Sunday, January 31, 2010

Classics Illustrated

Tina Turner (who recently celebrated her 70th birthday) may have once insisted that We Don't Need Another Hero, but there are certain folk heroes who will always remain dear to our hearts.
What these characters all share in common is that their deeds (real or imagined) have inspired others. Some have ended up in literary works, others have had movies made about their exploits. Some have appeared onstage, in history textbooks, and in opera. Others have gained their popularity through comic books and radio.

For those who have appeared in multiple media, a persona has often been developed which has then been inhabited by a succession of actors. Opera audiences are more familiar with this process, having grown accustomed to generations of artists who have interpreted their favorite roles. One could easily rattle off the names of a dozen sopranos who were noted for their portrayals of Floria Tosca, Lucia di Lammermoor, or Violetta Valery on the operatic stage.

Similarly, one could point to a string of great actors who have played Cyrano de Bergerac, King Lear, or Othello. Why have so many actors (including Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Peter O'Toole, Richard Burton, Stacy Keach, Ralph Fiennes, Sam Waterston, David Warner, Christopher Walken, Nicol Williamson, Kenneth Branagh, Edwin Booth, Maurice Evans, John Barrymore, Leslie Howard, Jude Law, and even Sarah Bernhardt) aspired to portray William Shakespeare's tortured and melancholy Dane? Because the greatness of the role of Hamlet withstands the test of time.

Shortly after Beverly Sills retired from the stage in 1980, I was interviewing her about her new role as General Director of the New York City Opera when I asked her how it felt to see younger singers wearing the costumes originally designed for her in what many operagoers had started to call "Beverly's" Manon. Sills stressed that the role is actually Massenet's Manon, and that generations of singers have interpreted -- and will continue to interpret the music composed by Jules Massenet. If she ever felt that she "owned" the role, it was only in those moments when she was performing it onstage and "living the character."

Two legendary folk heroes are currently entertaining Bay area audiences in very different formats. Because each has undergone a long history of artistic revisions, it's fascinating to look at some of the changes in how these two characters have been portrayed over the years.

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J.M. Barrie's symbol of eternal youth, Peter Pan (who will be arriving in San Francisco in late April as part of a new multimedia extravaganza) may have been an inspiration to children of all ages, but Peter never wanted to grow up. While Peter could fly back and forth from London to Never Never Land, time always stood still for him.

Superman, on the other hand, was rarely without a crisis. Whether leaping over tall buildings in one jump, battling evil, or changing clothes in a telephone booth (can't you just hear Elaine Stritch croaking "Does anyone still use a telephone booth?") Superman has been a folk hero of uncommon appeal.

In his earliest years, Superman embodied a kind of wholesome optimism about doing good, coming to the rescue of people trapped in desperate situations, and never boasting about his superpowers. When disguised as the bumbling Clark Kent, Superman could provide a romantic ideal for young women, a subcultural secret for closeted gay men, or a role model for aspiring athletes.

Over the years, audiences have seen Superman embodied by George Reeves, Christopher Reeve, Dean Cain, and Brandon Routh (as well as Tom Welling's portrayal of Superboy in the television series, Smallville). Bob Holiday appeared as Superman in the 1966 Broadway musical entitled It's A Bird.. It's A Plane... It's Superman (a 1975 television version starred David Wilson opposite Lesley Anne Warren's feisty Lois Lane).

Soon to be screened at the 2010 San Francisco Indie Film Fest is a very sweet and nostalgic documentary by Brad Ricca which tells the real story about how the character of Superman was created. Rather than the tale of the boy whose father put him into a space ship as the planet Krypton was exploding, Last Son describes the personal events which inspired two young Jewish kids living in Cleveland in 1932: a young writer named Jerry Siegel who wrote for the Glenville High School weekly newspaper and his friend, artist Joe Shuster.

Writer/director Brad Ricca (Photo by: Chris Walters)

A Cleveland native who lives five minutes from where Superman was created, Ricca describes himself as "a teacher by day and an awkward filmmaker by night." As he states in his press kit:
"Though we all know the origin of Superman (planet explodes, mild-mannered disguise, cape and all that), we take it at face value instead of really asking ourselves: who is this strange visitor who landed face first into American pop culture and never left? In other words, it's time to grow up and look at the big guy in the cape not as kids (okay, maybe a little) but as adults. This is the goal of Last Son, the first unauthorized film documentary about Jerry and Joe and the creation of Superman. Using never before seen artifacts, evidence, and footage, Last Son will let us finally see past the flimsy glasses and ill-fitting suit -- so we can know who Superman really is."
As it turns out, Superman is very much a child of the Great Depression. It took years for him to find a publisher and, in many ways, his biggest publicity roll out began at the 1939 New York World's Fair.

