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Yiddish 'Fiddler On The Roof' Is A 'Dream Come True' For Lead Actor


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.


GROSS: If you know the show "Fiddler On The Roof," this music will sound familiar. But these lyrics won't.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (Singing in Yiddish).

GROSS: That's music from the Yiddish production of "Fiddler On The Roof," which is now playing off-Broadway. The cast recording will be released later this summer, but we have an advance copy to play for you. My guests are Steven Skybell, who stars as Tevye, and Joel Grey, who directed this production. Grey is most famous for starring as the emcee in the original Broadway cast of "Cabaret" and in the film adaptation.

"Fiddler On The Roof" is one of the most popular shows in Broadway history and has been performed around the world. It's set in 1905 in a shtetl in Eastern Europe. Shtetl is the Yiddish word for small town or village. At the time "Fiddler" takes place, many Jews in the Russian Empire were confined to living in the shtetls. Tevya is a dairyman who struggles to support his wife and five daughters.

Three of his daughters are old enough to marry, and Tevye and his wife are expecting to follow the tradition of arranged marriages. But the daughters want to marry for love. The show is about the generational conflict between following religious and cultural traditions and adapting to a world that is rapidly changing. Some of the change confronting the family is tragic. The pogroms, Russian attacks on the Jews in the shtetls, have gotten worse, and the Russian czar has been ordering the expulsion of Jews in many villages.

This revival of "Fiddler" is a production of the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene, which is the longest continuously producing Yiddish theater company in the world. Yiddish used to be the primary language spoken by Jews in Central and Eastern Europe. "Fiddler On The Roof" is based on stories that were written in Yiddish by Sholem Aleichem.

Joel Grey, Steven Skybell, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on this production. It is really, really wonderful. So, Joel, what's the backstory of the Yiddish version of "Fiddler On The Roof" that you're using? Who wrote it? Why did they write it?

JOEL GREY: Shraga Friedman was an actor and director, and he translated it for himself to play in Israel after it was a big hit on Broadway. And that Yiddish version did not go very well because Israelis, they thought they were modern and invent - reinventing the world, and they were. However...

GROSS: And Hebrew became the language instead of Yiddish.

GREY: And Hebrew was the language that they adopted. And then he did it in Hebrew, and it was a success. And as far as I know, he interpolated certain Yiddishisms into Sheldon Harnick and Joe Stein's work, the original work. But essentially, it's pretty much the same show as we came to know it on Broadway. And I saw maybe eight versions. I have been obsessed with that and once thought I wanted to play Tevye, but then I got too old. And then I got a call from Zalmen Mlotek from the Folksbiene, and he said, I'm doing "Fiddler On The Roof" in Yiddish. Would you like to direct it? And I said, I don't speak Yiddish, and I don't. Unfortunately, I speak Mickey Katz.


GROSS: Your father, yeah.

GREY: Not exactly classical Yiddish. I said - but something inside of me said, you have to do this. It's an affair of the heart.

GROSS: The songs aren't, like, a direct translation of the Sheldon Harnick lyrics. For example, one of the most famous songs from the show is "If I Were A Rich Man," but the Yiddish version in this production that you're doing is “Ven Ikh Bin A Rotshild," which is "If I Were A Rothschild."

GREY: Yeah.

GROSS: And the Rothschilds were, of course, a very, very wealthy Jewish family - like, internationally famous.

GREY: In France.

GROSS: In France. From France, yes. So...

GREY: That's right.

GROSS: ...Steven, how did "If I Were A Rich Man" become "If I Were A Rothschild?"

STEVEN SKYBELL: Well, that - the thing that's amazing about that - there is a Sholem Aleichem story, which I don't believe is a Tevye story, but it's called "If I Were A Rothschild." And so Shraga Friedman did continue to go back to the original Sholem Aleichem just to pick some aspects of it, to just pepper Sholem Aleichem a little more throughout the musical. And so that's an example there where he makes it "If I Were A Rothschild."

