For some odd reason, the soundtrack of my life is Fiddler on the Roof. I have been personally involved in six productions and have seen the movie, professional and amateur productions of it countless times. With all of its’ wit and wisdom, I truly love this show, but I no longer laugh out loud at the jokes. I am reasonably certain that I could recite the entire show as a monologue, if circumstances called for it. What might those circumstances be? Only time will tell. As the Good Book says…
The following is a piece I wrote about two years ago that is making a comeback, due to recent events. This does not refer to the school production of Fiddler that I saw last weekend, but to all youth productions of anything, anywhere.
At one time or another, anyone who is anyone will experience the joys of small scale church and school musical productions, most of which are far from musical. From Rodgers & Hammerstein or Lerner & Loewe to homespun passion plays, watching these young artistes hard at work has taught me to appreciate even the meekest one-act. I know that school plays are going to be sub-par, er, less polished, okay, laughably bad even. Let’s face it, halfway through the junior version of Annie Get Your Gun, death begins to lose its sting. Yet somehow I find the pull of a children’s musical irresistable. Sort of like watching a special kind of train wreck in which the crash victims are singing and dancing enthusiastically as their car derails. I pay my five dollars and buy my homemade lemon squares in anticipation of an evening filled with missed cues, falling scenery, off-key warblings, bathrobes used as any variety of costume and the swelling of great pride. I just can’t bear to look away.
In my years as a patron of the somewhat-theatrically-inclined-arts, I have seen a number of breathtaking performances, including Jesus Christ Superstar minus the crucifixion, Hair minus all references to sex, drugs, alcohol, war or draft dodging (which rendered the production all of twenty minutes long), South Pacific done admirably by all white students very poorly spray-tanned, and just the first act of Babes in Toyland, before all of the complications begin. All ranked a high eight or nine on my scale of amusing theatrical experiences, the rarely attainable ten, of course, being the highest place of honor. My scoring system is quite neanderthal; it consists simply of measuring the time spent with hands placed over my mouth in the delightful horror of wondering what daring feats they will attempt next, and the time spent counting the number of names in the program that end in “e-y.”
I think one of my most memorable experiences with cafeteria theatre was at a Southern Baptist church. This one scored a perfect ten, by all accounts. Every city, no matter the size, has that one church that is more like a government institution than a house of worship. Just picture it; they have an enormous congregation led by the equally enourmous Brother So-And-So with an oddly pink and maroon-colored sanctuary large enough to store at least one million hymnals. Imagine my glee when the church’s parochial school decided on none other than Fiddler on the Roof for their spring musical.
Pandemonium promptly ensued. The cast of fifty was comprised mostly of girls, and the few male cast members all played multiple roles, donning different hats and stick-on beards as “disguises” so real that I’ll bet their own mothers hardly recognized them. Orthodox Jewish customs were cast aside like Tevye’s two youngest daughters (what were their names, anyway?) and every “mazel tov” was said with a decidedly southern twang. Heads were left uncovered, girls and boys held hands while dancing in a circle for the opening and the evening was wrapped up with a speech from the program director encouraging people to joint the Christian faith. My favorite part was the tavern scene in which a half dozen or so “Russians” wearing preppy fur-collared jackets stomped up to the bartender, slammed their fists on the styrofoam scenery – thereby leaving a visible dent – and loudly proclaimed their desire to be served “milk!” It was beautiful.
I have noticed that beds, baths and bars are forbidden in such theatre. No matter the importance of the setting, the three ‘b’s must be avoided at all costs. Eighth graders with false facial hair may pretend to play poker, dance atop tables and shoot capguns at one another, but toasting “L’Chiem” in a bar setting is the devil’s work. Today’s youth is permitted to listen to the crudest of song lyrics and watch the most overtly sexual television shows, desensitizing them to the very concepts of virginity, sobriety and modesty, but all theatrical references to the underworld or everyone’s favorite beast of burden must be censored for the sake of their spiritual purity. I have recently come to the conclusion that it takes a much dirtier mind to find the smallest bits of evil in the most outwardly innocent activities than it does to simply take them at face value. Perhaps they are truly looking to hide their own transgressions instead of preventing new ones.
The evening was topped off with a ten-minute long curtain call and a reprise of If I Were A Rich Man sung by the entire cast. The audience was on its feet, parents whooped, grandparents waved flower bouquets wrapped in cellophane and siblings held up signs reading “I ❤ Fyedka.” The cast rushed out into the house as soon as it was over and began the ritual of hugging and kissing their fans, all of whom live on the same street. You see, at the end of an interminably long evening of “tradition,” everyone will have forgotten the missed entrances and the overzealous french horn player in the pit. All they will remember is that they were brave enough to stand on stage, heads held high, and get treated to a big dish of ice cream on the way home from their night of theatre magic. That is why I must go. It is my duty to act from afar as Drama Club Historian and accurately preserve the true miracle of high school theatre; the miracle that, despite advanced technology, pop culture and severe budget cuts to arts programs, putting on a play at your school is still cool, still worthwhile.
That, and the miracle that Tevye’s pants didn’t fall down during the wedding dance, because it looked like they might.