at the Civic Opera House

You go to nonprofit theater to learn something new. You go to commercial theater to confirm what you already know. One’s about discovery, the other’s about comfort.

More or less, anyway. The lines aren’t as clear as they used to be. And they’re getting blurrier all the time, smudged up by a variety of economic and historical factors, from the demise of Broadway to the advent of the subscription season. Some of Chicago’s best-established nonprofit theaters have adopted the commercial aesthetic with a vengeance over the years, dispensing complacency just like the big boys.

Still, the basic distinction remains–and deserves to be respected, I suppose. Each mode has its uses–has its folkways, its glories, even its classics. Certainly, the Broadway musical from the age of Broadway musicals represents some kind of apotheosis, whether it teaches you something or not. I know I consider Oklahoma! a masterpiece.

Fiddler on the Roof probably isn’t a masterpiece in the timeless, transcendent sense. Or then again, maybe it is. The question’s open to debate. What’s incontestable is that it’s a great piece of commercial theater. More than great: it can be considered the perfect piece of commercial theater. Because Fiddler on the Roof not only confirms what we already know–not only validates who we already are–it celebrates that confirmation and validation. I mean, it’s not for nothing that the first song in this show is called “Tradition.”

Not that tradition’s the real subject of the celebration. To the contrary: a sincere defense of the Jewish shtetl life and values depicted in Fiddler would make for one incredibly uncomfortable evening for most theatergoers–especially most secular Jewish theatergoers, myself included. No, Fiddler actually celebrates the breakdown of a tradition, the dissolution of the order that most American Jews rejected in order to get where we are today. The genius of this musical lies in its uncanny ability to let us wax nostalgic over that tradition even as it’s quietly helping us rationalize our repudiation of it. Like the creme rinse or the car or whatever it is in the commercial, Fiddler’s a show for who we are now.

The plot just offers one tribal catastrophe after another. An ordinary small-town Russian Jew with five daughters, a lame horse, and a personal God, Tevye tries his best to uphold the old ways; but they disintegrate in his hands. First his oldest daughter refuses the rich match he’s made for her, marrying for love instead. Then his second daughter marries a Jewish radical, leaving home to help him wage the revolution. By the time his third daughter elopes with a goy, Tevye thinks he’s reached his capacity for tolerance. But he learns to stomach even that. Meanwhile, the czarist authorities are busy evicting him and all his neighbors from their village. The final image of the show gives us Tevye leading what’s left of his family on a trek that will ultimately take them to America. As he goes, he motions for the Fiddler–symbol of ethnic continuity–to join him on his way.

What’s happened here? Well, Tevye’s entire culture’s been gutted. His universe is in ruins. He himself has betrayed powerful, powerful imperatives. But none of this is to be perceived as tragedy, because the fiddler remains with him. In other words: he’s still a Jew even though everything he thinks of as Jewishness–the laws, the practices, the community, the bloodline–is gone.

How perfectly reassuring. Don’t worry, the show tells us. You may have lapsed into ways that your ancestors would never recognize; whole portions of your line may have dispersed into the world and been lost; but you remain a pure child of Israel, because the fiddler travels with you. Never mind wondering what this fiddler can possibly signify under the circumstances. He’s with you: he’s your confirmation and your comfort. It’s the best you can do.

Of course, Fiddler confirms and comforts in other ways as well–so big and beautiful and perfectly professional in its touring production; so familiar with its litany of classic tunes, from “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” to “Sabbath Prayer” to “Do You Love Me.” You’d think the presence of Topol as Tevye would only add to the lovefest atmosphere of it all. But Topol’s apparently too honest to buy completely into Fiddler’s seductions. Lightly, deftly, but subversively, he plays the darkness underneath. His Tevye recognizes the cataclysm for what it is and won’t quite permit us the luxury of ignoring it. Utterly in control after 25 years of performing the show, Topol gives us a masterful glimpse of what Fiddler’s really about.