PITTSFIELD -- The question of protecting age-old practices in a changing world is at the heart of one of the most popular Broadway musicals ever produced. And respect for the history of that musical -- tempered by the desire to make a fresh statement with familiar source material -- propels the creative team behind Barrington Stage Company's Mainstage production of "Fiddler on the Roof," which began previews Wednesday and marks its official press opening on Sunday.
"We've seen Broadway revivals that have been museum pieces, and they just don't live and breathe, in a way because they've been put up from the outside in instead of the inside out," says Tony nominee Brad Oscar, who stars as Tevye, seated with director and choreographer Gary John La Rosa outdoors on a gorgeous afternoon, shortly before heading to the theater for the cast's first chance to sing along with the live orchestra.
"Fiddler" premiered in 1964 and became the first Broadway show to enjoy over 3,000 performances. The original production was decorated with nine Tony Awards (including honors for best musical, score, book, direction and choreography) and spawned several successful revivals and tours, and a 1971 film. Many memorable songs, including "Tradition," "Matchmaker," and "Sunrise, Sunset" have en tered the standard repertory.
Based on the stories of Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem, the "Fiddler" story is set in 1905 Russia, depicting patriarch Tevye, a milk man who endeavors to maintain the integrity of Jewish traditions and secure promising futures for his five daughters, in the face of looming anti-Semitic violence and the creeping influences of modernity. But in its depiction of family ties, the pressures of assimilation and the hope for renewal, it tells a story that transcends the very specific historic milieu in which it is set.
"The Japanese responded to the show in a way that was huge and they felt it was very Japanese in style," says La Rosa, who has acted in several productions and international tours, including both German and Yiddish-language adaptations. He's made himself into a "Fiddler" expert, directing or choreographing over a dozen productions and making a point to preserve the original choreography by legendary director/choreographer Jerome Robbins, which itself was steeped in historical research and reflected folk traditions appropriate to the time of the story.
Oscar received his Tony nod for his portrayal of Franz Liebkind in "The Producers." When actor Nathan Lane eventually left that production, Oscar shifted to the lead role of Max Bialystock. He similarly took over that role from Lane in the play's original West End run, and originated it in a successful Las Vegas production.
His experience with that show, as well as "Young Frankenstein," gave him experience in a certain style of Mel Brooks-branded, expertly executed Jewish humor, but the story of "Fiddler" may have deeper connotations.
"Being a Jew, having grandparents and great grandparents who lived this in some ways, it is resonating more and more as we continue to do the show," Oscar says.
La Rosa, who was born to an Italian-Catholic family in a predominantly Jewish Long Island neighborhood, affirms that the themes cut across cultures. "I think the bottom line is, it's a story that is universal in its themes and I think the plight of Tevye and his family, and the challenges of his people, are something that anyone can respond to."
His love affair with the show began when he saw the first Broadway production as a child; he hung the Playbill on the wall of his bedroom, he says. Coincidentally, Oscar was born on the day "Fiddler" made its Broadway premiere; a youth production of the show was Oscar's first-hand introduction to musical theater at the age of 12.
The key to this staging, La Rosa and Oscar say, is in re specting the informed artistry within the choreography and storytelling, but in some ways treating the material like it is brand new.
"I try to preserve the original intent but I would be foolish to try and duplicate exactly what was done before, because with creative performers if you do that you're forcing them into what somebody else did, and that's the last thing you want to do," La Rosa says. "It's important to take this wonderful talent and give them my knowledge of it and give them a creative sandbox to take the roles and grow them in their own way."
Oscar says he's mindful of the show's original audiences, who responded to the musical because of its inherent strengths rather than any pop-cultural legacy.
He says his approach to "If I Were A Rich Man," for in stance, was reconfigured from past experiences singing it in isolation at, say, a benefit show.
"It's not about going out and singing ‘one of the greatest songs.' It's about that moment. So our work is to bring it back to that and rediscover it in a whole new way," Oscar says.
What: "Fiddler on the Roof." Book by Joseph Stein. Music by Jerry Bock. Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick.
Who: Barrington Stage Company
When: Now through July 14 (press opening -- Sunday,
Where: Mainstage, 30 Union St., Pittsfield
Tickets: $62-$25; opening weekend only (tonight, Saturday, Sunday) -- $40, $35
How: (413) 236-8888; www.barringtonstageco.org; at the box office -- 30 Union St.