To Life!

“Fiddler on the Roof” takes the stage at Wright State University

Photo: Part of the Fiddler on the Roof cast (l-r) Megan Valle, Josh Beasley, Kayli Modell, Danielle Bessler, Emma Buchanan

By Tim Smith

Wright State University’s Department of Theatre, Dance, and Motion Pictures continues its tradition of bringing quality stage entertainment to the Miami Valley with a revival of the venerable Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof. It will be presented at WSU’s Festival Theatre from Nov. 2 through Nov. 19.

Fiddler on the Roof features music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and a book by Joseph Stein, set in the Pale of Settlement of Imperial Russia in 1905. It is based on “Tevye and his Daughters” (or “Tevye the Dairyman”) and other tales by Sholem Aleichem. The story centers on Tevye, the father of five daughters, and his attempts to maintain his Jewish religious and cultural traditions as outside influences encroach upon the family’s lives. He must cope both with the strong-willed actions of his three older daughters who wish to marry for love – each one’s choice of a husband moves further away from the customs of his faith – and with the edict of the Tsar that evicts the Jews from their village.

Stuart McDowell, Coordinator of Theatre Studies for the Department of Theatre, Dance, and Motion Pictures is the director. He feels that the inclusion of this classic piece of stage Americana into the current program year comes at the right time.

“The message of Fiddler on the Roof is timeless,” he says. “It’s about a specific Jewish family and community in the Pale of Russia and Poland a little over a century ago but, by exploring the humanity and the love and the travails of those people, it becomes a universal story for today.”

The original Broadway production of the show, which opened in 1964, boasted the first musical theatre run in history to surpass 3,000 performances. It remains Broadway’s sixteenth longest-running show. The production was extraordinarily profitable and highly acclaimed, winning nine Tony Awards. It spawned five Broadway revivals and a successful 1971 film adaptation, and the show has enjoyed enduring international popularity. It is also a popular choice for school and community theatre productions. During its long journey and numerous revivals, many name actors have appeared in the show, including Zero Mostel, Beatrice Arthur, Herschel Bernardi, Leonard Nimoy, and a young Bette Midler during the play’s original run.

The score by Bock and Harneck contributed songs that became part of the great American songbook, including “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” “Miracle of Miracles,” “Tradition,” “To Life,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” and the sentimental favorite at many weddings, “Sunrise, Sunset.” The score is also rich with folk music of the period.

“At auditions, students must demonstrate that they’re capable of singing the range and style of the music,” McDowell says. “Then, the early rehearsals are led by the musical director, and in the individual voice lessons that each acting/musical theatre major has every week, the students are urged to focus on their songs. By about the third week, the cast is off-book on all music.”

The choreography includes some traditional Russian and Jewish folk dances which are intricate and physically demanding. This posed a challenge for the current production.

“The same process used in the preparation and mastery of the singing is followed for the extensive choreography, including the iconic and difficult bottle dance,” McDowell says. “Teressa McWilliams, our Choreographer and head of the Wright State Dance Program, has extensive experience as a professional dancer, having been part of the original national company of the acclaimed Jekyll and Hyde show. She and I worked previously on Wright State’s production of Cabaret twelve years ago, which proved to be quite successful and played to sold-out audiences for three weeks.”

In keeping with its practice of preparing students for a career in the theatre, Wright State’s audition process keeps it as real world as possible.

“Auditions for all of our shows are open to all Wright State students,” McDowell says. “They have to arrive with a headshot and resume, and then perform two one-minute pieces that the Director sets the parameters for – i.e., something in the style or period of the show, like one monologue and one song. Then, at callbacks, the actor reads with others from sides, or musical selections specifically from the show.”

Wright State University has long been known for staging productions with a good eye for period detail. Since Fiddler on the Roof is set in early 20th century Russia, accuracy of the sets and costumes became a critical component.

“Our costume area prides itself in doing extensive research into the period of each show,” McDowell says. “For Fiddler, our costumer, senior Naomi Indira Reisner, created an extensive power-point that was presented to me and the choreographer, and then to the cast. Yet we are not dogmatic about historical accuracy. I always say, ‘Don’t let the facts get in the way of the truth’. And also, ‘Function over form’. This means, don’t be crazy about history. Let it serve the story, and in the case of a musical, you’ve got to have garments that can dance.”

Parallels can be drawn between the story, about a family trying hard to cling to traditions while the world changes around them, and the current debates over immigration and tolerance. These similarities weren’t lost on McDowell and company.

“We live in a day of refugees, with every news cycle depicting the plight and the flight of families and communities across the globe, from Syria to Africa,” he says. “Fiddler speaks to us about the story within these stories. Of love, of passion, of faith, of community, and of persecution and resolution to move on, to seek a new life in a distant land, and to prevail.”

Fiddler on the Roof will be presented at Wright State University’s Festival Playhouse, 3640 Colonel Glenn Highway, Dayton, from Nov. 2 through Nov. 19. Tickets are $22 for adults and $20 for students and seniors. For tickets or more information, visit or call 937.775.3072.

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Tim Smith is an award-winning, bestselling author. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Smith at

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