Raising the curtain on ‘Fiddler’
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Raising the curtain on ‘Fiddler’

Rutgers assistant professor Marc Aronson, whose parents designed the original “Fiddler on the Roof” set, will speak at the Rutgers Jewish Film Festival. Photo courtesy Marc Aronson
Rutgers assistant professor Marc Aronson, whose parents designed the original “Fiddler on the Roof” set, will speak at the Rutgers Jewish Film Festival. Photo courtesy Marc Aronson

Marc Aronson, a Rutgers University assistant professor of practice, library, and information science, has marvelous memories of the beginnings of Broadway’s “Fiddler on the Roof.” His father, noted set designer Boris Aronson, assisted by his mother, Lisa Jalowetz, created the iconic imagery — the shtetl residences, the rustic railway station where Hodel said goodbye, and the background for the infamous wedding bottle dance — that has transfixed audiences across the globe over the last half-century.

The original “Fiddler on the Roof” opened Sept. 12, 1964, in New York’s Imperial Theatre, later moving first to the Majestic and then to Broadway theatres during its nearly 10-year run.

The play is based on a series of stories by Sholem Aleichem titled “Tevye the Dairyman,” written in Yiddish in the late 19th century about Jewish life in Russia’s Pale of Settlement, where the Jewish community was forced to reside.

Young Aronson got a sneak peek at the script of the nascent play. “I was just 13 at the time, and my father gave me two scripts to read,” he said. “One had an apocalyptic theme, the other a story, as written by Sholem Aleichem, about a poor Jewish milkman named Tevye. I thought the apocalyptic script was the one to go with, but am certainly glad the other was selected.”

The Rutgers Jewish Film Festival, running Nov. 3-17, will pay tribute to the production with a pair of featured films screening at the AMC New Brunswick on Thursday, Nov. 7, at 12:30 p.m., and Sunday, Nov. 17,
at noon. 

Aronson, 69, a Maplewood resident, will speak to the audience on both occasions, following the screening of two films. “The Fiddle,” a nine-minute short in Yiddish with English subtitles, features a Sholem Aleichem tale about a boy and his beloved fiddle. “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles” is a 99-minute documentary of the musical, featuring archival footage of many luminaries involved in the show, including Aronson, and interviews with Stephen Sondheim; Topol, who played Tevye in the 1971 film adaptation; Lin-Manuel Miranda; and other musical greats.

Boris Aronson, who died in 1980 at age 82 one year after being inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame, was the son of Solomon Aronson, chief rabbi of Kiev and later Tel Aviv. “He got involved in the theater and design, becoming friends with Marc Chagall during work in Berlin and Paris,” Aronson told NJJN. “My father wrote two books on Chagall, the money from which allowed him to immigrate to America in 1923.”

Husband-and-wife team Boris Aronson and Lisa Jalowetz work on set-design plans for the original “Fiddler on the Roof” in 1963. Photo courtesy Marc Aronson

In addition to watching his parents work on the Broadway production, during rehearsals Aronson got to know many of the leading actors. For instance, he went to school with Samuel Joel “Zero” Mostel’s children. Mostel, who played the original Tevye on Broadway, got the nickname “Zero” from his parents because he was more interested in acting than school as a youngster in Brooklyn, according to Mostel’s biography.

“We exchanged a lot of stories in school,” said Aronson. “We also had a lot of fun around the theater.”

Aronson said the “Fiddler” set was designed with circles in mind; anything disruptive to Jewish life in the fictional shtetl of Anatevka was depicted in a straight line.

“Look at the scene with the ‘Sabbath Prayer,’” Aronson said. “You see all the lights in a circle. All is well when there are circles. The railroad is a straight line, which represents a disruption. The final scene, when the main characters are going to America, in a straight line, is the final disruption.”

While dad Boris was the set designer for many other Broadway smashes, including “Cabaret,” “Company,” and “A Little Night Music,” mom Lisa worked very hard as his assistant, but got little public credit in the distributed Playbills, according to Aronson.

“Mom was given a little small-print line that stated she assisted the set designer,” Aronson said. However, “I saw the contributions she made.”

There also were, as expected, artistic clashes on the set as the production took shape, especially between director/choreographer Jerome Robbins and Mostel, who held Robbins in contempt because he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee and hid his Jewishness from the public. Mostel was not the only cast member who was miffed on occasion.

“Jerry was hard to work for at times,” said Aronson. “But he was always coming up with brilliant ideas. What is the show about? Tradition, right? Jerry came up with ‘Tradition.’ Everything came together off that.”

Aronson noted the timelessness of the theme. “The play has always depicted changes in Jewish tradition, what we want to keep and what we need to modify,” he said. “That message was important in the 1960s and remains important today.”

Aronson is married to author Marina Budhos. They have two sons, Sasha and Rafi, and are members of Reconstructionist Bnai Keshet in Montclair.

More information on the Rutgers Jewish Film Festival, now in its 20th
year, and a full schedule of screenings and events can be found at BildnerCenter.Rutgers.edu/film

jweisberger@njjewishnews.com

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