By Jerome Langston
“In all honesty, it’s kind of the gift that keeps on giving. If you have to be associated with one show repeatedly in your career, I couldn’t think of a better one to be associated with,” says Gary John La Rosa, the famed director/choreographer, early on in our recent chat regarding the classic musical, Fiddler on the Roof. Gary John and I are joined on the call by actor John Payonk, who will portray Tevye, the lead character in VSC’s upcoming production of Fiddler on the Roof, which kicks off the company’s remarkable 45th season, and will also mark the 110th year of the Wells Theatre itself.
Produced in partnership with United Jewish Federation of Tidewater and Simon Family JCC, VSC’s Fiddler on the Roof greatly benefits from being directed and choreographed by Gary John, who has become over the years—perhaps the foremost theatre artist attached to the iconic musical. Fiddler was the first Broadway show that Gary John saw as a kid. And then rather serendipitously, he would later feature in a Broadway revival of Fiddler, alongside the same actor whom he’d seen 25 years prior, as a kid experiencing his first Broadway show. Over many years, the NYC native has performed in, directed and/or choreographed dozens of Fiddler productions worldwide. He also received a lot of praise for helming the 50th anniversary gala that celebrated the original Broadway show’s 1964 opening. That celebration featured many of the original Broadway cast members, as well as other creatives associated with the blockbuster show.
“Audiences across the world have always embraced the show because it’s so universal… It seems personal to so many people in so many different ways, whether it be the faith aspect, the Jewish aspect, the oppression aspect…” says the director. “There are just things about Fiddler that really touch the heart.” The musical’s impact on audiences is clearly part of the appeal that keeps Gary John saying yes to these ongoing opportunities to lead new productions of the theatrical masterpiece. “So I’m just grateful that I’ve had this great career that this show weaves in and out of…on a regular basis, which is really quite special,” he later says.
When Fiddler on the Roof opened on Broadway on September 22, 1964, it ran for a record-setting 3200 plus performances—and was the longest-running Broadway musical till the original production of Grease, eventually dethroned it. Choreographed and directed by the great Jerome Robbins, with its book by Joseph Stein, and its music and lyrics by Jerry Brock and Sheldon Harnick, respectively, the musical won a staggering nine Tony Awards, including for Best Musical. The original award-winning cast included Zero Mostel as Tevye the milkman, Maria Karmilova as his wife Golde, and Julia Migenes as Hodel, one of his eldest daughters. In the years since, the legendary musical has spawned many Broadway revivals, including its most recent one, which opened in December of 2015, running for over a year and landing three Tony Award nominations of its own.
The huge critical and commercial success of the 1971 musical film of Fiddler, only added to the show’s ubiquity in popular culture. Directed by Norman Jewison, it starred Topol as Tevye, and racked up eight Academy Award nominations. And the show’s music, featured onstage and in the film version, has enjoyed a great amount of popularity, with classic songs like “If I Were a Rich Man” and “Sunrise, Sunset.” Many artists have covered Fiddler songs over the decades.
The musical and film are based upon the story of Tevye the Dairyman, a series of short stories by the Yiddish writer, Sholem Aleichem. Set in a village of what is now the modern-day Kyiv in Ukraine, the two-act show explores many poignant themes, including the complexity of family, faith, and tradition—primarily through the life of Tevye and his challenging relationships with his three eldest daughters. Regarding Tevye and his community, Gary John says that they are “basically oppressed people who live in poverty but have the riches of family and faith.”
Veteran stage actor and baritone, John Payonk, portrays the iconic role of Tevye in this VSC production. Like Gary John, he’s new to VSC, but he’s played this role in three prior productions, and to much acclaim. “To me, it’s one of the greatest theatre characters, or characters period…ever written,” he tells me. “It’s a perfect musical.” The first record that he ever purchased was the Fiddler on the Roof movie soundtrack. “It made me do what I do now. Here I am in grade school, running around singing “If I Were a Rich Man,’ never dreaming that I would be able to play this iconic character,” he adds.
Regarding the choreography, Gary John explains that he’s “always happy” to recreate the original choreography from Jerome Robbins, as the famed choreographer’s work perfectly adds to the storytelling. “From a choreography standpoint, what was so amazing about Jerry Robbins, was how he was able to really tell story through movement, which is not as easy to do as one would think,” the director says.
VSC’s production of Fiddler will feature a cast of 30, along with a ten-piece orchestra. The cast will arrive in about a week. “It’s a little bit of a beast to mount, because it’s such a big show, and we actually have our first run through after eleven days,” shares the director. He’s confident though, with the assembled creative team: including scenic designer Bill Clarke, musical director Bart Kuebler, sound designer Steven Allegretto, with costumes designed by Michael Bottari & Ronald Case, that they will be ready.
The winner of numerous theatre awards, Gary John is excited to have another opportunity to bring this classic musical to yet another theater-loving community, and he believes that the Wells is an ideal theatre to stage the work. “This production will lovingly remind audiences of all that they treasure about the musical, but will surprise them with just how incredibly funny, tuneful and moving it really is…”
WANT TO GO?
Fiddler on the Roof
Through October 29
Virginia Stage Company