And I'll just say, playing Tevye, and when I first saw that that was the lyric, it was mind-blowing in a way because you can think of Tevye in his shtetl being sort of isolated from the world, a Jew in a little small town, and to just say, well, this Jew in this little Russian town knows who the Rothschilds are and holds them up as something that is...

GREY: Magical.

SKYBELL: Yeah. And a goal for any Jew would - to be a Rothschild - it just puts Tevye in a context that to me is very deep. It's a subtle change, and it's a delightful change. And, you know, thankfully Sheldon Harnick was willing to allow certain discrepancies to his original English version. But it's a wonderful change.

GROSS: Now, before we hear you singing it, Steven Skybell, from the forthcoming cast recording, I want to play you a clip of my interview with Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock from 2004.

GREY: Ooh.

GROSS: (Laughter) And I was asking Harnick about, in the song, the kind of chanting part, the daidle-deedle (ph) part?


GROSS: I was asking him about that and who came up with that, whether he wrote those lyrics, wrote those phonetically down or whether that was a Zero Mostel thing. So we're going to hear a little bit of Zero Mostel, and then we're going to hear that - what Sheldon Harnick had to say.


GROSS: So this is from 2004.


ZERO MOSTEL: (Singing, as Tevye) If I were a rich man - ya-ha, deedle, deedle, deedle, beeble, beeble, bubble, bum (ph).


GROSS: Sheldon Harnick, the yidle-deedle-digga-digga-do (ph) part (laughter)...


GROSS: ...Did you actually write out the syllables that you wanted Zero Mostel to sing?

HARNICK: Well, it wasn't that I necessarily wrote them for Zero, but what happened was this - when Jerry played me the music he wrote, he did the whole song in that kind of a Hasidic chant. And we decided that it would be great fun to preserve part of the chant and not just to write wall-to-wall lyrics for the song.

But my problem was, I don't come from a background where I was comfortable chanting in that fashion. And I thought, OK, I'll have to create some kind of syllables which give the effect of that kind of chanting. And I came up with the didle-deedle-didle-digga-digga-deedle-didle-dum (ph) (laughter), which I thought was kind of fun and sounded a little like the chanting. But when we played the song for Zero, he said, I come from a background - I don't want to do the syllables you've written. Is it OK with you if I do it the way I think it should be done? And I said, absolutely. I said, I can't sing it that way. So Zero did it with his - stylistically, it sounded quite...

JERRY BOCK: Authentic.

HARNICK: ...Authentic, yeah.

GROSS: OK. So that was Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock in 2004.

Steven Skybell, when you sing the song, what's your approach to doing that chanting part?

SKYBELL: Well, it's exactly that. I mean, I never have heard that, but that is always what I heard - was a sort of, you know, davening. The only thing I'll add to that - and I stole this from Katrina Lenk, who did a "If I Were A Rich Man" on YouTube with her violin - is that the first time Tevye says, if I were a Rothschild, the delight of even just sort of daydreaming that...

GROSS: (Laughter).

SKYBELL: ...Thing makes him kind of go off-text, in a way, with laughter, as well as this sort of davening. So that is also something that I like to explore with it - is that because I'm - he's expressing himself with words, but then he goes off of words. So it's interesting to try and figure out, well, why would he go off of words? And one is for the real fervent prayer to God, which is the davening, but also just the delight of imagining myself with a hat and a cane and all that is something that can make me laugh, too. And so I like to put a little laughter in, as well.

GROSS: All right. So let's hear Steven Skybell singing "Ven Ikh Bin A Rothschild" - "If I Were A Rich Man." This is sung in Yiddish from the Yiddish production that's now underway in New York of "Fiddler On The Roof." And the cast recording will be coming out in the next few weeks. Here we go.


SKYBELL: (Singing in Yiddish).

GROSS: That's Steven Skybell from the forthcoming cast recording of the Yiddish production of "Fiddler On The Roof," which is currently playing in New York. Also with us is Joel Grey, who directed this production.

So Steven, that sounded great. And you know, one of the things I love about your singing in this is that even though I understand some of the words that you're singing 'cause my grandparents spoke Yiddish, but I don't - you know, I don't understand the meaning of a lot of them. But I love your pronunciation of all the words. Like, you just - you pronounce everything so clearly. It just has a beauty in and of itself.

