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July 16, 2018 1:36 pm

Cast of New Yiddish ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ Broadway Musical Learns Language on the Fly

avatar by Shiryn Ghermezian

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A scene from a “Fiddler on the Roof” Broadway revival in June 2016. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

A new Broadway musical based off the popular film “Fiddler on the Roof” is being performed for the first time ever in Yiddish, a language that was fairly unfamiliar to the show’s cast and director before the project, according to the New York Post.

Since its 1964 debut on the big screen, “Fiddler on the Roof” has been revived five times on Broadway around the world in four languages: English, Japanese, German and Hebrew. The original story, set in Russia in 1905, is about a Jewish father named Tevye, his five daughters and Yente the matchmaker. It is currently playing in Yiddish at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City’s Battery Park and has just been extended by a week.

Walking into the project, the Broadway show’s director, Joel Grey, and most of the 26-member cast, except for three people, knew very little Yiddish, which is the native language of “Fiddler on the Roof” creator Sholem Aleichem. The scripts were written in English with the dialogue and song lyrics spelled out phonetically, according to the New York Post.

“We worked first in English and if that went well, we’d add the Yiddish,” Grey told the publication. He added that both he and the cast received daily training from dialect experts at the Museum of Jewish Heritage.

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Grey was shocked when offered to director the Broadway show, he admitted. He said, “When they called and asked me to direct this, I thought, ‘Whoa!’ Then they said, ‘In Yiddish!,’ and there was another ‘Whoa!’ I said, ‘Let me sleep on it.’ Then I thought, this was something I should do.”

He explained that the new “Fiddler on the Roof” is “the same score and the same show, but it feels so different, so authentic.” He also revealed that Tevye and his family are forced to leave their home in the new revival.

The project was helmed by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, which worked with a 1965 translation of the story done by an actor-director who staged “Fiddler on the Roof” in Israel, according to the New York Post. Folksbiene’s production is spoken and sung in Yiddish, with English subtitles.

“I think I’ll fool people who don’t know the language,” said Broadway actress Jackie Hoffman, who plays Yente. “It’s all about the sounds. I’ve always been good at the cha.” She added that while most audience members will need the subtitles, “Fiddler” is “so universal, it’s probably chiseled in your brain!”

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