Raised as a Catholic and educated in parochial schools, Tony Award-winning director Bartlett Sher may seem like an unlikely candidate to stage Fiddler on the Roof.
But Sher’s version of the classic Broadway musical, coming to the Seattle Theatre Group’s Paramount Theatre January 14–19, 2020, has special meaning for him. By revitalizing the bittersweet tale of Russian Jewish dairy farmer Tevye, whose traditional life is overturned by his strong-willed daughters’ new ideas about love and marriage, anti-Semitism, and the impending eviction of Jews from his village, Anatevka, Sher explored his own “hidden” family history.
Sher did not know as a child that his Lithuanian-born father was Jewish. “I think it was a pretty typical midcentury American thing,” says Sher, who headed Seattle’s Intiman Theatre from 2000 to 2010. “It was about being in business, about succeeding in this culture. He went to Stanford University and didn’t have a deep connection to the religion, so he just cut Judaism out of his life.”
Though Sher’s paternal grandmother “spoke heavily accented English with a Yiddish rhythm, we just thought she was Lithuanian.” His father didn’t want to tell him, or his Catholic mother to inform him, that the family was Jewish.
When Sher eventually discovered this background, he felt he couldn’t bring it up to his father, but he embraced it. “To this day, I feel like it’s a great part of my heritage and life.”
Sher spent years researching and planning the 2015 production of Fiddler on the Roof, which ran a year on Broadway then launched a national tour. It has won high praise from critics for reducing the schmaltzier aspects of the show and sharpening the focus on the struggle of Jews to maintain their centuries-old Russian communities in the face of mounting anti-Semitism and economic hardship.
Studying the historical context of the show, Sher learned that the Jewish area of the Pale region in Eastern Europe was, through the 18th and 19th centuries, “quite a healthy community until the Russians came in. And Jews didn’t just leave only because of the government oppression and the pogroms. The Russians were taking the jobs of Jews, and they didn’t have work. That’s one of the things that drove my grandfather, and Tevye, to come here.”
Fiddler encouraged Sher to further investigate his grandparents’ journey and also explore the experiences of today’s immigrants and refugees. “I’m interested in political refugees [and] the differences between immigrants and refugees — being driven out of your homeland versus choosing to leave. I think that’s an important distinction today.”
Though Sher remained faithful to the script and score of Fiddler, he also established his own vision with new choreography, sets, and opening and closing images relevant to the current influx of Latin American refugees looking for a safe haven in America.
“I couldn’t just put the show in the cozy past, not now,” Sher says. “Today, you could be trying to come here from Guatemala because of climate change wiping out the coffee crop, and then you have no way to survive or feed your family. We can’t just slam our borders closed to these people and live in our own little American paradise.”
The New Colossus, coming to Seattle Theatre Group’s Moore Theatre February 20–22, 2020, also resonates with the current immigration crisis in America. Performed by the LA-based company The Actors Gang and staged by noted actor-director Tim Robbins, it features a dozen actors from around the world sharing their stories of escaping oppression in their homelands.
The show takes its title from 19th-century Jewish immigration activist Emma Lazarus’s poem, which is famously quoted on the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”). By sharing the stories of recent immigrants from many lands, the piece uses theater to remind us how deeply woven into the American experiment it is to welcome newcomers to our shores — many of whom, like Tevye and his family, are in flight from religious and political persecution.
“It’s quite moving and clearly demonstrates how immigration has shaped our society, our communities, our country,” says Josh LaBelle, executive director of STG. “Watching it, I found myself thinking about my own great-grandmother. She was blind and came here from Europe on her own with seven kids. She set up her own kosher catering business in Venice Beach and found a world here.”
Jewish viewers may strongly relate to The New Colossus, says LaBelle, “but so will members from all our other communities. And it’s great that, as part of the show, audience members get the chance to share their own stories, too.”