A Rare Opportunity: SMTD Musical Theater Students Undertake Extensive Preparation for Roles in UMS’s Production of Fiddler on the Roof

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Musical theater students at the School of Music, Theater and Dance (SMTD) have countless opportunities to learn from world-class scholars and practitioners: in teacher-led courses, in masterclasses led by industry professionals, in tours of former students working on Broadway.

An upcoming production offers a group of musical theater students an entirely different educational opportunity: the chance to perform alongside Broadway actors, in a production led by a professional creative team – including Broadway director Sarna Lapine and musical director Andy Einhorn – and accompanied by great orchestras.

The University Musical Society (UMS) is producing lightly staged concerts from Fiddler on the Roof in Hill Auditorium, February 19 and 20, featuring Broadway performers Chuck Cooper (Tevye) and Loretta Ables Sayre (Golde), as well than 14 musical theater students. Six other students serve as understudy for the production.

The Ann Arbor performances will feature the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra and will be the first live performances of John Williams’ orchestral arrangement of the film’s music. Williams’ score had not been preserved in written form in the 50 years since the film’s premiere and needed to be reconstructed. Two weeks after the Ann Arbor performances, the production will travel to Philadelphia, where it will be performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

“I think this show speaks to everyone. And the idea of ​​how we are born into traditions and how we progress as a society, so when we see the struggles of this particular family, it’s really an extension of everyone,” the director said. musical and conductor Andy Einhorn.

This week, Broadway professionals worked alongside @umichmusicaltheatre students in their production of “Fiddler on the Roof in Concert,” which debuted at the Hill Auditorium on February 19.

This week, Broadway professionals worked alongside @umichmusicaltheatre students in their production of “Fiddler on the Roof in Concert,” which debuted at the Hill Auditorium on February 19.

This week, Broadway professionals worked alongside @umichmusicaltheatre students in their production of “Fiddler on the Roof in Concert,” which debuted at the Hill Auditorium on February 19. Director Sarna Lapine and choreographer Alison Solomon.

This week, Broadway professionals worked alongside @umichmusicaltheatre students in their production of “Fiddler on the Roof in Concert”.

This week, Broadway professionals worked alongside @umichmusicaltheatre students in their production of “Fiddler on the Roof in Concert”.

This week, Broadway professionals worked alongside @umichmusicaltheatre students in their production of “Fiddler on the Roof in Concert”.

This week, Broadway professionals worked alongside @umichmusicaltheatre students in their production of “Fiddler on the Roof in Concert”.

This week, Broadway professionals worked alongside @umichmusicaltheatre students in their production of “Fiddler on the Roof in Concert”.

The beloved musical and film – based on the Yiddish-language stories of Sholem Aleichem – explores the tension between tradition and changing norms in Anatevka, a poor Jewish shtetl (village), in the early 20th century in Russia. Tevye the milkman exalts the traditions that govern Anatevka, dreams of a more comfortable existence and seeks to arrange favorable marriages for his daughters. His daughters, on the other hand, yearn to deviate from tradition, and the shtetl faces imminent threats to its existence from pogroms, the deadly anti-Semitic massacres that displaced dozens of Jewish communities in Tsarist Russia. .

Seeking to raise awareness of Fiddler on the Roof’s relevance to contemporary events, including rising anti-Semitism and global migration crises, UMS has partnered with several departments at the University of Michigan – the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies, the Center for Russian and East European Studies, the Copernicus Center for Polish Studies and the Center for European Studies – to present programs to the public in conjunction with performance.

Michael McElroy, chair of the Department of Musical Theater and Arthur E. and Martha S. Hearron Professor of Musical Theater, said examining Fiddler’s background was an essential part of the students’ experience of the production. “We’re looking at all of these traditional musicals through a new lens. How do we explore our history, which is steeped in a lot of baggage— and find the things about traditional musical theater that are worth celebrating,” he said.

