(Illustration/Forward-Anya Ulinich)
(Illustration/Forward-Anya Ulinich)

Can an all-Mormon cast pull off ‘Fiddler on the Roof’? I went to Utah to find out.

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It’s a Saturday morning in mid-November and Peter Morgan is pacing the scuffed wooden floors of the rehearsal room. He’s wearing a scraggly beard and a black shirt reading “My favorite chord is Gsus” as he struggles with Yiddish dialect for his lead role of Tevye in Brigham Young University’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Morgan, like much of the undergraduate cast, hasn’t slept much. Everyone is frazzled, sweaty and panting after a run-through of “To Life,” one of the show’s biggest numbers. The cast doesn’t have access to the stage yet, so tape on the floor of a barren rehearsal room marks out imaginary sets. During the acrobatic dance numbers, the students’ twirls and somersaults bring them dangerously close to my spot at the front of the room, and I have to lean back to avoid their arms and legs.

“Zeitl,” Morgan says, then corrects himself: “Tzei-tl.”

Off to the side, several cast members waiting for their entrance follow suit, muttering the name of Tevye’s second daughter under their breaths, with mixed success. Everyone seems able to say “tsar” just fine, but Tzeitl poses a challenge.

“Tzeitl,” Morgan says again, and the director, a wiry man with a poof of white hair, glances at me for approval.

I nod.

I had arrived in Provo, Utah, earlier that week to explore why the flagship university for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — commonly called Mormons, though they no longer use that term for themselves — would stage this quintessentially Jewish musical.

I’ve been fascinated by religion my whole life, and have two degrees in religious studies. I’ve studied my own Judaism, of course, but also the major cultural force that is American Christianity. The BYU production was, in many ways, my dream story: In graduate school, I’d written a paper on the evolution of “Fiddler.” And what is Mormonism, founded right here in the United States, if not the most American form of Christianity?

But as the only Jew in the room at BYU, it was difficult to remain a neutral researcher; by the end of that first rehearsal, I had become the de facto fact-checker for pronunciations, ritual elements and other Jewish trivia. I hadn’t been able to restrain myself from whispering corrections to the student dialect coach, and he took the opportunity to have me demonstrate not only the correct pronunciation of “Tzeitl,” but also “Chava” and “L’chaim.”

Questions kept coming: Should the actors kiss their hand, then touch the mezuzah, or touch the mezuzah, then kiss their hand? (The latter.) Should there be a bottle of wine on the table for the “Sabbath Prayer” scene? (Definitely.) Should they blow out the Shabbat candles? (Definitely not.)

Judaism wasn’t the only thing that was foreign to the cast. Alcohol is forbidden to Latter-day Saints, so the cast struggled with “To Life,” which is performed in a tavern after Tevye promises to wed his oldest daughter to the butcher Lazar Wolf.

“You’re all drunk!” music director Korianne Orton Johnson shouted at the cast as they staggered exaggeratedly around the rehearsal room; it would be hard to find a group of college students with less of an idea of what intoxication feels like.

Yet “Fiddler” was familiar to many of them. Several cast members told me they grew up with the musical; some said their parents played “Sunrise, Sunset” at their weddings.

“The community for the Church of Jesus Christ, they love this show,” said Tanner Garner, 23, a member of the ensemble from Bluffdale, Utah.

My challenge was to figure out why — and whether they could pull it off.

Peter Morgan’s Tevye (Photo/Forward-Beau Pearson Photography)
Peter Morgan’s Tevye (Photo/Forward-Beau Pearson Photography)

Mormons are hardly the only non-Jews who love “Fiddler.” It was, after all, on Broadway from 1964 to 1972, and the movie version, which turned 50 last fall, earned international plaudits. The show was written to appeal to a wide audience and, in turn, humanize the Jewish immigrants arriving in droves after World War II.

Plus, with its large ensemble, educational feel and lack of sex and harsh language, “Fiddler” is a natural choice for schools and community theaters, and it’s quite popular at Catholic schools and in other Christian communities: This fall, “Fiddler” was also staged by a community theater in North Platte, Neb., a rural town of about 24,000, and at evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, in Lynchburg, Va.

“There is a similarity here, in many ways, between Christianity and the Jewish faith, and that is that relationship with God,” Chris Nelson, who played Tevye in the Liberty University production, told me. “Jerry Falwell loved this show.”

Darrell Drulinger, who directed the Nebraska production, said he related to the show’s sense of yearning. “There’s this line, toward the end, where the rabbi’s son says, ‘Rabbi, we’ve been waiting for the Messiah for so long, wouldn’t this be a good time for him to come?’ And he says, ‘Yes my son, but we’ll just have to wait for him someplace else,’” he said. “That to me is such a strong statement for both Christians and Jews, and all faiths right now. We’re all waiting for the Messiah to come and take care of us.”

Mira Fox
Mira Fox

Mira Fox is a reporter at the Forward. Get in touch at [email protected] or on Twitter @miraefox.


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