SKYBELL: Well, thank you.

GROSS: And I think that's something that great people in theater can do - is to just really wrap their tongue around all the syllables, whether they're singing or talking.

GREY: (Laughter).

SKYBELL: Yeah. Well, I mean, I will say two things about that. One is that our coaches at the Folksbiene were intent that even if people didn't understand the Yiddish, they should certainly be able to apprehend the sounds, you know?

And an aspect of this Yiddish "Fiddler" that - a challenge of it which felt absolutely at home to me - although - 'cause I don't speak Yiddish - is I've done a lot of - I've loved Shakespeare all my life. And so the aspect of Shakespeare which is, it's English, but is it really English that we understand? - there's a similar model there, which is you have to take this somewhat foreign English language and make it sound real and natural. And I also know that there's a delight in Shakespeare of eating every sound and really feeling the language go through you, and I love that as a performer. And so I'm absolutely going to do that with Yiddish, as well, which is, every sound is vital for the conveyance of emotion and thought. And so I don't want it to be mushy if I can, at all, help it.

GROSS: Well, well done.

If you're just joining us, my guests are Joel Grey, who directed the Yiddish production of "Fiddler On The Roof" that's now playing in New York, and Steven Skybell, who stars in it as Tevye. We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're talking about the Yiddish production of "Fiddler On The Roof" that's currently playing in New York. A cast recording is forthcoming. And with me is Joel Grey, who directed this production. And Joel Grey is most famous for starring in the original Broadway and movie productions of "Cabaret." And Steven Skybell is with us, too. He stars as Tevye in the Yiddish production of "Fiddler On The Roof."

Joel Grey, when you took on this job of directing the Yiddish production of "Fiddler On The Roof," how did you want to interpret it differently than you'd previously seen it interpreted?

GREY: It was a script that had no real form, except for these scenes which were there in Yiddish, and the songs were there in Yiddish, but there was no direction. There were no - they go into, and they - then everybody brings on a tape. Nothing. There was absolutely - it was a completely bare canvas. And I thought that this was a story of a small group of people in this town of Anatevka, and it felt very Chekhovian to me. And we also were limited by funds. It was very inexpensive, and there was really no extra money for a set or costumes. And all of it was made up by myself and the other creative people.

And then it got to be made up by this trusting band of actors who didn't - a lot of them didn't speak Yiddish, even, before we began, but had to learn and were so committed to telling this story. It was going to be musically wonderful. There would be a great orchestra. And I found the Tevye of my dreams. And the rest of the cast were so excited about doing this new thing.

GROSS: So Joel, what did you see and hear in Steven Skybell that led you to cast him?

GREY: Well, the thing of it was that you knew in that moment that he came in and sang "If I Were A Rich Man" in Yiddish that there was no one else to be considered - done, done, done. And from there on, he and I never disagreed about anything that had to do with Tevye. And we - he worked so hard. And it was so demanding for a three-week rehearsal, and he never, never faltered.

GROSS: Since Zero Mostel originated the role on stage, a lot of people just always assume that Tevye has to be somebody who's big, like, physically big...

GREY: Right. Yeah.

GROSS: ...Like, stocky.

GREY: Yeah.

GROSS: But he was a big man, and there was a lot of shtick - can I say? - in...

GREY: Yes, he was a comedian.

GROSS: ...His performance. Yeah. And so I think, Steven, that your characterization is really different. First of all, you're thin, so you physically look different than he does. And I think you bring a lot of spine to the role, that it's - it - he has a certain strength. And I didn't see the original cast production. I've heard the recording a lot. So I might be wrong in my characterization of Zero Mostel's performance. But are there things that you thought you really wanted to do differently than what you'd seen?

SKYBELL: Well, I will - I mean, I never have really considered myself a comedian - comedian (laughter). I know - I have humor. And I never really saw the role of Tevye as a buffoon, you know? And so it's not that I intentionally was trying to forge a new Tevye at all. But it was Joel Grey who's - who constantly was surprising me with how Tevye might navigate certain moments. And...