Very aware of students’ concerns about telling the stories of communities they are not part of, McElroy wanted to take the necessary steps to help his students feel more comfortable in their role. It’s a question, he noted, of “how we as artists enter other spaces that don’t necessarily represent our own lived experience.” He acknowledged that all artists do this, but, he asked, “if we say yes, that’s what we’re going to do as a community, then what’s our responsibility?”

The answer, McElroy determined, was to learn and understand – Jewish traditions, Yiddish language and culture, and Jewish life in Eastern European shtetls. Even before the roles in Fiddler had been cast, he gathered all the musical theater students to meet Rabbi Lisa Stella, Director of Religious Life and Education at UM Hillel, Rabbi Josh Whinston of Congregation Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor. Students also met with Christi-Anne Castro, Acting Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for SMTD.

“I was really honored to be asked to speak to them,” Stella says, “and I think it showed sensitivity from everyone involved.”

McElroy began the process by asking if the department’s Jewish students and rabbis felt it was appropriate, as McElroy states, “for a diverse group of artists to tell a story steeped in Jewish culture and tradition, like Fiddler on the Roof”. .” The answer was a resounding yes.

The characters from ‘Fiddler’ come to life this weekend with the help of costume designer Beth Goldenberg.

Once the roles were assigned, McElroy scheduled the students for a series of sessions with UM professors and other educators, inviting them to meet the students and discuss a wide range of topics. One of the guests was Mira Sussman, a Jewish educator and resettlement resource development manager for Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County. Along with Stella, Sussman spoke with the students about Jewish identity and history, explaining that “Judaism is not just an ethnicity or a religion, but it is also a way of life and a culture.”

And while there are many examples of persecution throughout Jewish history, Sussman emphasized the joy of his Jewish identity, noting “trauma and discrimination are not the totality of our lived experience.” The session ended with the teaching of the hora, the traditional circle dance that characterizes many Jewish weddings and bar and bat mitzvah celebrations.

Levinson told the students that the era depicted in Fiddler was a period of significant transition in Eastern Europe; many people embraced revolutionary ideologies, he noted, and “rejected tradition and rejected religion and rejected hierarchies of all kinds”.

At the same time, Levinson asked students to think about how Fiddler not only reflects the era depicted in the musical, but the era in which it was written. He encouraged them to view the musical, written in the early 1960s, as “an expression of postwar American Jewish culture.”

Levinson pointed out that the themes explored in Fiddler – “conflicts between tradition and modernity, conflicts over gender, over the role of individual decision-making, love, [and] longing for the needs of the community” – resonating with people from many cultures around the world.

In support of the performance, you can find a collection of Polish Fiddler on the Roof posters from the past four decades on display until March 18 at Weiser Hall (Gallery Space, 5th Floor).

In another session, Stella sat down with the students to discuss Shabbat, sharing relevant passages from the Torah. “I wanted to ground them a bit in the context of what the Jewish Sabbath is,” she says, “and how important it is as part of Jewish life.”

Stella also gave students an idea of ​​how Eastern European Jews in Fiddler’s day would have celebrated Shabbat. And finally, she shared her own Shabbat traditions with them, setting a table with a tablecloth, her grandmother’s candlesticks and a cup of kiddush, the special vessel for wine that accompanies the Shabbat blessing.

Mikhail Krutikov, head of the Department of Slavic Languages ​​and Literatures and Preston R. Tisch Professor of Judaic Studies, met with the students via Zoom and painted a picture of life in the shtetl, sharing pictures, describing the market and explaining that Jews and Christians coexisted in these villages and the surrounding area.

“Understanding the historical context adds depth and complexity to performance and helps actors create more nuanced and multi-layered characters,” says Krutikov.

The process involved in preparing this production of Fiddler was not without its challenges. But that work is essential, McElroy says.

“How do we earn this right, to enter into an experience that is not ours? By doing the work and bringing your empathy, bringing your humanity and honoring [that story] telling it as fully as possible,” he says.

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