TARTU - It's been more than 40 years since "Fiddler on the Roof" premiered on Broadway, and the musical still hasn't lost its charm. Even Tartu's humble Vanemuine Theater production, which is a long way from Broadway, is promising to sell out this February.
"What can I say, musicals are extremely popular in Estonia," says the theater's press secretary, Tambet Kaugemal. "What's the reason 'Fiddler on the Roof' has been so successful here? Well, because it's a musical."
Popular or not, mention the name anywhere and you're bound to get the tune of "If I Were a Rich Man" whistled back at you. That's "Kui oleksin rikas mees" in Estonian. The musical was first translated for a local audience three years ago, and according to Kaugemal, this hasn't stopped English speakers from attending. Perhaps that's because the show's iconic melodies carry a life of their own.
"Fiddler on the Roof" is no doubt one of stage's most famous musicals. The original 1964 Broadway production, performed at the Imperial Theater, was an instant hit. The production featured big-time stars Zero Mostel and Bea Arthur and won a slew of Tony Awards, including best musical.
Although Tartu's production is made up of an entirely local cast, it has managed to retain the Broadway spirit.
"The Estonian musical is almost a direct translation of the original," Kaugemal says. "It has all the famous songs, but we have added an element of ballet. I don't believe Broadway had ballet dancers."
Ten professional ballerinas from the Vanemuine Theater dance team will partake in the production, adding an element of grace to the musical. But the star of the show is no dancer. He's Hannes Kaljujarv, one of Estonia's most beloved and magnetic actors.
"Kaljujarv is very popular among our people," Kaugemal mentions. "He alone could bring in a big crowd."
"Fiddler on the Roof" is based the Yiddish author Sholom Aleichem's short stories which featured his iconic dairyman, Tevye, a comical Russian Jewish everyman. The play is set in the Jewish town of Anatekva in Tsarist Russia, 1905, and builds on Tevye's struggle to maintain his family and religious traditions while adapting to new pressures. Tevye's eldest daughter, the first in a line of five, is both the rock of the family and the free spirit. But the plot follows all five daughters, who go on to marry contrary to tradition.
As for the fiddler on the roof, this stems from a famous painting by surrealist Marc Chagall. According to many art critics, the Fiddler serves as a metaphor of survival through tradition and joyfulness.
In 1991, the Broadway production of "Fiddler on the Roof" premiered in Estonia's National Opera. Needless to say, it was an instant hit and sold out every night. The musical only returned to the stage three years ago, translated into Estonian for its local fans. According to Kaugemal, those who remember the National Opera's production were the first in line to buy tickets.
"I think the fact that it was so popular in 1991 keeps people coming to recent productions, even though it's a different performance" he says. "Plus, the musical has a very tragic story and I think Estonians can relate to its theme. Maybe not from a Jewish-Russian perspective, but from an Estonian-Russian perspective." o
"Fiddler on the Roof"
Feb. 8, 19:00