GROSS: Give me an example.

SKYBELL: An example for that is, you know, I think maybe the Zero Mostel reaction when his daughter is - says, we're going - I'm going to Siberia to join my revolutionary husband - and even...

GROSS: Who's been imprisoned there.

SKYBELL: Who's been imprisoned there. And I do even think on the original cast album, Mostel is sort of - geschrei is, Siberia - Siberia. Like, the - he can't imagine it. And Joel, I mean - and I'm not - an actor's not afraid of a line reading. And Joel just - always just would very simply say, Sibir, you know, that it's like letting that - an unimaginable distance really go to the heart of Tevye and not send it out with any kind of bluster but just really, I mean - so I - that kind of simplicity and depth and not having to telegraph anything except just take it in, that was - I cannot tell you how many times in the rehearsal day Joel would say something, and you'd be - I would be, oh, oh. You know? I just - I loved that.

GROSS: My guests are Joel Grey, who directed the off-Broadway production of the Yiddish "Fiddler On The Roof," and Steven Skybell, who stars as Tevye. We'll talk more and hear more music from the forthcoming cast recording after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing in Yiddish).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing in Yiddish).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) (Laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing in Yiddish).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing in Yiddish).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing in Yiddish).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1 AND UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As characters, singing in Yiddish).


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about the current off-Broadway production of "Fiddler On The Roof" performed in Yiddish with English and Russian subtitles. My guests are Joel Grey, who directed the show, and Steven Skybell, who stars as Tevye. This production has won several awards, including the 2019 Drama Desk Award for best musical revival. Skybell won the 2019 Lucille Lortel Award for best lead actor in a musical. The original Broadway production of "Fiddler On The Roof" opened in 1964. The music was written by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, with a book by Joseph Stein.

I want to hear another song.


GROSS: And again, this is going to be from the forthcoming cast recording of the Yiddish production of "Fiddler On The Roof." And we're going to hear you, Steven Skybell, again, singing one of the famous songs from the show, "L'Chaim" (ph). And I know when I interviewed Sheldon Harnick about writing the lyrics for this show, he said, you know, the characters in this would have been speaking Yiddish because that's the language that Sholem Aleichem wrote in. But there's only two Yiddish words in the lyrics that Sheldon Harnick wrote. One is mazel tov, as in...

SKYBELL: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...A blessing on your head, mazel tov, mazel tov.

SKYBELL: (Laughter).

GROSS: And mazel tov means congratulations. And the other is l'chaim, which is one of the most - titles of one of most famous songs in the show, which means to life, as the lyric tells you.


GROSS: (Laughter) To life, to life, l'chaim. So before we hear this, do you want to say anything about doing the song?

SKYBELL: Well, I mean, just that it is a - it's a moment of pure joy in this story, which sometimes has darker corners. And that's an aspect of it that I really relish every night, is that it is - it's alcohol-induced, but it is pure joy. And it just shows you that it is what "Sunrise, Sunset" says, that the - life is smiles and tears.

GROSS: So let's hear Steven Skybell from the forthcoming cast recording of the Yiddish "Fiddler On The Roof."


SKYBELL: (As Tevye, singing in Yiddish).

STEVEN SKYBELL AND BRUCE SABATH: (As Tevye and Lazar Wolf, singing in Yiddish).

BRUCE SABATH: (As Lazar Wolf, singing in Yiddish).

SKYBELL AND SABATH: (As Tevye and Lazar Wolf, singing in Yiddish).

SKYBELL: (As Tevye, singing in Yiddish).

SABATH: (As Lazar Wolf, singing in Yiddish).

SKYBELL AND SABATH: (As Tevye and Lazar Wolf, singing in Yiddish).

SKYBELL: (As Tevye, singing in Yiddish).

SABATH: (As Lazar Wolf, singing in Yiddish).

SKYBELL AND SABATH: (As Tevye and Lazar Wolf, singing in Yiddish).

SKYBELL: (As Tevye, singing in Yiddish).

SABATH: (As Lazar Wolf, singing in Yiddish).

