The New Neo had a post about four years ago about a production of "Fiddler on the Roof" that she had seen years before that was quite dark, and now found the brighter versions a bit disappointing. I objected and she was dismissive. I didn't push it. I won't review my reasons here but they boiled down to the idea that the script, especially the music and lyrics, are comic with poignancy, not grim with some comic relief. It is not the forced gaiety of "Cabaret," and certainly not something out of Beckett, using the conventions of humor and vaudeville for contrast and effect. It's fully in American Musical Theater style (see also composer/lyricist Bock and Harnick's "The Rothschilds," Harnick wrote "The Merry Minuet" recorded by the Kingston Trio, if that gives you the flavor), with the irony light. There are some scenes in the play that could be done more somberly than usual, or at least backing off from the hijinks of the production I was in decades ago, but there's not getting away from what's on the page.
Let me admit, however, that I did not see the production on Long Island that she saw, and if I had I might eat my words. Maybe I just don't imagine very well. (Spoiler alert: a change of opinion is coming.)
Yet the idea of playing Tevye more darkly has not gone away from me over the years, and I think I will have to allow that Dark Tevye might be possible. Mostel did a bombastic, comic Tevye that owed something to Bert Lahr and Ed Wynn, without going quite that far. Looking back, The Tevye in the production I was in went full Bert Lahr. For community theater that works, and you likely can't do much else at this point. If you tried to go dark with Tevye people would complain that you didn't bring enough "energy" to the role. They want Mostel, or more. Your director would likely be poking you with sticks throughout the rehearsal period. Dark Tevye would have to be a university production or some other place where the audience might expect you to do something different.
I love Tevye and have joked that I have played him in every role I have had since, including Christmas skits since I did the show in 1972. I have to admit I sort of play him in real life as well, and it has even rubbed off on my two oldest sons a bit. I am too old to play him now, but if you know someone who is going to give it a try, or a director who is doing the show you might suggest it. We know the Tevye that is described as "lovable." But what if he isn't really lovable, but instead "beloved" as an eventual understanding? Sholem Aleichem's Tevye is more tragic, his cheerfulness a last-stand defense against despair.
To get some picture of what I mean, think of Inigo Montoya in "The Princess Bride." The whole movie is comic, over-the-top, tongue in cheek, but draws its power from Montoya's seriousness and playing it straight, right through the ridiculous antics of bringing Wesley back to life and having a Holocaust Cloak or the wedding ceremony, where he stays right in on his life's goal and says in fury "I want my father back, you son of a bitch!" Many of Tevye's lines can be un-buffooned and said seriously, even angrily. Upon meeting Perchik "This is not mine." In the argument about Scripture "Somewhere it says something about a chicken." All the leadup to "Fruma Sarah" is overdrawn on stage, but a real Tevye would have to tell his wife the story of her Grandma Tzeitl in dead seriousness to pull it off. Much is made of his interior debates, such as considering Tzeitl's marriage to Lazar Wolf, and the joyful musical number "L'Chaim" which follows. Yet look at the text. He knows there is nothing romantic about this for his daughter. "But she will never starve." That's a light remark to us, but a real issue in 1890 Russia. That willingness to celebrate, that embrace of the-best-we-could-do does have an air of Brecht or Ionesco, a forced gaiety.
With that in mind, watch the scene again, including the Russian soldiers - there is not just tension relieved by celebration, which is the part we like. Their dancing is athletic, showing strength; their boots stomp heavily; their actions are commanding, with only hints of deference; and there is key change in the music that is not accidental.
When we hold our focus on the girls and their romances and their embrace of modernity (look, they are becoming like us! It's a happy ending!) we can leave the theater humming "Matchmaker." But maybe the dark production idea is correct after all. Everything else is going steadily downhill. When Tevye sings "Little Chavaleh" he is drawing ever-nearer to losing everything. It is only our blinkered values "But she is bookish, just like us in this theater, and marrying a bookish boy! Who cares if their lives are going to suck?"
What if when Tevye says “A bird and a fish can fall in love, but where would they build their home?” it is not mere humorous frustration but has anger - and real pain for their lot - in it?
Hmm. When I thought the play was merely sad in parts for some characters - especially the old ones who don't really understand about LUV* like I did at 20 - but basically a lot of fun, I may have missed more than nuance, I may have missed the script.
Well, perhaps I like Dark Tevye and Dark Fiddler more because I am older and darker myself now. I may be overselling this. Aleichem's Tevye ends up widowed, daughters to the four winds, but Stein's character is going to America with his wife! Where we know many good things will happen! And that is what is in his book, the play, and the movie. Yet I can now see that someone would want to reframe it, even if some of the script and the music would have to be overridden. It can start in that comic style but you could break it down, step by step.
*Even though there is a number in the show that specifically addresses this. I thought it was cute and quaint but these old people still didn't understand that they were settling for a consolation prize. I suppose that love is a Consolation prize in a truer sense. Hmm. Even that song could also have a gruffer, irritable Tevye rather that Zero's cute one. "But my father and my mother said we'd learn to love each other and now I'm asking Golde - do you love me?" could be sung almost despairing, almost angry, nearly defeated by everything in life.