The Show Must Go On(line): The Story of our Reimagined, Virtual Production of Fiddler on the Roof Jr. for COVID Era
June 9, 2020 by
Milton will premiere a reimagined, virtual production of Fiddler on the Roof Jr show on Sunday, June 14 at 7:30pm. Co-Directors Sarah Gershman and Sarah Shapiro, who are parents at the school, and Steven Magenheim, a fourth-grade teacher at Milton, helmed the production. Students have been working with them and a troupe of volunteers comprised of parents, parents of alumni, and a grandparent. Some volunteers have film and theater backgrounds while others have backgrounds in Yiddish, Jewish history, and Jewish literature – all stepped up to support the student thespians as they worked to bring this production to life. The result is Virtual Fiddler on the Roof Jr, a work of art at once familiar and new.
When the school campuses closed in March due to COVID19, the cast and crew met over Zoom to discuss whether they should continue. From the outset, there was a resounding response that “the show must go on.” As one of our sixth graders noted: the “Coronavirus has already taken so much from us – we can’t let it take our production away too.” Sarah, Sarah and Steven then asked the students to imagine what a virtual musical would look like and invited the students to be part of the process. Like the characters in the play, they considered what to keep from the traditional musical model and how to adapt it to changing circumstances. They had to rethink many aspects of the show that are not possible to replicate with social distancing restrictions in place. Our Fiddler team re-imagined scenes that would have included multiple characters in dialogue or song together, and the newly interpreted scenes manage to be both resonant and modern. For example, the English-language “Matchmaker” number has our young women sharing the same hopes, dreams, and, fears in song but their ‘matchmaker’ is an online dating app. Similarly, while the “To Life” number in the original show celebrated the simcha of a planned wedding, our middle school production will present this song as a tribute to the students whose bnei mitzvah had to be revised or postponed during this period. The changed medium also provided new opportunities for creativity as in the scenes when Hodel sings “Far From the Home I Love” in front of a B&O railroad station built in the 1800s and when our Fiddler character actually plays her violin on the roof of her family home.
In addition to meeting creative challenges, they had to tackle technical challenges as well. They had to rethink how to show numbers like “The Wedding Dance” with dancers performing apart and in a small screen format. They had to offer technical guidance on film vs stage performance to our actors and to the family members who would be filming them. Finally, they had to consider both art and pedagogy because this is a middle school production and the student experience is an important factor. This theatrical endeavor gave our ensemble an opportunity to reflect on the challenges of art and history, and the importance of storytelling.
Throughout this adventure, we also experienced moments of unexpected joys and deep gratitude. We had the serendipitous opportunity to learn from a renowned producer and composer – and have him as part of our show. Mr. Mlotek recorded a number from the Yiddish production to share with us for inclusion in our school musical! On April 30, we were honored to have a special evening of learning, stories, and song with Zalmen Mlotek, whose most recent project was the hit Off Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish. Our cast and crew, along with Milton middle school families, were invited to a private event on Zoom. Mr. Mlotek shared behind-the-scenes stories, discussed the impact of the show in New York and internationally, and talked to us about the challenges the show has faced over the years. A musician and composer, he performed numbers from the show, taught us a great Yiddish phrase, and even heard cast members sing Matchmaker in Yiddish. We are thrilled that as part of our production, we have a traditional scene of “Matchmaker” in Yiddish along with a modern version of “Matchmaker” in English.
Since we began the production’s “reboot” from in-person to online, we have been amazed by the creativity, courage, talent and resilience of our middle school actors and the commitment of our visionary volunteers. Just as we are excited to share the final show with our community, we are also inspired by the process of making the show with these talented and tenacious players and producers. Like Tevye, we are balancing tradition with changes that sometimes come unexpectedly. As he says in the scene when Perchik and Hodel break with tradition and announce their engagement: “Love, it’s a new style… On the other hand, our old ways were once new, weren’t they?”