SKYBELL: (As Tevye, singing in Yiddish).

SKYBELL AND SABATH: (As Tevye and Lazar Wolf, singing in Yiddish).

SABATH: (As Lazar Wolf, singing in Yiddish).

SKYBELL: (As Tevye, speaking Yiddish).

SABATH: (As Lazar Wolf, speaking Yiddish).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, speaking Yiddish).

SKYBELL: (As Tevye, speaking Yiddish).

SABATH: (As Lazar Wolf, speaking Yiddish).

GROSS: So Steven Skybell and Bruce Sabath, who plays Lazar Wolf from the forthcoming Yiddish version of "Fiddler On The Roof" - any lyric changes you want to point out to us in their translation?

SKYBELL: Yes, it's just - let it be to life is what it's saying, as opposed to to life, to life, to life. So - because then it would really be l'chaim, l'chaim, l'chaim, l'chaim, l'chaim, l'chaim. And...

GROSS: (Laughter).

GREY: That's too many chuhs (ph).

SKYBELL: (Laughter) Nobody wants that.

GROSS: I'm glad you mentioned the chuh (ph) because I think some people...

GREY: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Have trouble saying chuh, and you can't...


GROSS: ...Speak Yiddish without a lot of chuh in it.

SKYBELL: That's correct.

GROSS: So...

GREY: Or a little - or at least a little chuh.

SKYBELL: Well, no, but they were - they - I will say, when I studied with - and her name is Khane-Faygl Turtletaub.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SKYBELL: And she's the Northwestern Yiddish teacher who - I went to her home. She was like, chuh, chuh, chuh. That...

GROSS: (Laughter).

SKYBELL: It actually is an identifying aspect of what Yiddish is, and you don't want to be afraid of it. And even when they were coaching us for "Fiddler," they just said, more of that, more of that, because it really is what it is to speak Yiddish, is to get involved with that guttural cleansing.

GROSS: So Joel Grey, when you were during the auditions, did you have to make sure that the people auditioning could do a good chuh?

SKYBELL: (Laughter).

GREY: I know a chuh when I hear it.


GROSS: All right. So the story of "Fiddler On The Roof" really resonates today because it's a story about having to flee and...

GREY: Right.

GROSS: ...Going to other places because different characters - some characters go to America. One's setting off for Israel. Another's going, I think, to Warsaw. And no one really knows what they're in store for. We know some of them are likely to die in the Holocaust. Of course, they don't know that. And now, when immigration is such a contentious issue in the U.S. and when so many people from different countries are trying to come here, fleeing from death threats and gangs and hunger, violence, starvation, you know, any number of reasons trying to come here...

GREY: Not exactly different from what it was then...

GROSS: So it has some, like...

GREY: ...In terms of running away.

GROSS: It has so much resonance now. And it's not - you know, it's a story about Jewish people, but so many Americans who are immigrants come from their version of that story. So I'd like you each to say a few words about why the story feels relevant to you living today in the climate that we're in.

SKYBELL: Well, I'll start by saying - I don't know if you're aware - but just recently, we had World Refugee Day. And we actually - the entire theater was filled not with paying audience, but with people who identify themselves as refugees or immigrants. And so there was a whole talkback afterwards that made it very clear that no matter if they're trying to go back home to Venezuela or coming from Venezuela, any corner of the world, there's an aspect of our story which speaks to that flight of people.

I'll say, for myself personally, when I first experienced "Fiddler," I did - as a child, I saw it as a sort of happy ending because the message for me was, Tevye, you're going to America, and you're going to become my grandfather. And it's going to be - you're going to have a happy, happy story here. And, of course, as I've grown up, I realized that's not the ending of "Fiddler." And it is a much more ambivalent statement, which is we don't know where we're going, and we don't know what will happen to us.

But then - but the hope of "Fiddler On The Roof" is the final gesture of Tevye, which he nods to the fiddler and says, I don't know where I'm going, but I know I want you to come with me. Whatever this emblem of tradition Jewishness God or shtetl life is the fiddler. He finally says, come with me. And that is the only hope - that's really the only hopeful movement of the final movements of the musical is to say we're in this together. I'm not going to deny you even if that's the reason why I'm being thrown out.

