Guest Blogger Johanna Pinzler: Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick – Fiddler On The Roof

18 May

Johanna is the love of my life, a singer of songs.

—–

My Bat Mitzvah was in 1986.  I received many wonderful and varied gifts ranging from Savings Bonds, Tiffany’s heart necklaces and fountain pens to United Colors of Benetton and Ton Sur Ton gift certificates. But one remarkable gift in particular had a lasting impact on my life.

My cousin Faye gave me 30 cassette tapes that she had personally dubbed from LPs of original Broadway Cast musicals.

What this gift lacked in cost it made up for in a huge number of man hours and obvious love.  They came in a special cassette suitcase which held exactly 30 tapes onto which Faye had painstakingly recorded what she believed to be the best or at least the most important that musical theatre history had to offer up until that point.  I had already expressed a clear interest in Broadway and Musical Theatre and being a fan and ‘person of the theatre’ she took it upon herself to put me on a path I have never veered from.

I am not only a musical theatre geek (and I say this with utmost pride) I am a WELL EDUCATED musical theatre geek.  These 30 recordings which started my library, which would grow to include countless more, included obvious choices such as The King and I, West Side Story, The Music Man and The Pajama Game but also had in its ranks lesser remembered old chestnuts such as Flora the Red Menace, Fiorello, and The Unsinkable Molly Brown and finally also included less successful (but no less worthy of a listen) shows such as The Me Nobody Knows and Merrily We Roll Along.  She even made a point of putting asterisks on any songs she thought I could (or eventually should) sing.

I think Faye did this with remarkable foresight and a sense of purpose; for this gift set me on a lifelong love affair with the American Musical Theatre.

Faye had also been a performer herself and one of her claims to fame had been sharing a dressing room with Bette Midler and Adrienne Barbeau when she played Spritze/Grandma Tzeitel in the original record-breaking Broadway run of Fiddler on the Roof (which was also, of course, included in the 30 tapes).

Which brings me to this week’s blog focus for “The 1000”, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s masterpiece, the original Broadway cast recording of Fiddler on the Roof.

It has been said by many, and I have to agree, that it is one of the most complete and flawless musical scores ever created.  It is hard for me to imagine that there was ever a time when the opening violin strains were not recognizable, not evoking both emotion and nostalgia about a time and place where I (and indeed most American listeners) had never been.  I can boast a distant ancestral connection to the world of Fiddler but my family came to this country before 1905 so although the idea of pogroms were nightmarish and told like Jewish horror stories they weren’t real, at least not to me.

Avri put the recording on at dinner the other night and I was struck that although I have not listened to individual songs in at least 10 years and the whole show in even longer I knew every single word.  I can sing all 4 parts of the opening number “Tradition” and am still oddly moved by “Sabbath Prayer.”  I still think “Wonder of Wonders” and “Now I Have Everything” are some of the greatest expressions of love by men to women onstage ever. As a kid I fancied myself as Tzeitel and could think of no greater match for myself than Motel the Taylor.

While I can appreciate the gravitas of it I never got all of the fuss over “Sunrise Sunset.”  Sure it’s a beautiful song but I always found it somehow pushy and a little bit cheesy. Maybe over the years I heard it at one too many Jewish weddings. But I do understand the longevity of classics like “If I Were a Rich Man” (particularly Zero Mostel’s version), “Matchmaker,” and “To Life.”  They are undeniably catchy and funny while never turning into an offensive ethnic joke.  To this day,”Tevye’sDream” holds up as one of my all-time favorite musical theatre scenes and the recording is so fantastic that you can almost imagine it unfolding before your eyes.

Fiddler, probably, could not have been written today with our world so closely policed by what is or is not politically correct.  This truth only serves to make me thankful that it was, in fact, written in the 60s and hit upon the perfect cocktail of ethnic pride, curiosity and the star power of Mostel combined with an audience of baby boomers and, more importantly, their elders, longing for something that felt safe and traditional and groundbreaking all at the same time.

As a post script to this wandering blog post I should mention that I got to play Golde in Hebrew School, which no doubt at least partially contributed to my intense familiarity with the music and lyrics.  I must have been 12 or 13.  It was the first in a long line of roles I would play.  Roles of ballsy women I was far too young to play (including Miss Hannigan in Annie, Mother Superior in Agnes of God and Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd).

Ironically when I was actually an actor in my 20s and 30s I went in for multiple cattle calls for productions (usually touring companies) of Fiddler on the Roof and I was never once called back.  I couldn’t understand it.  I got a sit down with a well-known casting director once and asked him why he thought that was.  He looked right at me and said “Well you don’t look Jewish, you look more Armenian.”

He told me I should audition for Zorba.

I was flabbergasted.  I have always been able to play certain ambiguous ethnicities having been called back for or cast as Italian, Greek, Black Irish and even Puerto Rican, but apparently my own ethnicity was a stretch.  There’s still plenty of time though, maybe someday I’ll get to play Golde again or Yente the Matchmaker.

You can pretty much never get too old for that one.

—–

Johanna Pinzler has an MFA, a husband (who you may be familiar with) and a daughter.  Most often she can be found on subways reading her Kindle while she commutes from Brooklyn to the Bronx and the Upper East Side where, depending on the day, she teaches Theatrical Directing, Acting and Public Speaking.  In her alternate reality she is a Professional Director with a regular gig in Sonoma County, CA miraculously getting paid to do what she loves. 

In her past life she got paid to sing rock and roll and show tunes in piano bars. 

Go to www.johannapinzler.com so you can look at pictures of productions she has directed and hire her as an acting coach. 

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