The humble Russian village of Anatevka, a landmark locale on the theatrical map, has been fully renovated. For the 40th anniversary revival of Fiddler on the Roof, director David Leveaux instituted a renewal program on its famed design, which withstood an initial run of nearly eight years (in three Broadway houses) and three revivals until its present incarnation.
Gone is scenic designer Boris Aronson's turntable set, a popular, Tony-nominated construction, though you'll still find glimmers of Marc Chagall's paintings in the overall approach. Patricia Zipprodt's Tony-winning costumes have also been made over, and new lighting and sound designs inaugurated.
The result is a bedrock authenticity meant to bring you closer to the century-old community that Sholom Aleichem created in his timeless stories, which composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick then embroidered with their legendary score, which includes “Tradition,” “Matchmaker,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” and “Sunrise, Sunset.” Says scenic designer Tom Pye, “We tried not to impose our own egos too heavily. We want to share the show with audiences, as if we were offering a fable.”
Given his avant-garde work with director Deborah Warner, including his hellishly modernistic set for last season's Medea, Pye would seem an unusual choice for Fiddler, “but what David was looking for was a European aesthetic,” he says. To further go against the grain of the tried-and-true, Leveaux brought in lighting designer Brian MacDevitt and costume designer Vicki Mortimer, who so stunningly reupholstered his revival of Nine last season. Acme Sound Partners solved the tricky audio issues involved with the enormous Minskoff Theatre.
“I think we all tried very hard to stay in contact with the individuals and the community of characters,” says Nevin Steinberg, co-founder of Acme Sound Partners. “There is a beautifully melancholy and earthy feel to the physical production that we tried to mirror as closely as possible with the sound of the show. We didn't break out an ‘audio bag of tricks’; rather we stayed very clean and dry, and as credible as possible.”
The design team has managed to fill a vast space without sacrificing intimacy. Handsome period lamps have been arrayed throughout the Minskoff, suggesting a synagogue and bathing the interior in a contemplative gas-lit glow. Pye's set — an open stage with a wood floor, patches of earth, and clusters of leaves fallen from dominant birch trees, demarcated by side panels that open onto an abstracted hillside and further defined by minimal but judicious use of props — is reminiscent of the plays of a different sort of pre-revolutionary Russian. Says Mac-Devitt, “I used to kid around and say, ‘Just over our hill there are these three sisters wondering if they'll ever get back to Moscow.’ This shtetl really could exist in this time with all of Chekhov's characters.” To make this Fiddler as homespun on the ears as it is on the eyes, Steinberg says, “The challenge was to take an intimately conceived production in a very large theatre, maintain the focus of the sound and still energize the space.”
To bring the seriocomic tale of Tevye (more modestly portrayed than usual by Alfred Molina) and his problems with his marriageable daughters even closer to the audience, Pye has put in a wooden platform that extends over the orchestra pit, where much of the story unfolds. “One of the big factors in the speaker hang was having the forestage pushed out over the existing orchestra pit and two rows of the audience,” says Steinberg. “This moved our whole speaker plot downstage about 14' from where it might hang on the conventional configuration.
“Our cluster consists of five L'Acoustics ARCS and two additional Meyer MSL-2s for the main floor, and three L'Acoustics dV-DOSCs for the long throw to the mezzanine. Gene O'Donovan and Hudson Scenic Studio Co. did an excellent job of fabricating the proscenium truss to accommodate the speaker hang in the cluster position. There is very little headroom there in the Minskoff, and the rig was very well thought out.”
As befits a production that emphasizes the importance and value of community in the face of changing times, the displaced orchestra members are now seated upstage left, near the actors. “I costumed them as cheaply and as cleanly as I could — nobody thanks you for costuming an onstage band, least of all the money people,” Mortimer says.