GROSS: Joel Grey, to you, what this story means to you now living in America in 2019.

GREY: Seeing the show and feeling the character's loss and the sadness and pluck and spirit every night and then I come home and I turn on the television and I see these migrants and these kids in cages and I'm thinking, it's all the same. It's too terrible. And how can we keep doing this? And what's the answer?

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Joel Grey, who directed the current Yiddish production of "Fiddler On The Roof," and Steven Skybell, who stars in it as Tevye. We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're talking about the ongoing Yiddish production of "Fiddler On The Roof" in New York. My guests are Joel Grey, who directed it. He also, as you know, is most famous for starring in the original Broadway production and the movie of "Cabaret." And also with us is Steven Skybell, who stars in this production as Tevye. And there's a cast recording that will be released soon.

I'd like to hear a little bit about your family stories to the extent that you know it of how and when they came to the United States.

GREY: My grandparents came separately and met in Cleveland, Ohio. And I said to my grandmother - who never really learned to speak English very well - I said, what year was it that you came? She says (foreign language spoken).

SKYBELL: (Laughter).

GREY: She said, there was a big snow. That's how she remembered, and she came by herself on a boat. You think, how hard was that? How scary? And then they found each other in - she came to be with her cousin, and she met my grandpa. And they had five daughters and America - they found America. And they were safe. They weren't killed.

GROSS: And then your father, Mickey Katz, he spoke Yiddish and English, and he was a performer. He sang with Spike Jones' band, and then he started his own band and sang song parodies that were part English, part Yiddish. And you sang with him...

GREY: (Singing) Born in the wilds of Delancey Street, home of gefilte fish and kosher meat, handy with a knife (singing in Yiddish) he flicked him a chicken and he was only 3. Duvid, Duvid Crockett...

So he took the most American hero and made him Yiddish.

GROSS: That was the theme for the "Davy Crockett" TV show.


GROSS: But he did the Yiddish parody version.

GREY: Right.

GROSS: So your father knew Yiddish, and you sang with him, so you could sing Yiddish, but apparently you didn't necessarily know what the words meant.

GREY: No. I didn't know what I was talking about much, and I certainly couldn't speak it. Unfortunately, I wish I had.

SKYBELL: Never too late.

GREY: Well, here I am.

GROSS: Right.

GREY: You know, I'm in the middle of it.

GROSS: So, Steven, what do you know about how your family came to the U.S. and where did they come from?

SKYBELL: Well, yes. My father's father came from a small town in northeast Poland called Suwalki. And it was before the First World War. It was the - all of his brothers came over one at a time to avoid conscription into the army. They were just apparently pulling boys off the street.

GROSS: Into the Tsarist army.

SKYBELL: That's right. And so my grandfather came over when he was 16. And, again, it's like can you - I cannot even imagine getting on a boat when you're 16 and going, you know - maybe he thought it was a bit of an adventure, but it has to have been more than that. Anyway, he met my grandmother who was the - lived in Chickasha, Okla. She had a kosher - she was the daughter of sort of the town's elected rabbi. He really wasn't a rabbi, but everybody went to him for decision-making. And they kept kosher in Chickasha, Okla. And she somehow met my grandfather. And when my great-grandfather, her father, met my grandfather, he didn't believe that he was Jewish because he didn't have a beard. And so he shoved a Yiddish newspaper in his face and said, read that to me.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SKYBELL: And my grandfather did. And thankfully he did because that's why I'm here.

GREY: (Laughter).

SKYBELL: My mother's side of the family was a little more city dwelling from Warsaw, Poland. And so they came to Chicago. And I don't know much more about that except I do know that some of my grandfather - my father's father's family, my aunt and uncle, Sidney (ph) and Regina (ph), did not come over early. And they ended up in a work camp in Siberia. And then they came later. And so - and their children actually saw our "Fiddler On The Roof" and I was very touched that they came and saw it. But they were the closest to the Holocaust for me. But they - it was a success story in that they made it over.

