Why 'Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish' Translates Beautifully

Matthew Murphy
Steven Skybell in Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish. 

It's easy to understand why the score for Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's Fiddler on the Roof is among the most beloved in all of musical theater: it's filled with instantly memorable (and very hummable) songs like "To Life (L'Chaim)" and "Miracle of Miracles," and anchored by characters like Tevye the dairyman so smartly and humorously written that they've become iconic to Broadway lovers. That's all the more amazing, since the show, based on stories by the Yiddish author and playwright Sholem Aleichem, seems as niche as it gets on paper: it's set in the early 1900s in the Pale of Settlement in imperial Russia, and the characters are observant and deeply spiritual Jews. 

Now, a new production of Fiddler has gone deeper into the show's history.  Director Joel Grey (best known for originated the role of the Emcee in Cabaret) has collaborated with New York's Folksbiene Theater to present Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish -- which, precisely as the title says, is the same show, but performed in the language the Jews of Anatevka would speak, a blend of Hebrew, Aramaic, German, and some Slavic languages once spoken by the Jews of Eastern Europe.  The production started out last summer at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, and received such rave reviews that it's transferred to Stage 42 off-Broadway, where audiences are hailing it as the most powerful version of Fiddler yet.

On this week's episode of the Billboard on Broadway podcast, host Rebecca Milzoff chats with Grey, along with cast members Steven Skybell (Tevye), Rachel Zatcoff (Tsaytl) and Ben Liebert (Motl) about precisely what makes this production resonate so powerfully, the challenges of singing in Yiddish, and why they were so passionate about joining the show (which was just extended through early September).