Last Son is filled with all kinds of wonderful trivia that explains everything from how Superman got his trademark spit curl to his cape and chest emblem. With the devotion of a true comic book fanatic, Ricca explains numerous artistic influences that, in today's world, we might take for granted.

The archival footage from the 1939 World's Fair is a delight to watch as Ricca explains how Superman became the most popular role model in the land. Opera fans will especially enjoy listening to a soundtrack that includes jazz and player piano interpretations of the score from Giuseppe Verdi's opera, La Traviata!

Last Son's 65 minutes are packed with nostalgia for the musclebound superhero, the two high school kids who created him, and the way he inspired millions of Americans. Here's the trailer:


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Over at the Golden Gate Theatre, the latest touring company of Fiddler on the Roof, starring Harvey Fierstein as Tevye, is in town for a limited run. The character of Tevye the dairyman first became popular through stories published in Yiddish by Sholem Aleichem beginning in 1894. Seventy years after the character first appeared in print, the creative team of Harold Prince, Jerome Robbins, Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, and Boris Aronson unveiled a musicalized version of Tevye and His Daughters.

Since its opening night on Broadway on September 22, 1964, Fiddler on the Roof has become a landmark of American musical theatre. I first saw the show several months after its Broadway premiere and have been lucky enough to see the role of Tevye performed by Zero Mostel, Luther Adler, Paul Lipson, Harry Goz, Herschel Bernardi, Chaim Topol, and Theodore Bikel. Others who have proudly appeared as Tevye include Jan Peerce, Jerry Jarrett, Alfred Molina, and Fyvush Finkel.

Harvey Fierstein leads the men in "Tradition"
(Photo by: Carol Rosegg)

Over the years, Fiddler on the Roof has been performed all over the world. The cast recording of the original Israeli production included the wedding music that had been omitted from the original Broadway cast album. This rare video clip shows a Japanese cast rehearsing the opening number ("Tradition") using the original choreography by Jerome Robbins.


In many ways, Fiddler on the Roof is a show that you appreciate more and more as you grow older, sadder, and wiser. Its Broadway premiere occurred barely two decades after the Holocaust. Today, there is a far greater understanding of what happened to Jews in Nazi Germany under Hitler, during the pogroms in the Russian Empire under the Tsar, and in modern times as anti-Semitism continues to rear its ugly head.

Certain bits of dialogue (particularly Perchik's desire to speak with Hodel about an important political issue -- marriage) have taken on new meaning in today's world, especially with the initial phase of the Perry v. Schwarzenegger trial concluding just blocks away from the Golden Gate Theatre.

As I sat watching Fiddler on the Roof for the first time in ten years, I was struck by some changes in the scenic design. Steve Gilliam's new show curtain (a forest of birch trees in winter) creates a wonderful atmosphere to draw audiences into the story. The sets (which, in 2000, appeared quite battered after a long tour) look much sturdier. Some of the lighting designs seem richer and more lush. I did not remember seeing so much foliage in the 2000 production.

Show curtain designed by Steve Gilliam

Thanks to the Internet, I was able to Google the set designer's name and send him an email with some questions I had about the current production. This was his response:
"Actually, there are significant differences between the two designs. This production is totally automated, the last one used stagehands to push the house around, etc. The trees are more in scale with the scenery. The house has a driver inside. The house spins all the way around. It is really very different. We have changed the inn, the barn, etc. This time, under the same director, we wanted to make the set look as though it was in a working farm, and functioning inn, a real tailor’s. If you are interested, log onto my website. It is the process of the design from the beginning of our conversations to the finished product, including construction photos and the like. At the bottom of the site are plans from the 2000 design."
The scenery wasn't the only element of the production that had changed. The last time Fiddler on the Roof played at the Golden Gate Theatre (with Theodore Bickel heading the cast), the production's sound design was so execrable that it was often impossible to distinguish who was speaking. This time around, voices were easily identifiable and, for the most part, clearly heard.

The one exception was Harvey Fierstein whose voice (like those of Carol Channing and Ethel Merman) is a force of nature that defies categorization. When speaking (or singing in the upper part of his vocal range), Fierstein's voice has that raspy sound theatergoers have become accustomed to over the years. But when singing notes in the lowest registers of his voice, he becomes a true basso. The result is that some sounds are not captured as easily as others by his microphone (or, perhaps, may be overpowered by the orchestra).

