Pinch me, because Harvey Fierstein is currently on the road starring as Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof." Yes, the same Harvey Fierstein from "Hairspray" and "Torch Song Trilogy." I could probably deliver a performance of this play by memory, as I grew up singing the songs, and have probably seen the movie at least a dozen times, if not more. When I saw the play last week, I tried not to sing out loud at the theatre, and I cried and laughed audibly throughout the entire evening.
Fiddler on the Roof is more than just a show; it's an emblematic Jewish story that carries with so it many themes, images, and characters that are very much alive for me, even though I live in a different era, a different country, and have made very different choices in my own life. Tevye the Papa, Golde the Mama, the daughters, the neighbors, the rabbi–all of them are powerful cultural archetypes.
I was one of those geeky kids who sang in the choir and had insignificant chorus roles in school musical theatre productions. And (true confessions) when I was about 8 or 9 years old, I did a self-choreographed, lip synching performance to "If I Were a Rich Man," dancing through the aisles of the synagogue sanctuary. When I think about it now, I feel slightly embarrassed. And I wonder if at the time, did I ever think about the fact that I was singing Tevye's song, in which he dreams of a better life for himself, his wife and his family, of the gifts of time and comfort that come with money? Did I think about issues of gender, class or religious freedom?
Last week, watching Harvey add a whole new campy gay feeling to Tevye's character, I realized that Fiddler on the Roof is more than just a story about a shtetl called Anatevka in Russia; it's also the universal story of home.
"How can I hope to make you understand
Why I do, what I do,
Why I must travel to a distant land
Far from the home I love?
Once I was happily content to be
As I was, where I was
Close to the people who are close to me
Here in the home I love…"
–excerpt from lyrics to "Far From the Home I Love"