Daniel F. Levin is a playwright, composer and lyricist living in Brooklyn. His newest play, “Hee-Haw: It’s a Wonderful Li_e,” was called a “delightful surprise” by the New York Times; his musical, “To Paint the Earth,” about resistance fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto, won the Richard Rogers Development Award. This is the third in a series of four posts about his summer directing “Fiddler on the Roof,” crossposted from Frontier Psychiatrist. Read the first and second posts here and here.
I had some all-star girls, too. There was Cynthia, the brave young actor playing Perchik, the male revolutionary. Wearing spectacles, a paper-boy cap, my pin-striped shirt, knickers, and carrying a book, she didn’t look as ridiculous as it may sound. In one speech, she spoke of a nearby pogrom in Rajanka. “Cynthia,” I said. “I think Perchik gets a little fired up when he talks about these nearby pogroms. I think he might show it in his body — maybe he balls his hand up into a fist,” and I demonstrated. From then on, Cynthia stormed around with her right hand in a fist for most of her scenes. Most impressively, when it was her time to propose to Hodel, she never once shied away from the courtship. She accepted that she was playing a boy, who was head over heels for Hodel. When she showed Hodel the dance that was being done in Kiev, the two galloped around the stage (I had given up on fancy choreography) to a Russian Mazurka and looked like they were having a blast.
The cast mother was Sylvia, who played Tevye’s wife, Golde. She never missed a rehearsal, had all her lines memorized the first week (and without a photographic memory) and put her heart into each one. She may have even understood her lines. At 13, Sylvia was sensitive enough to imagine the fears of a mother losing control. When Golde and Tevye sang the humorous duet, “Do you love me?” it was a chance for the whole cast to see how beautifully a song worked when both actors got rid of the giggles, the twitching, the thoughts of snack, and just sang.
To a dangerous degree, I began to care about the production. Yes, Jennifer was still asking about food, even in the middle of a scene. Yes Sasha, given the most fun role of the show — Fruma Sarah, the ghost that returns in Tevye’s dream to terrorize the village — was playing the role way too literally: she actually seemed dead on stage. And yes, Bonnie and I watched a run-through, barely able to hear any of the lines, when suddenly shouts and laughter came booming from offstage. They should be so loud ONSTAGE! Yes, I was Waiting for Guffman’s Corky St. Claire and I knew it, demanding full focus and commitment from my charges who just wanted to eat, pee and sleep. I was fighting the camp establishment for more rehearsal with these miserable munchkins. I begged my music director, the well-intentioned Guy from Israel who didn’t read music, to give the cast decisive pick ups and cut offs, even if the middle was mush. Yes, I was setting myself up for disappointment.
But dammit, this was theater! And this was “Fiddler on the Roof,” one of the great masterpieces of the art form. And these kids were finally starting to get it. They listened to me when I said I wanted the audience to feel their guts getting ripped out as they watched Tevye choose between his daughter and his religion. They nodded when I warned that the audience would only buy if we were selling. They learned that good acting isn’t JUST about being loud, enunciating, and facing the audience, but also inviting the audience into a world. And that if we cared about the characters we created in that world, and honored them, our audience would care too.
In our last moment of quiet before heading out to take places, I did the focusing exercise I always do at this point: we circled up, took hands, closed eyes, and sent a pulse around. I also had been preparing another Lombardi. As I was about to begin my speech, Sylvia, on my right, asked if she could say some words to the cast. “Of course,” I said, a little disappointed. Remember, it’s about them!
“I just wanted to say,” she said, twisting her shoe a little bit into the ground but otherwise keeping her motherly poise, “that this has been the most amazing theater experience I’ve ever had. I’m really proud of how we’ve put so much work into this, and Drama Dan, and Drama Rachel and Drama Josh have helped us to make an incredible show. This has been an amazing, amazing three weeks.” Really? Maybe an amazing last two days. But didn’t Sylvia remember all of the whining, the snack rage, the missing rehearsal, the stress I felt? The gnawing terror that we were completely unprepared?
As it never fails to do, no matter how much I doubt it, the force of the rehearsal process had worked its alchemy. Somehow, these spoiled, whiny actors, these twirling, disparate drippy-nosed elements were mashed into one central speeding comet that was hurling towards the show. And I was on board.
Which made it all the more excruciating when the production fell apart.
Part Four Continues Next Tuesday.