Filmmaker Joseph Dorman champions Sholem Aleichem for a New Generation

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created at: 2011-08-25It’s hard to imagine an American Jew who isn’t at least passingly familiar with the character of Tevye the Dairyman thanks to the overwhelming success of the musical Fiddler on the Roof. But I suspect that most people who can belt out “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” or danced to “Sunrise, Sunset” at their wedding couldn’t identify the man who created those characters, and even fewer have actually read his original stories.

Filmmaker Joseph Dorman has set out to remedy this with his new film Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, which has its Boston-are premiere this weekend at the Coolidge Corner theater in Brookline. Dorman himself will be present at Sunday’s 2:30 pm screening to answer some post-show questions from the audience, but we grabbed him for a few questions in advance.

JEWISHBOSTON.COM: Your affection for Sholem Aleichem’s work definitely comes through in the film, but I’m curious beyond wanting to share that love… Why Sholem Aleichem, and why now?

JOSEPH DORMAN: Maybe the best way to answer this is by saying, why not sooner? Sholem Aleichem was a brilliant writer and a man who, perhaps more than anyone, has described the crisis of modern Jewish identity. Modern Jewish history — the immigration of Jews to America, Israel and other parts of the world, the destruction of Eastern European Jewry and with it the Yiddish language as a Jewish vernacular (except for the Chasidim) have all conspired to bury this quintessential explorer of the Jewish soul. I knew nothing of Sholem Aleichem until my friend Jeffrey Shandler, who is a Professor of Yiddish literature, suggested the idea of a film. Once I began reading Sholem Aleichem’s stories, I realized how woefully inadequate our knowledge of this master’s work and world is. And yet his stories, though written some one hundred years ago are startlingly relevant — and not just for Jews. The journey from the traditional world to the modern one is a universal experience and one we continue to feel the effects of even today.   Continue reading B’chol dor vador

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B’chol dor vador chayav adam lir’ot et atzmo k’ilu hu hatza mimitzrayim. In every generation, each person must consider himself as if he had come forth from Egypt.

I spent the last night of Passover not in shul, but taking part in a Jewish communal ritual nonetheless. I was in the audience at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, seeing a touring production of Fiddler on the Roof.

Topol as Tevye This production is being billed as Topol’s “Farewell Tour” with the show, in the role he’s been playing for over 40 years on stage and screen. And frankly, that nearly kept me away from the show – Tevye should be in his early 40s, not his early 70s. But I had never seen Fiddler on stage, so I couldn’t resist.

During the performance, I kept thinking about how the show felt like a seder to me. We were retelling – in some sense, reliving – a story that most of us already knew. The audience was a palpable part of the storytelling, from the massive entrance applause that greeted Topol when he first appeared from behind Tevye’s house, to the clapping that made us a part of “Tradition,” to the roars of approval the first time a trademark niggun or chasidische dance move appeared.

There was a generational shift going on, with Topol passing on his show to a new generation, and with parents and grandparents passing on the show to their children and grandchildren. My mother told me about the first time she saw Fiddler, on a trip to Broadway when she was in college. I told her about the time I went to “Sing-a-Long Fiddler on the Roof” at the Somerville Theater.

Topol in Fiddler on the RoofBut just as the seder seems to take on new meaning for every generation, I found myself seeing new things in Fiddler on the Roof that I had never noticed before. For one, I’m pretty sure this is the first time I found myself most identifying with Perchik, the activist. And perhaps related to that, I was taken with how much of the show is about enlarging the traditional definition of marriage. (I also wondered if everyone else in my age bracket has permanently associated the song “Anatevka” with the series finale of Newhart. Despite reminding me of the departure of Larry, Darryl, and Darryl, the song still managed to break my heart.)

Most strikingly, I can’t believe how moved I was by a show that, despite never having seen it on stage before, I still know inside and out. I laughed far more than I expected to, and I cried at every moment I’m supposed to. I even found myself moved at times I would have never predicted, like the moment Perchik crosses the mechitza to introduce mixed dancing to Anatevka. The themes of triumph and loss, progress and prejudice all resonated as strongly with me tonight as I imagine they did for the original Broadway audiences in the 1960s and for Sholom Aleichem’s readers at the turn of the century.

