5 Questions from Over the Pond: Maria Friedman & Jackie Hoffman
Fiddler on the Roof has one of the most storied histories in the world of theatre and has undeniably stood the test of time ever since its 1964 Broadway premiere. The more things change, the more they stay the same, as the old saying goes, and every time a new socio-political crisis or racial tensions rear their ugly heads in the world today, the themes of Fiddler seem more relevant than ever.
As the current refugee crisis continues to make headline news, thanks to the Menier Chocolate Factory, Fiddler is currently enjoying a new lease of life in the West End. Following its sold-out run at the highly celebrated and intimate London venue from November of last year through to March, Sir Trevor Nunn’s revival was quickly greenlit for a transfer to the Playhouse Theatre, where it continues to play until November 2.
Robert Jones’ evocative set design has transformed the Playhouse’s auditorium into the shtetl of Anatevka, immersively encompassing audience members in the stalls. As soon as you enter the space, you have become a part of this community and even the distinctive smell hits you as you search for your seat. With period costumes, loyal to the turn of the century, and Jerome Robbins’ iconic choreographed carefully preserved, Nunn’s production is a true testament to Fiddler’s legacy.
On the other side of the pond, and for the first time ever in the United States, a Yiddish language version became a phenomenal success at the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene last summer. So much so that, following multiple extensions at NYTF, the production moved to a larger theatre (Stage 42) and continues its history-making run there until January 5, 2020. Under the direction of Tony and Academy Award winner Joel Grey, the cast perform this interpretation of Fiddler (which debuted in Israel in 1965) entirely in Yiddish, accompanied by both English and Russian supertitles.
To celebrate Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s classic musical’s renewed success on both sides of the Atlantic, we decided to pair up two legendary names of the theatre to participate in this month’s edition of “5 Questions from Over the Pond.”
Representing the West End revival is none other than three-time Olivier Award winner Maria Friedman, who plays Golde as a formidable, maternal force to be reckoned with. Indeed, she is a formidable person in her own right, courageously winning a battle against breast cancer and returning to the limelight some fifteen years ago. Her many acclaimed West End credits include her Olivier wins for Ragtime, Passion, and Maria Friedman: By Special Arrangement, her Olivier nominations for Sunday in the Park with George, Lady in the Dark, Chicago, and The Woman in White (which also led to her Broadway debut in 2005), and she famously starred as The Narrator in the 1999 film version of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. TV fans may also recognise her as Elaine Peacock on long-running soap opera “EastEnders” or as Trish Baynes in hospital-drama “Casualty.”
Representing the New York revival is the much-loved comic actress Jackie Hoffman, who plays relentless matchmaker Yente and who earned a Lucille Lortel Award nomination this year for her efforts. The Queens native has built a steady fan base on Broadway thanks to her side-splitting performances in the likes of Hairspray, Xanadu, On The Town, The Addams Family, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and is nothing short of dream-casting for Anatevka’s resident cupid-for-hire.
Ladies, take it away… and Shalom aleichem!
1) Jackie: Anti-Semitism and anti-immigration is on the rise in both our countries. I have heard that there is large anti-Israel sentiment in London as well. Has that affected the reaction to the show? Dying to know what your audience response is like?
Maria: Tragically yes, we have a swathe of anti-Semitism and racism sweeping this country. It is forefront in my mind. I can’t believe how current the story of ‘Fiddler’ is today. Our audience warms my heart and gives me hope. We have so many Muslim people coming to see our show. Our black community has embraced us. This story, tragically is still relevant. We as a country are lurching to the right. Historically Britain has been a melting pot and has embraced the displaced and people fleeing from terror. It feels we are closing the door, that’s why these stories are more important than ever. Our audiences to a man relate to this story and at the end of the show are on their feet weeping and cheering.
2) Jackie: We had a fascinating audience of refugees here on world refugee day. They taught us how universal the show is. Has your director focused on this universality and made the show less about a Jewish family and more about a family persecuted and forced to leave their country?
Maria: Yes, our Director Trevor Nunn has focused on the universality of the show, however we have a very immersive set, designed by Rob Jones, and we are clearly in a 1906 Russian imperial shtetl that embraces the whole auditorium. We literally have some audience members on the stage with us. We are in authentic costumes and are deeply respectful to the Jewish traditions. However, this is a story of family, love is the centre of the piece and that’s something we can all relate to.
3) Jackie: I love that Yente and Golde are both very strong women. Yente has no children and is a business woman. Golde is a solid wife and mother to say the least. Our director Joel Grey kept driving into our Golde that she had command and control of her household and is a tough broad. What are your keys to Golde? How do you see her? Are you drawing on your mother, and being a mother yourself?
Maria: Golde is the most wonderful woman. Yes, of course I draw on being a mother. I have opted to play her warm, full of heart, humour with a lion’s passion for keeping her brood safe. Yes, she’s tough but I prefer to think of her as wise and strong. Her five girls have been allowed to think for themselves because of their mother’s proper thought and care and a father, who despite himself, can listen.
4) Jackie: According to Wikipedia, which is a horrible way to find out about anyone, your Dad was Jewish and your Mom not? Was there any religion in your home growing up? Did one parent “win” that conflict?
Maria: In our house we were not brought up with any particular religion, however we were taught about them all.
5) Jackie: I went back to a show a week and a half after hip replacement surgery, but that’s small potatoes compared to your heroic feat. What got you through it? With me it’s adrenaline, the mind over matter magic of “Dr. Theatre” and of course the fear that my understudy will be better than me.
Maria: Congratulations on your successful operation, I hope it is not causing any difficulties. I suppose a need to be useful and a need to contribute, not to be defined by illness, and a deep, deep love of telling stories. Isn’t it moving how this story has connected us over the Atlantic. Great stories know no boundaries!
Check out Maria Friedman's 5 questions for Jackie Hoffman on our New York Theatre Guide sister site here!
Fiddler on the Roof Tickets are available now for performances through to November 2, 2019.