The relocation of the orchestra had Acme fiddling with Fiddler, “trying to maintain focus on that source while still helping to fill the room with music,” Steinberg says. “An onstage orchestra is always a challenge for timing, isolation, and monitoring. In this case the bigger issue was that they were positioned upstage left. So not only was there an arrival time issue to contend with, but they were oriented asymmetrically to the seating. This was the most significant audio challenge that we addressed. The left side of the house has a wide-open view of the musicians. As you move to the middle of the house, your aspect to the orchestra closes down, and by the time you're in house right, whole sections are out of view.
“We wanted to be able to seamlessly source to the orchestra through all sections of the house. Through some unconventional routing at the console and in the wiring of the loudspeakers, we were able to gradually change the orchestra distribution asymmetrically through what is basically a symmetrical sound system. Conceptually it's a bit complex, but I think we were able to achieve something very comfortable and credible for most of the seats.”
Pye and Leveaux began refurbishing Anatevka last summer, meeting for seven weeks in June and July, six days a week, to hammer out its architecture. “We reached a crisis point in ideas; there were just too many,” Pye recalls. “I gathered up the hundred pieces of paper we generated and put them on a floor in the room. From our discussions about community the idea came to stick the characters in the woods, and the antique oak platform, which has tables and chairs in its leaves. Joseph Stein's book has wonderfully intimate scenes that you want to have in the lap of the audience.”
The fabled roof, here a Hudson Scenic creation that ascends and descends from the ceiling to cap settings that are largely suggested, is central to Pye's vision. “The roof (along with the birch trees) is intended to look fragile, as if it could be destroyed by a gust of wind. It's absurd that someone could stand on it, and is a constant reminder that the traditions the community upholds could easily crumble into dust.” Don't fear for the safety of the fiddler, though. “It's a whacking great steel structure clad in mushroom wood, in which mushrooms are grown so it rots naturally.” All of the soft goods used throughout Fiddler were fabricated by Rose Brand (through Hudson Scenic). This also included a fiber optic curtain built using a special custom-dyed blue wool serge.
FROM RUSSIA WITH RESEARCH
Fact-finding into the décor and customs of the era pointed the way to the props, from Tevye's burdensome milk cart and the birch bark the character of Perchik carries to the hanging lamps, tables, chairs, jugs, and wedding trunks. Mortimer, who first visited the Ukraine in 1992 for a Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Dybbuk and has traveled to Russia and Eastern Europe several times since, shared her findings with her colleagues. The team also consulted books of photographs like The Russian Empire, The Jewish World of Yesterday, and Images Before My Eyes, the last about Poland before the Holocaust. “Tom and I referred to that one more than Vicki, who was making Russian, not Polish, clothes,” says MacDevitt, affirming the designers' fidelity toward accuracy.
“David was keen to make the community as vivid and real as possible,” relates Mortimer. “One of the starting points for this was to make the Anatevkans definitely Russian Jews. In my research I was able to begin to pick out the tangible differences between Jewish dress in a Russian shtetl as opposed to that in, say, a shtetl in Poland. Handcrafts, long boots, the cut of a shirt or working jacket — these passed freely back and forth between the shtetl and the surrounding culture. In this Fiddler, the destruction of a wedding at which the bride's coat is embroidered in a style related to the Ukrainian tradition becomes horribly telling. Otherwise it was in the use of real vintage cloth and trim and in the effort put into distressing the clothing as authentically as possible that we tried to support the vision of the show (besides trying to give each character a distinctive silhouette) while maintaining the overall impression of sartorial habit built up over generations.”
That faithfulness led Pye to purchase most of the props from a shop in St. Petersburg that he came across in his studies. “I stumbled on this place and sent our prop buyer there; there was little difference in price between purchasing there or in the US, where period props look Shaker. Everything onstage is authentically Russian, or replicated from original materials. It gives you the feeling that what's onstage is genuinely old and being passed on from generation after generation.” Says Mortimer, “The result of the buying trip was a delightful authenticity with a very light touch that made the integration of the clothes so much smoother.”