And I wonder. What will the next generation to receive this “Tradition” make of it? Will the struggles with tradition faced in the mythologized shtetl feel relevant to kids who’ve grown up in a Jewish community more open, diverse, and fluid than the one I’ve grown up with? On the one hand, I hope that these struggles seem quaint and distant to my children and theirs. But on the other hand, the march of progress ever continues, and just as I see new things in Fiddler today that I never saw before, I’m sure the next generation will find new meaning as well. We are always leaving Egypt. We are always leaving Anatevka.

PS – To restate the obvious, this production is better than I expected it to be, or really than any aged-star-recreates-the-role-that-made-him-famous-40-years-ago production has any right to be. The tour continues through the end of August. Go see it! You won’t regret it.

Camp vs. Kitsch: Kindergarten: The Musical!

Originally published on Camp vs. Kitsch.

One of my favorite Camp artifacts of all time is the out-of-print album The Barry Sisters Sing Fiddler On The Roof, with my absolute favorite track being the bongo-driven “Far From The Home I Love.” While waxing rhapsodic about this track, I went to YouTube to see if there could possibly be other renditions of the song that rivaled my favorite. I’m not sure why I clicked on this one, but boy did I hit jackpot:

6 year old Lola Uliano
Well, needless to say, this one outcamps anything the Barry Sisters ever did, so I had to go searching for something kitschy enough to possibly rival this. I showed the clip to my friend Amy, to which she responded:

Okay, I might change my mind about this, but right now I’m thinking that ALL musicals should be done with an all-kindergarten cast.

At least once.

That’s all I needed to hear to remember Kevin Smith’s brilliantly kitschy move of utilizing Sweeney Todd in his film Jersey Girl. The film wasn’t great, but the highlight was undoubtedly the school talent show, in which Raquel Castro (as Ben Affleck’s daughter) enlists all the adults in her life to recreate “God That’s Good” for her elementary school. You might want to fast foward past the first 45 seconds of Liv Tyler playing Toby. Or maybe not.

Jersey Girl does Sweeney Todd

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Fynsworth Alley: Liz Larsen

Originally published on Fynsworth Alley.


Liz Larsen

Liz Larsen

Liz Larsen is perhaps best known for her role as the forensics specialist on TV’s Law and Order, or perhaps for her role as Cleo in the acclaimed Broadway revival of The Most Happy Fella. She has also appeared on Broadway in Starmites, Damn Yankees, and Fiddler on the Roof, off-Broadway in A New Brain, Little By Little, and The New Yorkers, as well as in regional theaters across the country. She has appeared on several Fynsworth Alley releases, including Lost in Boston The Ultimate Collection and Prime Time Musicals, on which she sings a duet with her husband, Sal Viviano.

DL: How did you get your start in show business?

LL: I grew up in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and in those days there was the Bucks County playhouse was sometimes used as a Broadway tryout house, but it was a really summer stock place to work. Also, across the river was the Lambertsville Music Circus – it was a really big tent that played musicals during the summer. My mother was press agent on and off for both of those theatres. So, my first show was The King and I at the Music Circus when I was three. I was the youngest kid, and Elaine Stritch played Anna. She gave me a kick one night – during the death scene. Anna wears those big hoop skirts, and I decided on opening night that it would be really funny to see if I could beat my sister to get my entire body underneath the skirt. I guess I got there faster than my sister and said, “Ha ha, Karen,” (that’s my sister’s name), and I got a big kick in the ass from Elaine Stritch. That was my introduction to show business. Other than that, you know, I would be a kid in a lot of their shows, but mostly I saw all of these shows twenty or thirty times. My mother would just sit me in the balcony and I’d watch these plays over and over. I remember when I was six watching The Lion in Winter over and over with George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst. I don’t remember it at all, except he was really intense. And I remember seeing James Earl Jones do The Emperor Jones. All I remember from that was “The drums, the drums.” I think I was four. So I saw all these things, and even as I grew older, after school I would go to the Playhouse, and I remember seeing Cuckoo’s Nest twenty-four times, and 1776 over thirty times, and Tea and Sympathy… Just a lot of great plays with a lot of really great people in them.

DL: So was it a foregone conclusion that that’s what you wanted to do when you grew up?

LL: I guess it was, but I wasn’t aware of it at the time. I just knew I loved to watch it and to be there. I guess I just kind of went into it without thinking about it. It wasn’t really a decision.
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