Fiddler on the Roof (屋根の上のヴァイオリン弾き)

Archives:「屋根の上のヴァイオリン弾き」(Fiddler on the Roof)

27 February 2006 (Mon), Tokyo

Much-revived Japanese-language version of the Broadway hit. Ichimura Masachika takes over as the fourth Tevye, a role still associated with the definitive Morishige Hisaya (who I saw 20 years ago). I remember Morishige as a gruff, commanding presence who pretty much molded the part to his own personality, not so much acting Tevye as simply playing himself. It worked perfectly in the Japanese context, which is more like a family drama than a broader tale of how to preserve tradition in a changing world.

Ichimura takes a broader path, going for the comedy however he can get it. It seems more a “performance” than Morishige’s natural presentation. I’m not sure if this is his take or the director’s. For example, in the bar scene leading to “To Life”, Lazar Wolf would only fill Tevye’s glass slightly, indicating that he is being stingy with the liquor. That’s not the image I recall from the original and doesn’t feel right given that Lazar is asking Tevye for his daughter’s hand in marriage. That would seem the director’s fault. But Ichimura drags out the joke by looking at the glass and muttering “kechi” (cheapskate) under his breath – several times. He was guilty of such belabored moments on numerous occasions, which became very tiresome at times. He also had a strange take on the “On the other hand…” monologues. At the same time, his singing was strong, and he did dominate the show as any Tevye should. But I wish the director had reined him in a bit more. Actually, a lot more.

The most curious aspect of the production is the shift in focus. I would have thought that the theme of tradition versus change would have been a perfect match for Japanese viewers – actually I couldn’t imagine how this could even have been avoided since it is so explicit. But the Japanese creators refashion this as a story of family love, attempting to show a purity of heart that they say Japan is in danger of losing. The lyrics have been revamped considerably in spirit, though it’s not clear in some cases whether this was reinterpretation or simply misinterpretation. “Matchmaker”, for one, was a breathtakingly bad translation, with none of the humor of the original; I seriously wonder if the translator understood it, as simple as it seems. More interesting, though, was “Do You Love Me?” In the original, the lyrics go:

“Do you love me?”

      “Do I love him?…

       For twenty-five years, my bed is his.

       If that’s not love, what is?”

       “Then you love me?”

       “I suppose I do.”

      “And I suppose I love you too.”

The confession here is almost begrudging but very charming for that, as if these two, almost like teenagers, are still somewhat embarrassed to speak openly about their feelings. They still have a foot in the old rule-bound world, afraid or unable to move fully along the freer path being taken by their daughters. To me, this seemed very Japanese in that it conveyed a feeling without actually saying it, and I would have guessed that this would have translated very well. In Japan, however, the lyrics are the polar opposite:

“愛しているかい?”  (Do you love me?)

“どうかしら?  (Hmm…)

長い年月を一緒に  (For all these many years)

喜びや悲しみを分けあってきた (We’ve shared joy and sadness)

二人よ (The two of us)

これがほんとの愛” (That is true love)

“愛しているかい?” (So you love me?)

“愛しているわ” (I do love you.)

“愛しているよ、俺も” (And I love you too.)

Here the husband and wife are pouring out their feelings sincerely, which changes the dynamics of the scene considerably. I suppose it is a valid approach, though it seems to go against character for both Tevye and Golde. More than this, it strips away the number’s humor in exchange for mush. For me, this symbolized the problem with the show as a whole.

In the souvenir program, the producer and director both say outright that they see the show’s theme as love among couples, families, communities and friends, and there’s nary a mention of tradition as even a minor theme. I think that they’ve missed the point and that the show is much deeper. But it’s hard to argue with success: the theatre was sold out (I was lucky to get cancellations a week earlier), and the audience – very old, very female – seemed to laugh and cry in all the right spots. I did see an English-language tour starring Topol in Tokyo many years back that seemed to go over quite well, and I’m curious to see how audiences would react to a Japanese version directed in American or Western style. But that’s just not going to happen.

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