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A Little Bit of This...

Filichia reports on his visits to Fiddler on the Roof and other recently opened shows. logo
Alfred Molina (center) and cast in Fiddler on the Roof
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
In honor of the new production of Fiddler on the Roof, let's take the opening line from the show's last song -- "A little bit of this, a little bit of that" -- and talk about a little bit of this and a little bit of that in regard to a few recent openings.

During intermission of Drowning Crow, I was reading James (Sherry!) Lipton's book An Exaltation of Larks, in which he riffs on such animal groupings as a litter of pigs, a bevy of doves, and a pride of lions. Then I realized that, with all the critics murdering Drowning Crow, we probably won't be seeing a murder of Crows at theaters around the country.

While attending Big Bill, I was astonished to hear that Bill Tilden, tennis's first superstar, decided to appear on Broadway in the middle of his career. So I went to and checked out "William Tilden II." Note the use of "II," which we're used to seeing after Oscar Hammerstein's name; but Hammerstein really was a "II" while Tilden was actually a "Jr." As playwright A.R. Gurney tells it, Tilden hated the use of Jr. because his mother diminished it to "Junie" and all his family members used that sissyish appellation. Yet what was the name of the show in which Tilden made his Broadway debut? Don Q., Jr. You'd think the title alone would have kept Tilden II away from it -- and he should have chosen something else, for the show lasted only 34 performances. Too bad Tilden II was born too early to play Audrey II, for then he would have had a big hit -- Off-Broadway in 1982, that is.

Listen, do me a favor: If you know someone who's never been to the theater, do not make Beautiful Child, Nicky Silver's new play at the Vineyard, his or her first theatergoing experience. Such a neophyte might assume that this is what theater is like all the time and never attend again. Not that the play doesn't have merit; it certainly does. I think it speaks the truth about some people's need to abrogate responsibility and just become children once again. But it's a harrowing evening and only the most adventurous of theatergoers should venture forth and see it. 'Nuff said.

I spent much of Who Killed Woody Allen? at the Triad thinking about John Kander and Fred Ebb -- not that I believe that either of them would be capable of killing Allen, especially given that he loves New York, New York as much as they do. But the play is a murder mystery about the death of a celebrity and it reminded me of Curtains, the unproduced musical that the pair wrote with Peter Stone. It's about a commedia dell'arte musical called Harlequinade that's trying out in Boston when its producer, David Mushnick (theatergoers of a certainly age will readily guess whom he was supposed to be) is killed. During the song "The Man Is Dead," one cast member says to a techie, "You worked with him on seven shows. You say something nice about him." After a long pause, the techie replies, "Well, he wasn't as bad as the Shuberts." A few years ago, there was a workshop that hoped to raise Curtains after all and the line was changed to, "Well, he wasn't as bad as the Weisslers." The show never got on, and now, with Stone gone, it's not likely to. (By the way, each year for the last decade, when I got my ballot for the Theatre Hall of Fame -- which asks you to list your choices from 1-to-10 -- I always put Stone in the first slot. To my disappointment and fury, he never got in; that is, not until this year, a few weeks after his death. What a shame that he had to die to get the honor! I feel like looking up to heaven and questioning God the way that Tevye does at the end of the first act of Fiddler.)

And speaking of that show: There was Alfred Molina in the opening number saying, "You may ask, 'How did this tradition get started?' I'll tell you! I don't know." Suddenly, a wave of warm laughter engulfed the house. It was the first of many such waves and each one said a couple of things to me. For one, we've all heard that this Fiddler couldn't possibly sell well because everyone has seen the done-to-death show, but that laughter was one of surprise from theatergoers who were hearing the joke for the first time. It's a new world, Golde, and plenty of people in it haven't seen Fiddler. More to the point, I heard affectionate laughter all performance long, which reminded me of what musical theater was before those humorless British mega-musicals took over. There are more genuinely funny moments in Fiddler than in all the English imports lumped together. Granted, some of the West End mega-musicals weren't intended to be funny, but Fiddler is proof positive that a serious story (I had tears in my eyes from the middle of the second act right to the end) can also have plenty of humor.

Marsha Waterbury, Nancy Opel, and Joy Hermalyn
in Fiddler on the Roof
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
I can't say that I liked Bock and Harnick's new song for Yente, "Topsy-Turvy," more than I liked the old song, "I Just Heard." True, both mention how the unwanted changes in Anatevka are the result of (horrors!) men and women dancing, but the old song knew that this was the best joke and saved it for last. What's more, "I Just Heard" was a smart comment on how rumors can spread like wildfire and are corrupted each step of the way. Still, I'm not going to complain about Bock and Harnick finally writing together again after more than a third of a century of professional estrangement. While watching the masterpiece that Fiddler is, I did start wondering if one of the reasons they broke up is because they felt they'd never be able to top this show. Each of their subsequent efforts, The Apple Tree and The Rothschilds, ran "only" a little more than a year -- a fraction of Fiddler's then-record-setting eight-year stint.

What do I love about the new production? The open-air feel. That the beggar doesn't disappear after his one-joke in "Tradition," since he is -- for better or worse -- part of the community. That David Leveaux has adopted the idea of having Fyedka sing the C-section solo of "To Life," so we can get to know this Gentile a little better. That, very shortly after the cherished pillows are given as a wedding gift to Tzeitel and Motel, the Cossacks tear them apart and the precious feathers litter the stage. But why was it that when I heard the line, "May God bless and keep the Tsar... far away from us," I suddenly thought of George W. Bush? I guess it was because I saw the show the day after his no-gay-marriage announcement.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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