The first Broadway production might have opened more than 50 years ago, while the setting evokes the shtetl life that exists no more – and yet, Fiddler On The Roof quietly reminds audiences antisemitism and racism are still very much problems of today.
“Sadly, it feels so relevant right now,” says leading actress Judy Kuhn, who stars as Golde in Trevor Nunn’s critically-praised revival currently running at The Menier Chocolate Factory.
“People are being thrown out of their homes on a regular basis and refugees are trying desperately to find a better life for themselves. It’s happening all over the world. Those last images of Tevye and his family being forced to leave their homes is one that we see in the newspapers every day.”
Despite this, it’s not unusual for Kuhn to notice “gasps” from the audience as the show reaches its final scenes.
“People, of course, think of Fiddler as funny, with all the joyous dancing and all the music, which is there – but I think they forget how heart-rending it is also.”
At times uplifting, but also strikingly poignant, Fiddler On The Roof opened in 1964 to great critical acclaim.
Based on a series of short stories by Sholem Aleichem, Fiddler On The Roof features the unforgettable music of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick and was the first in musical theatre history to surpass 3,000 performances in
a single run.
The musical remains one of the longest-running shows in Broadway history, has won nine Tony Awards and spawned a critically-acclaimed 1971 film starring Topol as Tevye.
For this latest revival in London, Nunn has focused on making the production more intimate, by placing the audience up close to the actors.
In terms of the storyline, Fiddler is a show that is quintessentially Jewish, agrees Kuhn, and yet its huge success over decades shows that its appeal spreads well beyond Jewish audiences.
The four-time Tony Award nominee, who sang the title role in Disney’s animated 1995 film, Pocahontas, tells me: “Like with any great piece of art, the more specific it is, the more universal it is.
“The immigrant experience seems so palpable for so many people, wherever their family came from or for whatever reason they came to their country, especially in America.
“That’s the beauty of the piece and of all well-written theatre – it might not be your experience, but there’s something everyone can relate to and learn from.”
For Kuhn, the dilemma posed for her character is one she says directly relates to her, given her own Jewish family history.
“It’s certainly true to my grandparents, my mother’s parents, who emigrated a little later than this takes place, but their experience was the same – they were thrown out of their homes, had to flee Russia and made their way across Europe
and eventually to New York.
“My father’s family came to America much earlier in the mid-19th century, but yes, the show absolutely does link me to my own family’s journey.”
Kuhn adds that her character Golde “reminds me of my grandmother in a certain kind of way”.
Describing her character, she says: “Golde is very practical, no nonsense, kind of the glue in her family. I think she discovers in the course of the show what it means to love and to care for the people in her life. She’s such a strong person and I really appreciate that about her.”
Aside from evoking the struggles of shtetl life, Fiddler is of course most famous for its soundtrack, which includes a string of well-known songs, including If I Were A Rich Man, Sunrise, Sunset, Matchmaker and To Life.
For Kuhn, though, her personal favourite is Do You Love Me?, a touching duet between Tevye and Golde. “It’s one of the great love songs of all time,” she enthuses.
While her latest role does not involve much singing, Kuhn is well-known for her vocal talents – she famously sang Colours of the Wind in Pocahontas, which won its composers an Academy Award for best original song in 1995.
She looks back on that opportunity “with great fondness, a really special time”.
But it’s on the stage, as much as in the recording studio that Kuhn feels equally at home. For now, that home is Anatevka and the trials faced by Tevye and his family.
While the show may have been around for a long time, she hopes audiences will nevertheless “come away finding something unexpected”. She adds: “I hope they are moved by it, and leave with an understanding of its relevance, especially with what’s happening in the world today.”
υ Fiddler On The Roof runs at The Menier Chocolate Factory until 9 March 2019. Tickets: 020 7378 1713 or www.menierchocolatefactory.com
Above: Fiddler On The Roof, starring Andy Nyman as Tevye, right