Immigrant themes resonate in 'Fiddler on the Roof' at the Bushnell

Bartlett Sher is known for finding strong thematic connections between the stories from classic Broadway musicals and the world as it is today. He does this subtly, without hitting audiences over the head. He respects what made the shows popular in the first place. He maintains a balance between entertainment and enlightenment.

In the case of “Fiddler on the Roof,” the director seized upon the immigrant experience.

In a recent phone interview, while on a break at tech rehearsals for his eagerly awaited Broadway production of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Sher discusses the tour of “Fiddler on the Roof” coming to The Bushnell Nov. 6 to 11. Hartford is just the fourth stop on the tour. The production is based on Sher’s 50th anniversary Broadway revival of “Fiddler,” which ran in New York from November 2015 to December 2016 and bolstered the show’s status as one of the longest-running and most-revived musicals in Broadway history.

Based on short stories by the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, “Fiddler on the Roof” concerns Tevye, a milkman in the small Jewish shtetl of Anatevka in Russia in the early years of the 20th century. Tevye’s comical and heartwarming squabbles with his family, including rebellious daughters who would rather marry for love rather than submit to the recommendations of a matchmaker, take place in the shadow of the Russian Revolution and the expulsion of Jews from the country.

“I was interested in how it relates to the immigrant and refugee crises,” Sher says. “The villagers of Anatevka are forced to flee their homes. The difference between a refugee and an immigrant is that the refugee has no choice.

“We were doing this [on Broadway] at the time of the Syrian crisis, but of course these crises are happening all over the world.”

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Sher also makes a connection to the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting Oct. 27: the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, targeted in posts by the shooter, was founded in 1881 and helped resettle victims of the Russian pogroms similar to the characters in “Fiddler.”

“The show was in Philadelphia just last week,” Sher says. “The cast is really shaken up.”

“’Fiddler on the Roof” was the first essentially Jewish show,” Sher says. “It had a huge impact in 1964.”

The musical originally starred Zero Mostel, a boisterous larger-than-life performer who won a Tony for a portrayal of Tevye that was often at odds with how the show’s creators saw the character.

“When Herschel Bernardi took over,” Sher suggests, “it changed.” The Israeli actor Topol starred in the 1971 film version. Other famous Tevyes have included Theo Bikel (who visited Connecticut on numerous tours), Harvey Fierstein, Alfred Molina, Luther Adler and Leonard Nimoy.

For his Broadway revival, Sher cast Danny Burstein, an accomplished character actor who finally got his chance to star in a major Broadway musical. On the tour, Tevye is played by Yehezkel Lazarov, an Israeli actor who has also distinguished himself as a director, filmmaker, choreographer and visual artist. Sher, who helped cast the tour and attended some of its rehearsals, says it skews very closely to the Broadway production.

“It’s very much our show. Our Tevye brings a spiritual and powerful energy to it. He’s not that different from Danny.”

Sher’s recent revivals of “My Fair Lady” (still playing on Broadway) and “The King and I” (which visited The Bushnell on tour last year, and will be at New Haven’s Shubert theater in May) had to face how romantic relationships and respect for cultural differences have changed since those shows were written. While he says “Fiddler” has similar “issues regarding marriage and parental authority, it’s more about being authentic to the questions being asked at that time, about choices.

Early in his career, Sher was associate artistic director at Hartford Stage for three seasons in the mid-1990s. He directed two shows there: a fast-paced, rock-and-roll-fueled take on Joe Orton’s savage comedy “Loot” (featuring a skateboarding, pre-fame Justin Theroux) and a colorful new adaptation (by Constance Congdon) of Carlo Goldoni’s “The Servant of Two Masters.”

“I loved being in Hartford,” Sher recalls. “I loved working in that theater. I love a thrust stage more than a proscenium. I thought Mark Lamos, and before him Paul Weidner, created a great tradition of theater there. It was formative for me. I had a great time.”

Sher’s other experiences directing in Connecticut were with two Craig Lucas plays, “The Singing Forest” in 2004 and “Prayer for My Enemy” in 2007 at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre — also a thrust stage.

Now a habitué of Broadway, Sher has resisted being typed as just a musical-theater revivalist. He directed the premiere of the political drama “Oslo” and will also direct its planned film version. He's directed more than 20 Shakespeare plays, as well as operas and new plays. His current project is “To Kill a Mockingbird,” freshly adapted for the stage by Aaron Sorkin and currently in previews before its Broadway opening in mid-December.

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF — book by Joseph Stein, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, music by Jerry Bock — runs Nov. 6 to 11 at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $23 to $113. 860-987-5900, bushnell.org

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