By Ryan Maxwell, Assistant Director
The lights go down, the stage is washed in blue. From the dark, a violin plays. Spotlights pick up the violinist high above and a man watching him with quizzical joy from the stage below. The man speaks: His first words are "A fiddler on the roof!" and with that, we are off and running in a quintessential American musical.
For most productions in the last 50 years, you watched these opening moments while sitting in a proscenium theater: With the audience all on one side and the stage framed in on the other. Looking past the actors and past the set pieces and backdrops, you’d see a giant white curtain enveloping the whole show like an endless horizon that subtly establishes an illusion of completeness to the world you're watching.
But the Fichandler Stage is not a proscenium. Here, looking past the actors, you see other audience members looking back at you. This architectural difference represents a powerful idea at the heart of Molly Smith's continuing reinvention of the American musical on the Fichandler stage. In a proscenium theater that giant white curtain—a blank page—is the context for the story. In the Fich, your fellow audience members are the context: The audience is the frame. We quite literally contain the story, which is appropriate, because many of the greatest American musicals, from Oklahoma! to Next to Normal to Fiddler, speak very specifically to who we are and how we got this way. These aren’t the stories of those people up there. These are the stories of us, right here.
For Fiddler, the Fichandler offers a perfect reflection of the world as described by Tevye in the opening number: “In the circle of our little village…” and beyond that “there are the others, who make a much bigger circle…” Circles within circles: Tevye's family within Anatevka within the Pale of Settlement within Russia. As an audience watching the show, we are an intrinsic part of the community: Another circle among circles.
As effective and evocative as the Fich is for the ideas and the world of Fiddler, it presents a rather significant obstacle for Jerome Robbins’ choreography, which is as much a part of the show’s identity as Sheldon Harnick’s words or Jerry Bock’s music. Robbins’ choreography, for all of its iconic shapes and unforgettable moments, was designed completely for a proscenium theater, designed to be viewed from one side only.
For this production, Arena Stage was granted permission to reimagine Robbins’ choreography for the in the round Fichandler Stage. Choreographer Parker Esse took advantage of this opportunity to study and honor Robbins’ work in a new way, while also creating original moments to help accommodate Fiddler for the Fich. His challenge has been to adapt and curve and turn Robbins’ shapes and formations to open them up to all sides of the theater. Doing so has led to some wonderful discoveries within Robbins’ own work. For instance, during Motel and Tzeitel’s wedding, the bottle dance originally played out flat to the audience because, in a proscenium, that gives the audience the best view and the greatest sense of the difficulty of keeping the glass bottles balanced through all of the steps and kicks and lunges. However, once we were on the Fichandler stage, Parker found that playing the bottle dance directly to any one section robbed the other three of much of the joy and excitement of watching the dance. Parker’s solution was to turn the dance so it happens on a diagonal, so each audience section gets an equal view of the action, this change in angle also meant playing the dance directly at the newlywed Motel and Tzeitel. Who, lest we forget, are the whole reason for the dance in the first place—it is their wedding, after all. And in playing the dance toward them, the storytelling aspects of the dance also began to come out: It’s not just a tricky dance to do in which props might get broken. It is a clear visual metaphor, just like the fiddler on the roof, for marriage, for Anatevka, for the Jewish people: Carrying something precious and fragile through the world, and doing so with equal measures of joy and fear and music and apprehension and celebration.
It may be that we would have found all of that detail and resonance in playing this same dance on a proscenium stage, but the Fichandler space gives us the opportunity to simultaneously tell all those aspects of the story, filling out the world for all of these characters, while sharing all of the choreography with all sides, putting the audience on top of and in the middle of the action... which is all to say: Presenting a little reinvention of this one moment of a great American musical.
(Photos: Jonathan Hadary as Tevye and the company of Fiddler on the Roof. Jimmy Mavrikes, Eric Greengold, Kyle Schliefer and Curtis Schroeger in Fiddler on the Roof. Photos by Margot Schulman.)