The celebrated musical Fiddler on the Roof evokes connotations of several different times and places. Set in Imperial Russia in 1905, the play was a major hit on Broadway during the 1960s and the film version received critical acclaim after its release in 1971. Now, Gemma Bodinetz, artistic director of the Liverpool Everyman theatre, aims to revive the musical with particular relevance to the here and now.
The show will be the first production by the Everyman’s new repertory company, with the same cast set to appear in five different shows over the next six months. The company includes Richard Bremmer, who played Voldemort in the first Harry Potter film, West End star Melanie La Barrie and Downton Abbey actor Patrick Brennan.
Speaking of the company’s decision to perform Fiddler On The Roof, Bodinetz says: “We wanted a large ensemble piece that was very inclusive to any member of the audience, and we also wanted it to mean something. The world has become quite a cruel place in terms of welcoming people, and the news for months has been about refugees and asylum seekers. Fiddler on the Roof is about many things, but it is also about the forced emigration of the Jews from Russia at the turn of the century. It asks questions about tolerance and faith, about how we live together and accept our differences. It felt like a very important musical, as well as a joyful and wonderful one.”
The story follows Tevye, a poor Jewish dairyman, his wife Golde and their five young daughters as they struggle to uphold tradition while facing eviction from their village. The play boasts a handful of evergreen songs, from If I Were A Rich Man to Sunrise, Sunset, and is often irresistibly entertaining.
But, as Bodinetz observes, it’s not hard to pick out more serious undertones within the piece, nor does the show oversimplify the topics it touches on. “It doesn’t have any kind of happy-clappy, ‘it’s so easy’ message at all. And I don’t think it is easy,” she says. “I’m an absolutely capital ‘L’ liberal, but with the issues surrounding religious tolerance and cultural difference, if we think it’s easy then I don’t think we’ll solve the problems that we’re facing at the moment. We have to be really honest about how we can keep our identity and live alongside each other. I think that’s a lovely prospect, but not necessarily an easy process”.
Bodinetz’s career has only occasionally encompassed musical theatre. She directed Jonathan Harvey and the Pet Shop Boys’ 2001 collaboration Closer to Heaven, but confesses Fiddler on the Roof is her personal favourite of the genre. “I’ve always loved this musical. I love West Side Story and Guys and Dolls and Cabaret, but these are the tunes I adored as a child. I’ve always said I want to direct Fiddler On The Roof and now feels like the right time to do it. This has absolutely come from the head and the heart with me.”
And Bodinetz reveals she has a personal connection to the piece. She says: “My family came over from Russia to England at exactly this time and for exactly these reasons. This is their story.”
Fiddler on the Roof is at the Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse until 11 March (everymanplayhouse.com)