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In one of those things that are somewhere between an urban legend and a fact that's probably true, it's often been said that Fiddler on the Roof is performed at least once every day somewhere in the world. That streak, which began at some point in the 1960s, came to an unfortunate end in 2020 when the pandemic closed theaters around the globe.
Renewing the legend
But now, Fiddler is back with its first major performance in Philadelphia since theaters reopened. It's going to be a special one: it's a "semi-staged concert production" featuring Broadway stars Chuck Cooper, Loretta Ables Sayre, and Chad Jennings in the main roles, along with students from the University Musical Society, and the score played by the Philadelphia Orchestra. The production was performed first in Ann Arbor before arriving in Philadelphia.
The orchestra’s production will feature the score from the 1971 movie adaptation of Fiddler, which was adapted by legendary composer John Williams from Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock's score. The 90-year-old Williams, whose work includes everything from the theme song of Star Wars to the fanfare for the Olympics, recently announced that he is stepping away from composing new film music.
BSR spoke with Cooper, who will step into the role of Tevye the Dairyman that's been played by Zero Mostel, Chaim Topol, and countless others over the past six decades.
"When I found they were offering me Teyve in Fiddler, we worked it out, because it's a role of a lifetime," Cooper said. "It's an important show, because it's one of the great American musicals and it's in the canon of true classic musicals. The story is universal, and the music is timeless."
Fiddler, adapted from the work of Sholem Aleichem, is a distinctly Jewish piece telling the story of a dairyman in Russia's Pale of Settlement in 1905 seeking to keep his family's traditions alive. But the show's themes are so universal that it's attained popularity all around the world, even in places with few or no Jewish people. Cooper, a Black actor, isn’t Jewish.
Reflecting the times
Nearly every revival of Fiddler over the years has echoed events going on in the world at the time, including this one—its climax involves the threat of a Russian invasion.
Cooper, who recently finished a run of Trouble in Mind on Broadway, added that while he's glad to be back in the theater, it's sad that audience participation isn't quite what it was pre-pandemic.
"Covid has made its mark," he said. "That said, I'm truly incredibly grateful to be able to do what I do, and to do it in this incredible piece."
Cooper is a veteran of the Broadway stage and a Tony Award winner. He's also acted quite a bit in TV and movies, and musical theater buffs may have noticed him among the Broadway legends in the "Sunday scene” in last year's Netflix movie musical Tick… Tick… Boom.
"That was so much fun, getting to be a part of that, what turned out to be a really, really good film," Cooper said. "I am, to this day, so grateful that I was in the room where it was happening, as it were… hanging out on the set, with all these luminaries of the American theater, and to be counted among them, oh my god." Cooper shared the screen with Andre De Shields, Bernadette Peters, and Joel Grey.
"Presenting this wonderful score and show in a form that’s never been heard or seen re-animates and extends the life of a great project that means so much to so many people," Williams, the composer, said in a press release about the production. "The story is never going to be old. It’s as basic and human as any story can ever be.”
What, When, Where
Fiddler on the Roof. By Joseph Stein and Sholem Aleichem, directed by Sarna Lapine. $49-$151. Conducted by the Philadelphia Orchestra in partnership with the University Musical Society at the University of Michigan. March 3, 5-6 at Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Cultural Campus, 300 S. Broad St, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or philorch.org.
The Kimmel Cultural Campus is an ADA-compliant venue. Patrons can purchase wheelchair seating or loose chairs online by calling Patron Services at (215) 893-1999, or by emailing [email protected]. With advance notice, Patron Services can provide options for personal care attendants, American Sign Language, Braille tickets and programs, audio descriptions, and other services.
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