Pye and MacDevitt frequently passed information on how best to light the set and scenic elements. The moon that rises over Anatevka is a prime example. “Brian said what about making it three-dimensional, then I said how about making it a lightbox, so what we have is a translucent 3D lightbox, sidelit and backlit.” While MacDevitt eschewed splashy illumination for Fiddler — “my sense is that if you walked through Times Square to get to this show you've already had enough of a colored light experience for the evening,” he deadpans — the show did give him an opportunity to contest conventional notions of musical theatre lighting.
“I feel we're stuck in this ‘what works in the theatre, what doesn't work, how to button a number, etc.’ kind of mentality,” MacDevitt says. “There's this rule in the theatre, which states that sunlight is gold and moonlight is blue, but in the real world that's not the case. I wanted Fiddler to live in nature, where the moonlight may be yellowed. The Minskoff makes the Metropolitan Opera look intimate but when we have a single figure out there on the platform he or she has a minimal amount of light; there are no false lighting moves or heightened intensity based on how it should look, according to theatre history. I didn't feel obliged to light all of the set all the time.”
Likewise, with the synagogue-type lamps, “getting them to hang in a place that was effective compositionally was a big pain in the ass, with followspots running through them and other lights. The electricians were saying, ‘Hey, you're hitting that lamp,’ but I said, hang on, that's what you learn not to do. As long as someone's not standing with the shadow of a lamp on them while singing a song it's alright.” To wed the show more to nature and ritual, as in the “Sabbath Prayer” number, the LD wanted to keep the followspots incandescent, “but that was a battle we lost; it's too big a house. I don't like using HMI sources on people; I can never get the right color in a show that's more natural. I want it to blend with candlelight and sunlight and HMIs just don't allow for that no matter how much you correct them. They always looks sickly unless you go into pinks or ‘showbiz’ colors. Korrigan followspots from Robert Juliat were the least green HMI that I could find and they had plenty of punch. And we used VARI*LITE® VL3000™ spots, which blow everything else out of the water; they're three times as bright and have three times the zoom matching for lighting scenery and people in a daylight look that blends with an ETC Source Four lamp. These delivered the show to the back of the house but kept it relative to nature.”
SOUND AND VISION
For MacDevitt, who won a Tony Award for the 2002 revival of Into the Woods, this was a journey into a new forested setting. “You couldn't just do Fiddler in the woods; you had to contain it, so we have what we call the ‘Chagall box’ that surrounds the show,” defined by the side paneling and a painted sky recalling the artist's influential works. “It's an abstraction of naturalism. There's a sliver of sky that opens and closes down during the wedding sequence, and opens wide when the pogrom comes. Whatever we did with the sky, it had to look like we cracked open the back of the theater and saw a sky out there, one that could have come from the Hudson River School of landscape art.”
The LD did his best not to get boxed in by the set. “There is a box, and a ceiling, and a forest of trees, but I don't jump up and down and say you have to cut holes in the ceiling so I can have backlight. It's a box, and it's in a musical that cuts out any opportunity to have low sidelight and kickers on a majority of the stage. I really wanted to light the box separate from the trees. I spent days at the drawing board and at Hudson Scenic to figure out a way with these motorized walls to get some light so we could silhouette the trees, and it was impossible. So we saved a lot of money not trying to do that,” he laughs. “Lighting the tree, then lighting the shadow of the tree falling onto the box as a projection, was the best solution.” Additional lighting equipment, provided by Fourth Phase, included VARI*LITE VL1000™ TS and AS units; City Theatrical AutoYokes with Wybron color scrollers; Motion Labs moving light distros; an MDG fogger; L&E Mini-Strips; Arri, W.A.C., and Selecon units; D'Artagnan followspots were used to light the flying ladder during “Tevye's Dream;” and, for David Arch's programming, an ETC Obsession and a Flying Pig Wholehog console.
