His heart won’t let him be as hardline as he thinks he should be.’”

As if his family tsouris (trouble) isn’t enough, Tevye has to deal with an edict from the Czar (delivered by Chava’s beloved), asserting that all the Jews are evicted from Anatevka. Still holding onto his faith and his traditions, Tevye bravely trudges on, prepared to take what’s left of his family to America.


A history-making historical musical

“Fiddler” premiered on Broadway in 1964, running for more than 3,200 performances, which lasted more than seven years, nine months. The original choice for Tevye was Danny Kaye (Tom Bosley and Danny Thomas were also considered). But the role went to Zero Mostel, who was masterful, heartful and hilarious. Mostel was succeeded on Broadway by Luther Adler, Herschel Bernardi, Harry Goz and Jan Peerce, among others. Onscreen in the Oscar-winning 1971 movie, Tevye was portrayed by Chaim Topol. During the long Broadway run, the daughters were at times played by a young Pia Zadora and Bette Midler.

The show was the first musical in Broadway history to surpass 3,000 performances. It was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, winning nine, including Best Musical, Best Score, Best Book, Best Direction and Best Choreography (the signature Robbins choreography must be part of every production). The original spawned four Broadway revivals (1976, 1981, 1991 and 2004), the film adaptation, multiple tours and international popularity.


The Ellenstein tradition

“I grew up on the show,” Ellenstein says. “It’s absolutely iconic for me. One of the truly great musicals: funny, moving, with wonderful music — and it’s about something.

“My dad played Tevye,” Ellenstein says proudly, referring to his professional inspiration and later, theater colleague: the acclaimed stage and screen actor Robert Ellenstein, who died in 2010.

Coming from a secular, “culturally but not religiously Jewish” home, Ellenstein confesses to having gotten most of his Jewish education and experience from the theater. He’s acted in or directed many Jewish-themed plays, and he was head of two different Jewish theater companies: the Southern California Jewish Theatre (no longer in existence), which he served from 1999-2000, and the Arizona Jewish Theatre, which he led from 2001-2003, when he came to San Diego to take over the reins of the North Coast Repertory Theatre.

“I’ve done so many plays either of, or referring to, this time period,” Ellenstein says. “It’s the mindset that’s important: a big-hearted, open, often humorous, education-driven community caring for each other. That’s very Jewish. We sometimes forget about those elements these days, in pursuit of being smart and making money. That warm part of Eastern European Jewishness seems to be lost to the world.

“The open-hearted nature is hard to hold onto when you’re being persecuted,” Ellenstein continues. “But Tevye forges on, going off to see a cousin in New York. In my imagination, he opens a shop on Orchard Street (the Lower East Side, home to many Jewish immigrants early in the 20th century), or maybe he goes to work at a dairy. I get the sense that he adapts and succeeds because of his great, open nature and his ability to draw people in. And he has another asset: he can dream. He dreams about a world where not only is he better off, but so is everyone else.”

Carrying on his own family tradition, Ellenstein’s son Will, age 8, will appear in the Moonlight production, playing a young villager. His older son, Jamie, age 10, Ellenstein explains, is “more of a math/science/physics kind of guy.” One of the unique aspects of this production is creating a strong sense of family. Every Anatevkan has a name, and each child is paired with a family, so that everyone in the show has a sense of identity and belonging.

So what is Ellenstein bringing to his legendary role?

“Myself,” he says, only half teasing. “You’ve got to meet the character halfway, understanding his circumstances, his environment, the cards he’s been dealt. Then I pull that to me, bringing my heart and soul to it, to bring it to life.

“One thing we’re really focusing on is his relationship with his daughters. He’s got five daughters, and we’re exploring the way he deals with each of them differently. It’s so easy, in a play like this, to gloss over that, to treat them all the same. But we believe that the way he kisses them goodnight is different, the way he interacts with the firstborn versus the baby is different. Tzeitel is the groundbreaker, Hodel the rebel, and Chava, as the song goes, is ‘everybody’s favorite child.’ All this should be represented in their interactions.”


Tevye by Moonlight

One of the aspects of this production Ellenstein is most looking forward to is working with Kathy Brombacher.

“We’ve been mutual admirers,” he says of the much-loved director. “I like her personally, and know that she’s classy, kind and genuine. I’m really happy to be doing this show with her, her last production as artistic director of Moonlight.”

Brombacher started Moonlight in 1980 and has been there ever since, taking the company, with the help of the city of Vista and a very loyal following, from an annual budget of $10,000 to $2 million, from one venue — a large, newly updated and expanded outdoor summer Stagehouse — to two, including an indoor winter season at the Avo Playhouse.

“Fiddler on the Roof” was the first full-scale production Brombacher ever directed, when she was a student at the University of Redlands.

“I did research and wrote a paper on it,” Brombacher recalls. “This show, one of those perfectly written musicals, represents so much to me — about community, facing adversity, bonding together despite persecution. It teaches about life — family, faith, community. It reflects the human condition. It’s not an ‘old’ classic. It still resonates. And I relate to it personally, coming full circle in my directing work. And on the grander scale, Moonlight was built from within the community, so the company also reflects the show’s themes.

“As for David,” Brombacher continues, “it seems so heaven-sent that a man of his stature, an actor, director, a man of theater, would come here to play this role. It’s astounding that, as busy as he is, he had the time. It’s so good for our theater and our community to have David Ellenstein lead this cast. I’m very excited about it. He’s an incredibly humble man, for all he’s accomplished, and full of energy and enthusiasm. We’ll have great energy at the center, and the show, as you know, turns on Tevye.”

Brombacher is doing everything she can to maintain authenticity. She’s reading the original Sholem Aleichem stories (“so funny, and so full of heart”). She rented a “Chagall-esque kind of set” from Candlelight Dinner Theatre in Claremont, Calif. (the same company from which Moonlight rented when they last mounted “Fiddler” in 1994). Tevye’s milk cart was hand-crafted by Jewish arts patron and avid theater supporter Jay Sarno (originally built for a Bishop’s  School production his son was in). The Moonlight production stage manager, Stanley Cohen, is helping with pronunciation.

And Gideon Rappaport, a Shakespeare scholar and expert on all things Jewish, will serve as dramaturge. One more uncanny connection: Rappaport’s father is a former mayor of Vista who has volunteered considerable time and effort to the company’s expansion. The senior Rappaports have been patrons of the theater since its inception.

“We have a responsibility to dig deep and get everything right,” director Brombacher says. “We want to honor the show and make it real. It’s very specific to a time and place, but it’s also universal. A people bound by faith, and a generational divide. That crosses all ages and cultural boundaries.”


• “Fiddler on the Roof” runs July 25-Aug. 11 at Moonlight Amphitheatre in Vista (1200 Vale Terrace Drive). Performances are Wednesday-Sunday at 8 p.m. Tickets ($15-50) are available at (760) 724-2110 or


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