Harvey Fierstein as Tevye (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

Otherwise, Fierstein's Tevye is a most compassionate portrayal in which the actor uses his hands, eyes, voice, and a keen sense of dramatic inflection to convey the twists and turns of Yiddish joy, heartbreak, and sarcasm. With original cast member Sammy Dallas Bayes directing (and recreating the choreography created by Jerome Robbins) Fierstein has added a comic bit during Tevye's nightmare in which he keeps telling Golde "Don't get up" as he crosses the stage to address the ghost of Fruma Sarah.

There are some other changes that proved interesting. In past productions Fruma Sarah has been sung by a woman. Sean Patrick Doyle (who will soon leave to appear as Chantal in the new production of La Cage Aux Folles starring Kelsey Grammer) is the first male to appear in the role in a major production. His powerful falsetto gives a new strength to the character. In addition, David W. Gilleo (the dancer playing the bottom half of Fruma Sarah) is now performing high kicks throughout the number -- a choreographic change that makes Tevye's nightmare even more bizarre.

Sean Patrick Doyle as Fruma Sarah

When Fiddler on the Roof was revived on Broadway in February of 2004 in a new production directed by David Leveaux and designed by Tom Pye, one of the musical numbers in the second act (The Rumor) was replaced with a song called "Topsy-Turvy" (that can be heard on the "new" Broadway cast recording). "Topsy-Turvy" was supposed to explain how -- as young men and young women began to choose their own spouses -- shtetl life was changing and the role of the matchmaker beginning to diminish.

Neither number was used in the current production.

On the one hand, eliminating "The Rumor" tightens the dramatic pace in Act II, speeding up the transition from the news of Perchik's arrest to Hodel's departure from Anatevka to join him in Siberia. On the other hand (as Tevye might argue), the number served an important purpose, showing how news traveled by gossip within the shtetl.

"The Rumor" is, in many ways, a gimmick song, which demonstrates how a message can be corrupted as it passes from one person to another (much like the old parlor game of Telephone). Here are Sheldon Harnick's original lyrics to the song:
"Yente: Rifka, I have such news for you.
Remember Perchik, that crazy student?
Remember at the wedding
When Tzeitel married Motel
And Perchik started dancing
With Tevye's daughter Hodel?
Well, I just heard
That Perchik's been arrested, in Kiev.

Others: No!
Yente: Yes!

Woman: Shandel, Shandel... Wait till I tell you...
Remember Perchik, that crazy student?
Remember at the wedding
He danced with Tevye's Hodel.
Well, I just heard
That Hodel's been arrested, in Kiev.

Others: No, terrible, terrible.

Woman: Mirala...
Do you remember Perchik
That student from Kiev?
Remember how he acted
When Tzeitel married Motel?
Well, I just heard
That Motel's been arrested
For dancing at the wedding.

Others: No!
Woman: In Kiev!

Mendel: Rabbi... Rabbi...
Remember Perchik, with all his strange ideas?
Remember Tzeitel's wedding,
Where Tevye danced with Golde?
Well, I just heard
That Tevye's been arrested
And Golde's gone to Kiev!

Others: No!
Mendel: God forbid.
Others: She didn't.
Mendel: She did.

Avram: Terrible news... Terrible...
Remember Perchik
Who started all the trouble?
Well, I just heard from someone who should know
That Golde's been arrested
And Hodel's gone to Kiev.
Motel studies dancing
And Tevye's acting strange.
Shprintze has the measles
And Bielke has the mumps.

Yente: And that's what comes from men and women dancing!"
In the original Broadway production, Bea Arthur's icy baritone nailed the number's final line. The current cast features Mary Stout as Yente, Susan Cella as Golde, Rena Strober as Tzeitel, Jamie Davis as Hodel, Deborah Grausman as Chava, and Hanna Delmonte doubling as Grandma Tzeitel and Bielke. Male members of the supporting cast include Erik Liberman as Motel, Colby Foytik as Perchik, David Brummel as Lazar Wolf, and Eric van Tielen as Fyedka.

Matthew Rossoff, Matthew Kilgore, Robbie Roby, and
Rick Pessagno perform the famous Bottle Dance
(Photo by: Joan Marcus)

Back in 2005, when he replaced Alfred Molina as Tevye in the Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof, Harvey Fierstein taped a special video for Passover. Although Pesach doesn't start this year until March 30th, it's worth listening to a message which has lost none of its relevance in 2010.


Fiddler on the Roof continues at the Golden Gate Theatre through February 21st. You can order tickets here.