Fiddler hums along with an audio setup (provided by ProMix) that conveys sound as naturally and evocatively as the lighting. “The signal path at the show begins with excellent microphones: Sennheiser SK-5012 wireless with DPA 4061 elements on the cast and wandering musicians, and a large complement of DPA microphones for the onstage orchestra. These route through a two-frame Cadac console with SAM automation software,” Steinberg says. “Insert delay and equalization are achieved via XTA DP224. TC Electronics M3000s are used for reverb and effects. The back end is all controlled by XTA DP224 and DP226. On the proscenium there are Meyer MSL-2A loudspeakers for the main floor and L'Acoustics ARCS, mounted horizontally, for the shot to the mezzanine. Front fills are Meyer MM-4s and d&b E-3s. All of the delay speakers through the rest of the house are E-3s. Onstage, there are EAW JF-60s and UB-12s for monitoring. There is also one Shure PSM-600 in-ear system in use for the character of the Fiddler. Amplific-ation is Crown MA-3600VZ, Labgrup-pen 2400Q and d&b EPAC.”
Steinberg adds that “Vicki and David Brown [the hair designer] were very accommodating when it came to mike placements.” Mortimer had additional costuming issues to resolve. “Making sure that the bottle dancers' long coats (or kapote) did not get stuck under their knees was not something I had anticipated would be a problem. The dancers' arms are raised throughout the sequence and cannot be used to control things. When the problem emerged, it was rapidly solved in a fitting at Barbara Matera Ltd. We made sure the vent at the back was cut all the way up to the waist seam, and then the whole garment was rebalanced from the shoulder seam, ensuring only the minimum of the skirt ended up under the knee when kneeling.”
Time and budgetary considerations aside — MacDevitt says the team “never really got a chance to tech” the “Tevye's Dream” number, a riot of Chagall-inspired design that came together piece-by-piece — extensive planning and research and on-the-go refinements have given a contemporary generation of theatergoers a new Fiddler on the Roof. “We decided to forge our own path,” says the LD, “and discovered new ways to do it.”
Robert Cashill, a former editor of Lighting Dimensions magazine, freelances from New York.
FIDDLER ON THE ROOF
ASSOCIATE SCENIC DESIGNER
FIRST ASSISTANT SCENIC DESIGNER
DAWN ROBYN PETRILK
ASSISTANT SCENIC DESIGNERS
JOHN DEEGAN, TODD POTTER, AMY SMITH
ASSISTANTS TO TOM PYE
ALAN BAIN, GAETANE BERTOL, DANIELA GALLI, JOANIE SCHLAFER
PRODUCTION PROPS SUPERVISOR
ROBERT G. ADAMS
ROBERT H. BRENNER
ASSISTANT PROPS RESEARCHER
HUDSON SCENIC STUDIO INC.
SOFT GOODS PROVIDED BY ROSE BRAND
ERIC E. SMITH
ADDITIONAL SET AND HAND PROPS
ALEXEY KOROVIN AND PINE STUDIO VENDORS (IGOR DIAKOV, PETER MOLCHANOV, AND PETER SIROTA), ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA GEORGE FENMORE INC.
GENE O'DONOVAN, AURORA STUDIOS
ASSOCIATE LIGHTING DESIGNER
ASSISTANT LIGHTING DESIGNERS
ANNE E. MCMILLS, CHARLES PENNEBAKER
ASSISTANT TO BRIAN MACDEVITT
MOVING LIGHTS PROGRAMMER
ASSOCIATE COSTUME DESIGNER
TRACY L. CHRISTENSEN
ASSISTANT COSTUME DESIGNERS
BRIAN J. BUSTOS, AMANDA CLARK, LYNETTE MAURO
ASSISTANT TO VICKI MORTIMER
BARBARA MATERA LTD., CARLOS CAMPOS, GRACE COSTUME, TRICORNE
MICHAEL-JON COSTUMES AND SCARFATI
COSTUME DISTRESSING AND PAINTING
MARTIN IZQUIERDO STUDIO
GENE MIGNOLA AND DYE-NAMIX
JEFF BLUMENKRANTZ AND VANESSA HOPKINS
ACME SOUND PARTNERS
ASSISTANT SOUND DESIGNER
JEFFREY YOSHI LEE
PRODUCTION SOUND ENGINEER
BACKSTAGE SOUND CREW
DON MCKENNA, STEVE SPEER
ZFX FLYING ILLUSIONS