High school cafeterias, as a rule, can be cacophonous places, with conversations, games and singing among the noises competing to be heard amid the necessary din of getting, eating and discarding lunch.
So it’s a safe bet that the lunchroom at Upper Darby High School has rarely, if ever, heard sounds like those produced there on July 25, the day of the sitzprobe (the first time that cast and orchestra rehearse together) for the Upper Darby Summer Stage’s production of Fiddler on the Roof.
On that unseasonably cool and windy summer evening, the cast of 30 actors and a 20-piece orchestra began running through some of the best known and beloved songs of the American musical theater, including “Tradition,” “Matchmaker” and “If I Were a Rich Man.”
Marcus and Rachel Stevens, the siblings who are co-directing the production, both say that Fiddler, whose four performances begin Aug. 2, was a natural fit for the Summer Stage. The play, with music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, book by Joseph Stein and choreography by Jerome Robbins, tells the story of the milkman Tevye’s efforts to get his five daughters married while maintaining his family and traditions in czarist Russia in 1905.
“It is a story about a Jewish family in czarist Russia, but it is also a universal story about people valuing their traditions,” says Rachel Stevens, a 26-year-old graduate student in the directing program at Pace University in New York. As someone who has been involved in the Summer Stage program for 14 of those 26 years, the last five of them as a director, she finds that the play resonates particularly well with the members of the Summer Stage community, many of whom, like her and her brother, have gone from the children’s apprentice program all the way through to the main stage productions.
Her brother, Marcus, 33, who recently ended an extended run in Alive and Kicking, the latest edition of Forbidden Broadway in New York, where he did killer impressions of, among others, Matthew Broderick and Mandy Patinkin, echoes his sister’s sentiments.
“The play is specifically Jewish, but everybody has a community to belong to,” he says. “The Summer Stage is a 37-year-old institution, and it has very deeply rooted traditions.
“But,” he adds, “this is also a story about parents and children, and the love, the closeness and the disconnect between the generations” — perfect material for a theater company that caters to ’tweens, teens and young adults and their families.
The Stevens’ own family history plays an important part in the production. Growing up in a Jewish home in Wallingford, they recall, Fiddler was a huge part of their lives. They both were cast in different productions of the musical as children, and their father would quote from it on a regular basis. Rachel says that this is nothing unusual: “He quotes musicals in daily life anyway, but Fiddler in particular.”
Unbeknownst to them, the Stevens’ parents have helped the production in another way: Their children have been mining family lore to help the cast understand the Jewish family dynamic. “We keep using our parents as examples when talking about Tevye and Golde,” the perpetually smiling Rachel says. “And we mean this in the kindest, most loving way possible. Their behavior is so endearing and has shaped us; we talk about it at least once a rehearsal.”
In a warmly engaging voice that reflects decades of emotive training, Marcus, who has been directing plays at Summer Stage since 2000 (when he was only 20), explains that their family’s connection to the play goes much deeper than household anecdotes. “We grew up with this understanding that we were connected to it, that our ancestors had a similar experience to the people in the play,” he says. “Our great-grandparents were in arranged marriages. At the turn of 20th century, the men came to America first. They worked to pay for the women to come over, met them for the first time and married them.”
With such a large cast, a majority of whom are not Jewish, the Stevenses readily acknowledge that their grasp of Judaism and their family history is not enough to give the necessary grounding for some actors. To that end, the directors brought on Karen Stesis, a Hebrew School teacher at Ohev Shalom, to help the cast with religious questions, pronunciation and any other substantive Judaic questions. And it hasn’t been just the cast and crew who have benefitted from the immersion: The siblings both say that doing Fiddler has brought them closer to Judaism, especially Rachel, who says she has long regretted choosing soccer over having a Bat Mitzvah when she was younger. As a result of directing the play, she says, she is committed to taking classes in Judaism when she returns to her home in New York City, where both siblings live, in the fall.
Fiddler on the Roof may be a new experience for the young people involved in putting it on, but what about the multitudes who have had numerous opportunities to see the musical since it made its Broadway debut 49 years ago? Did the Stevens siblings feel the need to put their own imprimatur on the play to draw in audiences to fill the Upper Darby Performing Arts Center’s 1,200 seats? Or did they decide not to mess with one of the most beloved musicals in the history of American theater?
To hear them tell it, it was a little bit of both. “In terms of the staging of the show, Rachel and I feel that it’s like Chekhov — you really should let the text speak for itself,” says Marcus. “We do take the set design one step further, though, by paring it down to its bare essentials — just two piles of furniture onstage until the exodus.” Evidently, finding the right balance on this classic can be as precarious as, well, you know…