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Musicals, Movies, and Mark Twain: Laughing in the Darkness

Zero_Mostel_-_FiddlerWhen I posed the question to my musical theatre history class, “What do the 1960s make you think of?” I got “hippies, Civil Rights Movement, and WEED.” Okay… fair enough… Now, how to connect that general point of reference to Broadway circa 1964, with its blabbering yentes, shtetls, fathers and daughters arguing about arranged marriages, large bearded men waving their arms, humming “ya dadada”? Enter the documentary, Laughing in the Darkness, which does a pretty great job of it, in fact — managing to trace the sing-songy rhythms and big acting style of Tevye the milkman back to his more sober, historical roots.

I thought I’d share some of the film’s insights here, having recently re-watched it for school. (I discovered it a few years ago at “Chicago’s year-round film festival,” The Music Box Theatre, an independent movie house with an ongoing rotation of indie or foreign films, and more recently, its own production and distribution wing). In addition to tracing Fiddler’s back story, the movie details the winding creative process that characterizes the creation of most musicals – for example, building upon more serious artistic material with a greater bandwidth for complexity, and then, depending on your opinion of musicals, either condensing that material into impressively succinct, musical phrases or watering it down completely.

I’m pretty sure that most skeptics would gain respect for this most middle-school-friendly of performance art forms if they realized how much research and artistic collaboration were distilled into the final, big and flashy product. If the product isn’t always sophisticated, the necessary process of collaboration is. Even the silliest, most superficial-seeming song and dance shows have a sort of hidden, layered intelligence that gets masked by the fact that they look and sound like a musical, the dumb blonde of the dramatic arts. Take a classic Rogers and Hammerstein musical like Oklahoma – do you associate it with a psychologically complex ballet in which the protagonist dreams that one of her suitors rapes her, or do you associate it with ten-year-olds dressed as farmers, bopping to “chicks and ducks and geese better scurry…”? Fiddler on the Roof may be less exuberant, but it too belongs to that oft-produced, often poorly produced category of musicals whose catchy songs and universal themes could easily be mistaken as trite.

Sholem AleichemBut the rambling interior monologue of the character, Tevye, the rhythms of his speech, the ticker tape of his religious and personal doubts, his penetrating but wise-cracking, resigned perspective on his family’s increasingly marginalized existence, all of these elements are pulled directly from the historically based short stories of the first widely read Yiddish author, merchant by day, writer by night, Solomon Rabinowitz. Under the pen name, Sholem Aleichem (Hebrew for “peace be with you”), Rabinowitz wrote about the character, Tevye for over 20 years. He was based on an actual village dairyman of the same name, who, just like the character, had several independent-minded daughters and a penchant for chatting up his neighbors.

Like Tevye, Rabinowitz grew up in an insular, rural, Yiddish speaking village (a shtetl) inside the Russian Pale, which was a sectioned-off area for Jewish residents, designated by the Czar. Also like Tevye, mass acts of violence (pogroms) against the Jewish population forced Rabinowitz to migrate, and eventually he found his way to America. By the time he reached the U.S. around 1916, he was considered a world famous Yiddish storyteller, hailed by the Jewish immigrant population in New York as the Jewish “Mark Twain.” Despite being a 47-year-old Russian immigrant who wrote strictly in Yiddish, his stories captured something essential about the American spirit – the tension between old and new, the challenge of preserving one’s heritage within a changing culture, the generation gap between old and young, each progressive in their own way.

Fanny briceThe New York City that Solomon Rabinowitz, aka Sholem Aleichem walked into resembled the song from Spamalot, “You won’t succeed on Broadway if you don’t have any Jews.” Yes, the turn of the 20th century was the gestation period for what eventually became the American musical, spearheaded by Jewish writers and actors: Florenz Ziegfeld, Israel Baline Irving Berlin, Fania Borach Fanny Brice, to name a few.  On some level, a Jewish “sound” – Jewish humor, patterns of speech — were woven into the fabric of the earliest show tunes, from Irving Berlin drawing on the melodies of his rabbi/cantor father to Fanny Brice’s comical Jewish impersonations. Same with Fiddler, about 50 years later, in which lyricist Sheldon Harnick tweaked a lot of Rabinowitz’s original language — for example, “If I were a Rothschild” into “If I were a rich man…”

Sholem_Aleichem_funeralIt turns out that Rabinowitz wasn’t so successful in the states — his foray into playwriting was a huge disappointment and he ended up returning to Western Europe, selling the rights to his stories and travelling from shtetl to shtetl, reciting his works for an adoring following, everyday villagers like those he grew up with. He ended his life in a state of poverty, near-homelessness, and chronic disease, continuing to write, despite the difficulty of holding a pen. World War I forced him back to the states, this time for good. When he died in 1916, 200,000 people attended his funeral, drawing unprecedented attention to the influence and power of the Jewish American community.

Mark_Twain_by_AF_BradleyThe phrase, “laughing in the darkness” refers to the author’s belief that even the most terrible, unspeakable of circumstances contain humor – not as a form of escape, but as an alternate way of appreciating the irony and injustice of a situation. It reminds me of the Oscar Wilde quote, “Life is a comedy to those who think, and a tragedy to those who feel.” The comparison to Mark Twain is apt – as Twain did with American literature, Rabinowitz’s stories, and later, Fiddler on the Roof, use a sense of humor to satirize the injustices and hypocrisy that men are capable of, capture the distinctive, everyday speech of Jewish characters, and create a widespread, popular work based on Jewish culture.

Fast forward to the 1960s, when Fiddler opened. It seems that even in that hairy, free-loving, hippie-driven heyday, America was still coping with Mark Twain-esque, Solomon Rabinowitz-esque questions: how much change can we accept as progressive without losing ourselves? What happens when children exercise the freedom that their parents have given them? Is it possible to laugh through the darkness?

Fiddler_on_the_roof_poster(Food for thought, for the next time you sit through through “Tradition!” “To Life!” or “The Bottle Dance”… I’m sure it will happen soon enough…)

[Photo credits: “Zero Mostel,” Wikipedia Commons, “Sholem Aleichem,” Wikipedia Commons, “Fanny Brice,” License, ky_olsen, CC BY 2.0, “Sholem Aleichem Funeral,” Wikimedia Commons, “Mark Twain by AF Bradley,” Wikimedia Commons]

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2 responses »

  1. Fascinating post! I’m a fan of Mark Twain, and enjoyed Fiddler on the Roof, but knew nothing of Rabinowitz.

    Reply

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