Tradition. Angst. Love. Inter-generational conflict. Religion. Family. Politics. Musical numbers. Matrimony.
Those topics sound heady, heavy, newsworthy and unpredictable, yet weirdly mundane. And they are. But as theater audiences have known for nearly 50 years now, those topics also may be an awful lot of fun - as long as they're accompanied by a nimble violinist.
Area theatergoers will discover this when the curtain rises on "Fiddler on the Roof" at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 29 at the Community Arts Center, 220 W. Fourth St.
Set in 1905 in Tsarist Russia - in the small village of Anatevka - "Fiddler on the Roof" is the story of Tevye (John Preece in the touring production), his family and his fellow villagers as they try to keep their balance in life, like a fiddler on a roof, on the eve of the Russian Revolution. The play is famous for songs like "Tradition," "Sunrise, Sunset" and "If I Were a Rich Man," but most of its songs are instantly recognizable.
As is its plot. A poor milkman, Tevye, has five daughters with no dowry; their hope that the village matchmaker will have a care with their futures is the basis of the song "Matchmaker, Matchmaker." Unfortunately for Tevye, his three oldest - and quite headstrong - daughters fall in love with unconventional choices, forcing Tevye to choose between his staunch love for tradition and his soft, fatherly heart. Over Tevye's head also hangs the threat of an edict from the Tsar that would evict all Jewish people from their villages and dangerously upend life as he, his family, and his fellow villagers know it.
Strong currents of uncertainty, love and yes, tradition, run through "Fiddler," which is based on Sholem Aleichem's short stories. As the play nears 50 - it first debuted on Broadway in 1964 - its themes remain both relevant to the time period it depicts and strikingly contemporary.
"The storyline is so universal," said Gerri Weagraff, who plays Tevye's stern but gruffly affectionate wife, Golde, in the tour production. "No matter what your age or where you come from, you can relate to different aspects of the storyline. You've got the importance of tradition, the conflict between generations, the power and strength of love and family and religion."
While the story is universal, this particular production is unique - and the cast and director, Sammy Dallas Bayes, are keeping one very important tradition alive when it comes to "Fiddler's" rich onstage history.
When "Fiddler" arrived on Broadway, it was in the hands of Jerome Robbins, who both directed and choreographed the original production. This production brings that direction and choreography back to life onstage. Bayes worked under Robbins on the original production, and, according to Weagraff, has been entrusted with keeping the staging of the original production alive. He's done so since "Fiddler on the Roof" closed on Broadway.
"Robbins became (Bayes') mentor, encouraging him in his career as a director and choreographer," Weagraff said, "Bayes has basically gone on to be the one who has been tapped to preserve the original direction and choreography for many many productions around the world for several decades."
As a result, "we have a direct connection - literally a direct connection to Jerome Robbins through our director, Sammy," Weagraff said. "When people are seeing our production they're seeing the original production."
It's a chance not often offered; when a show closes on Broadway, its book's magic can be recaptured, but the experience is never quite the same. Adaptations and revivals put their own spin on a work; new casts and crews bring different energies to life. For a production to bring its current cast's creativity to Robbins' original direction and choreography promises an evening of a new sort of theatrical verve, one that audiences may find, in the same moment, both new and oddly familiar - a blend of tradition with the talents of new and different performers.
Weagraff herself is no stranger to the evolution of theatrical productions or to "Fiddler on the Roof." She has performed in "Fiddler" four different times, from 1973 until now. When she joined the national touring company as Golde two years ago, she had already played Hodel, Tzeitel and Grandma Tzeitel in other productions. A community theatre veteran who balanced work, family and theatre for decades, her role as Golde marks her first professional role.
But "Fiddler on the Roof" shaped her life long before Golde entered it. It was the first play in which Weagraff performed, on her high school stage. Then, in 1986, Weagraff met her husband in a new production; she played Tevye's oldest daughter, Tzeitel, he played Tzeitel's shy tailor love interest, Motel.
"The show has a tremendous amount of meaning to me," Weagraff said. "I really wouldn't be who I am today without it,"
"Fiddler" also had an inherent attraction to Weagraff, who is Jewish, and whose ancestors are from small Eastern European and Russian towns like Anatevka. But while the show's cultural legacy is an undeniable part of its appeal, Weagraff does not think that is the only reason for the show's enduring popularity.
"It was about a particular culture, the Jewish culture, but the themes in the show cross all cultures and all ages and all time periods," she said. "It's timeless. It's timely and it's timeless. It will never become old. It will never become outdated. It's just basic values that everyone can relate to."
"And it's funny," she added. "It's got a little of everything in it, in addition to a wonderful story. It's funny, it's touching, it's heartbreaking it's heartwarming. And in a sense it's uplifting."
It's uplifting despite the political turmoil that hovers over the play's other, lighter celebrations and tribulations. That too is something the production takes from "Fiddler's" original Broadway roots.
"Our director told us that Jerome Robbins was insistent on that ending not being sad and depressing, but rather more (the story) of a resilient people (who say), 'We are going to hold our heads high, we're going to pick ourselves up,' " Weagraff said. "You're telling us to leave and we're going to say, 'OK.' We're going to move on and build a better life for ourselves."
While hardly under dire circumstances, the national tour has been criss-crossing the United States and Canada since October. Before that was a summer break and then rehearsals for the new season. According to Weagraff, despite this being her second year, and despite the fact that she's performed "Fiddler" hundreds of times - her first year involved 200 performances, this year 170 - it never feels redundant.
"I'm just in love with this show," she said. "I don't think I'll ever get tired of it. Every time I hear that violin start up ... I don't think it will ever get old for me."
Audiences who have felt the same way about "Fiddler" are what have caused the play to resonate with audiences for the past 50 years. It's a tradition that nonetheless speaks to many contemporary hearts.