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Fiddler on the Roof Israeli/Yiddish Cast Recording

Sometimes listening to musicals in another language can be a disorienting experience. But Fiddler on the Roof is completely at home in Yiddish ... which will come as a surprise to nobody, and even if the characters are presumably supposed to be speaking in Russian. Of course, I can't understand the lyrics so can't speak to the poetry or appropriateness of the translation, but it certainly sounded natural.

Not only is Fiddler's music - out of story necessity - based on Jewish musical traditions, so are many of the classic musical theatre scores. It was Jerome Kern who was supposed to have said, when asked about his approach for a proposed adaptation of the novel Messer Marco Polo, a book written by an Irish writer about an Italian in China: "I will write good Jewish music." Or Cole Porter, acutely aware of being a Gentile in a Jew-dominated field, who said to Richard Rodgers that the secret to writing successful musical theatre music was "Simplicity itself. I'll write Jewish tunes."

So Fiddler fits naturally into the corpus of musical theatre standards of its day, and this version no less so.

Fiddler has so many great songs: "Tradition", "Matchmaker, Matchmaker", "If I Were a Rich Man", "Sabbath Prayer", "Sunrise, Sunset", "The Wedding Dance" ... in fact, I don't think there's a single weak number in the Act I. One of the reasons the show's second act feels flat in comparison is because there's really only one standout musical moment, "Anatevka" (and maybe "Far from the Home I Love" if the Hodel nails the singing ... which Etty Grottes doesn't on this album); but the first act can't be beat for bang-for-buck.

This 1965 Israeli cast, led by Shmuel Rudenski as Tevye, is best at the exuberant numbers. The more tender songs - "Sabbath Prayer" and "Anatevka" - aren't as evocative or beautiful as other versions I've heard, but the high-energy pieces all work. Well, the tenor in "To Life" sounds just a tiny bit drunk ... but then, that's not out of character! Also, Albert Cohen sounds positively manly in "Miracle of Miracles" - this Motel definitely benefited from a Tzeitel-inspired testosterone injection.

Incidentally, just found that a Melbourne-based Jewish punk rock band (and who'd ever have thought you'd see those words back-to-back in a sentence?) called Yidcore has released a cover of the show titled Fiddlin on ya Roof. Will have to search this out, if only to see how the anarchic sensibility of punk meshes (or clashes) with the conventions of this very traditional musical, and if this can be sustained for an entire "cast" album.

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