A week and a half ago, I attended the best production of Fiddler on the Roof I’ve seen in years. I didn’t understand a single word.
The Toho Co. production, which ran through the end of December at Tokyo’s Nissay theater, marked the 50th anniversary of the show’s premiere in Japan—where it has since become the theatrical company’s most popular American musical. Masachika Ichimura, a star of Japanese TV and films as well as musicals from West Side Story to Jesus Christ Superstar, was deliciously hammy as Tevye, and Ran Ohtori was every inch his match as Golde. Hideomi Terasaki’s peppy direction and Shigeki Majima’s robust choreography recreated Jerome Robbins’ original work to great effect, right down to the bottle dance. (I was relieved to see Robbins’ choreography restored to the stage. I was not a fan of the new, flailing-arm choreography of the most recent Broadway revival—although Danny Burstein made a credible Tevye, and I’d pay to watch anything featuring Jessica Hecht, who played Golde.)
Fiddler is a show that’s been close to my heart ever since my mother used to play “Sunrise, Sunset” on the piano. I reference the show, however briefly, in all three of my novels. I’ve seen the movie many times, as well as several stage productions, large and small. Tokyo wasn’t the first time I’ve seen it in another language: In 2002, I saw a terrific Dutch production in southern Holland, starring my friend Rob van der Meule as a marvelously charismatic Tevye. My friends in the audience didn’t understand how I could follow the show without knowing Dutch—although my high school German was enough to understand that “Dagen, Nachten,” literally “Days, Nights,” was their version of “Sunrise, Sunset.” But I told them I simply knew the show well enough to know when the punch lines were coming, even if I didn’t understand the words.
It was the same in Tokyo: bracing for the punch lines, and then seeing if the jokes landed with the audience. They did, regularly. And even though I couldn’t understand any of the dialogue—aside from Tzeitel thanking her father for letting her marry Motel (“Arigato, Papa”) and Fyedka bidding farewell to his beloved Chava (“Sayonara, Chava,” with the “ch” pronounced like the “ch” in chocolate, in a concession to Japanese pronunciation)—I could still get the feel of the show, its script a mix of sentimentality and broad humor, its characters a blend of bravado and resignation to their fates.
You don’t have to be Jewish to get Fiddler, that much has always been clear. As Jeremy Dauber notes in his book The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem, Fiddler eventually became “a free-floating symbol, an Everylens for talking about universal challenges to tradition.” With that univeralism in mind, Fiddler has played everywhere, from Moscow to Warsaw to Budapest. But the story would seem more logically connected to those places, which have a historical Jewish connection—even for non-Jewish residents—that Japan lacks. And yet, as Barbara Isenberg writes in her book Tradition!: The Highly Improbable, Ultimately Triumphant Broadway-to-Hollywood Story of Fiddler on the Roof, the World’s Most Beloved Musical: “As Fiddler on the Roof traveled the world, few countries were so welcoming as Japan.”
The late Joseph Stein, who wrote the show’s book, wrote a piece for the Guardian a decade ago recalling his visit to the first production in Tokyo in 1967: “Japan was the first non-English production and I was very nervous about how it would be received in a completely foreign environment,” he writes. “I got there just during the rehearsal period and the Japanese producer asked me, ‘Do they understand this show in America?’ And I said, ‘Yes, of course, we wrote it for America. Why do you ask?’ And he said, ‘Because it’s so Japanese.’”
But how, exactly, is Fiddler Japanese? Japan is a country that lacks not only a significant Jewish history, but also a broader history of immigration in general that might make the story relevant to those with a parallel experience. There is no “old country” for most Japanese people to be nostalgic for, no sepia-toned photos of a lost world across the ocean.
The answer, at least in part, lies not in the language, or the tzitzit, or the religion, or even the persecution. Fiddler is Japanese because it’s a family drama.
“The show is about tradition, father-daughter(s) relationships,” Koji Aoshika, vice president of MTI Asia, which licenses the show, told me by email. “Japan was the same. You had to follow what the father said—arranged marriage, for instance. So, the story of a Jewish father losing power in the family life and girls starting to make their own decisions resonates. As the majority of musical theater audience in Japan is 20-to-40-something female, I believe the show makes them think of their own relationships with their fathers.”
Alisa Solomon, author of Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof, reported in the New Yorker that during the most recent Broadway run, Jessica Hecht “said that a journalist from Tokyo, conducting an interview with her and Burstein…cried as she explained to them how faultlessly the show portrays a Japanese family.” Solomon explained why the show speaks “powerfully to non-Jews”: “The themes of generational conflict, the tensions between holding fast and letting go, the demands of the past, and the urgency of change all run on a universal track parallel to the particulars of life in the Jewish Pale.” A track that runs, unexpectedly, all the way to Tokyo.
And perhaps that’s another element that strikes a chord in Japan. While few people in Japan have family histories of immigration, the broader national narrative includes a significant chapter about the rupture between what Solomon dubs “the demands of the past” and “the urgency of change.” The Meiji Restoration of 1868, and the decades of rapid industrialization that followed in Japan, represented a radical break from the country’s history, politically of course—the era of the shoguns ended and power returned to the emperor for the first time in centuries—but also culturally. In the wake of the Restoration came modernization and westernization; eyes once turned inward suddenly faced outward at a changing world. Everything about Japan changed, even the capital, which moved from Kyoto to (a newly renamed) Tokyo.
Fiddler opens with a song celebrating tradition, but the bulk of the show is about the difficulty of maintaining those traditions—and, perhaps, the futility of trying—in the face of a modernizing culture. And it ends with the family, filled with a mix of hope and fear, taking off for whole new world(s) where the old rules don’t apply and the new rules, if there are any, are not yet clear.
So maybe Fiddler resonates in Tokyo not only because it’s a family drama about fathers and daughters, or a universal tale about modernity, but because Japanese history does, in fact, include a chapter about dislocation from a sepia-toned “old world” and an uncertain journey to a “new world” where the traditional rules no longer applied. Tevye and his daughters had to leave Anatevka and even move across an ocean to find their new world. The Japanese stayed put, but the new world came to them just as surely, with the same uncertain mix of hope and fear.
Wayne Hoffman is executive editor of Tablet Magazine.