By Mel Damski
For my grandfather’s 70th birthday, I took him to see the original production of Fiddler On The Roof on Broadway.
The price of the two tickets came out to more than my $110 a week salary as a cub reporter but I thought it was a great thing to do for a recently widowed man who never got out much.
Our seats were in row 9 right on the aisle. I was overjoyed throughout the first act because the show was so good and I was feeling very proprietary about the whole evening.
At the intermission, I couldn’t help myself. “So, Pop, what do you think?”
“What’s the big deal?”, he says, “I grew up in a town just like that one.”
True, Solomon Rosenfeld grew up in a shtedl in Poland where the Jews kept to themselves and rarely encountered the outside world. He was apprenticed at 10 years old to a furrier in Warsaw and slept under his work bench.
From such a modest beginning, and with no formal education, he became a successful furrier in his own right, moved to Berlin which was THE European city in the 1920’s, and was living a very nice life, thank you very much.
When the Nazis took over, the Rosenfelds with their two children were luckier than most of their relatives and ended up in New York City. For Pop Sam, he was very much of a fish out of water. He once again started a successful fur shop but he lived in a very insular world of refugees. He couldn’t drive, couldn’t read and spoke a polyglot of Yiddish, German and heavily accented English.
After my grandmother died, he kept mostly to himself in his small Bronx apartment and listened to a lot of classical music on a small victrola. We never had an in depth conversation so I truly knew very little about what he was thinking.
Maybe he really liked Fiddler and it was just his nature to play things down. Or maybe he just didn’t find pleasure in being transported back to a challenging youth in which he was the 6th of 13 children in a very poor family.
On Saturday night, I went to see Fiddler on the Roof again and this time it was pure unadulterated joy for me. The show was mounted at BAAY—Bellingham Arts Academy for Youth—and for three hours I was captivated by these teenage actors and singers.
It’s partly a testament to the enduring charm of Sholom Aleichem’s tale of Tevye, a poor dairyman who is struggling with a nagging wife and seven daughters who have the outrageous notion that they should be able to marry someone they love despite the guys income or even, God forbid, his religion.
I’ve seen many BAAY performances and I always marvel at the ability of these young thespians to get me to suspend my disbelief and allow myself to be transported into another time and place.
When they recently put up Into The Woods by Stephen Sondheim, I seriously questioned BAAY’s founder David Post’s judgment because those are very difficult vocal parts, but the young singers had no trouble at all with Sondheim’s dissonance and they totally pulled it off.
With Fiddler, once again they didn’t seem to know what they were up against. Kids playing grown-ups, girls playing men, mixing comedy and melodrama, speaking with accents, difficult vocal ranges, even a piece of the set starting to fall and the occasional walk on by the comedy dog—none of these challenges was too great for this talented troupe.
The audience smiled when it was supposed to smile and sighed when it was supposed to sigh, and there were many rousing ovations during the three-hour show that seemed to go by very quickly.
I know Sholom Aleichem is smiling in heaven knowing that his fictional village of Anatevka has been recreated with so much heart so many years later in the faraway city of Bellingham.
Perhaps even Pop Sam would have enjoyed himself. And although Fiddler’s final performance was Sunday’s matinee, we can all look forward to upcoming very grown-up BAAY productions of Pippin, Music Man and The Importance of Being Earnest.
By Mel Damski – the Producing-Director of the TV series “Psych” and winner of the Best General Interest Column by the Washington Newspaper Association.