GROSS: One of the most famous songs from "Fiddler On The Roof" is "Sunrise, Sunset," which is a song that has been sung at countless Jewish weddings for generations. And I told Sheldon Harnick this - I really so strongly disliked the song (laughter)...

GREY: Yeah.

GROSS: ...For so many years because my parents were among the parents who played the cast album over and over and over, and there were songs that just sounded so, like, schmaltzy to me. And then when I started to really understand more about music and about lyric-writing and about Bock and Harnick, the composers of the score, and how great and varied their shows were.


GROSS: Yeah. Yeah - and meaningful, I realized, like, what a beautiful song that is. And there's, like, jazz versions of the song, you know, like, instrumental jazz versions.

SKYBELL: (Laughter) Right.

GROSS: So I want to play the Yiddish version from the show. And again, Steven, I'm going to ask you for what you thought about when you were recording this.

SKYBELL: Well, I mean, the thing that's interesting to me is that it's about the wedding, Tzeitel's wedding, but they chose to let it be voiced through the parents' - mostly the parents' point of view, which is - and it's about the passage of time. Is that the little girl? That's the little girl? How did the - how did time pass like that? And to me, that's just so beautiful, that that should be the musicalized moment, is that life fleets by, and the children become the adults. And it's just laced with laughter and tears. And, I mean, that is not musical theater. You don't recognize that kind of utterance as a musical theater utterance. But it is very meaningful.

GREY: And so much about loss.


GROSS: Steven, I'm going to ask you to sing a few of the lines in English for people who don't know the English version of the song, and then we'll hear you in Yiddish.

SKYBELL: (Singing) Is this the little girl I carried? Is this the little boy at play? I don't remember growing older. When did they?

GROSS: Beautiful. Let's hear the Yiddish version. And the actress who plays your wife in it is singing with you, and...

SKYBELL: Jennifer Babiak.

GROSS: Yeah. So here we go.


SKYBELL: (Singing in Yiddish).

JENNIFER BABIAK: (Singing in Yiddish).

SKYBELL: (Singing in Yiddish).

BABIAK: (Singing in Yiddish).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (Singing in Yiddish).

GROSS: That was beautiful. Joel Grey, did you give any direction for how you wanted that song to be sung?

GREY: Yes. Yes, I wanted it to be spoken, but musically. I wanted it to be about the text, about what they're thinking, what they're feeling in this moment of great joy and yet deep loss.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Joel Grey, who directed the Yiddish production of "Fiddler On The Roof" that's now playing in New York, and Steven Skybell, who stars in it as Tevye. We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're talking about the Yiddish production of "Fiddler On The Roof" that's currently playing in New York. A cast recording is forthcoming. And with me is Joel Grey, who directed this production, and Joel Grey is most famous for starring in the original Broadway and movie productions of "Cabaret." And Steven Skybell is with us, too. He stars as Tevye in the Yiddish production of "Fiddler On The Roof."

Steven, has doing the show affected your feelings about your own family history or your interest in your own family history?

SKYBELL: I always have had an interest in my family's history. It's certainly - I feel I draw upon my family's - and their history so strongly in portraying Tevye. And I have, in my dressing room, pictures of all my - all the ancestors, to great-great-grandfathers, and I really love feeling their presence around me as I tell their story, which is my story. And I just want to say that doing this Yiddish "Fiddler On The Roof" has been unlike anything I've ever done in my life and partially because it really feels like I am in service of Yiddish in a way.

And so when we were downtown and we had - you could only leave the theater by seeing the audience. And there would be Holocaust survivors who - in their 90s who were coming to see our play. And you felt - I felt as if, I'm doing such a great service in showing them that Yiddish has survived, and Yiddish is alive. And this story is being told in a language they may have thought was no longer viable on the stage. Equally, I have young boys and girls who are excited by language and a language that may be part of their background or not part of their background.

But it really feels like it's in service of something larger than just, let me entertain you, or even, let me tell you a story. It's, let me show you about a slice of time that is actually still ongoing. And nothing like that has ever compared for me.

GROSS: Let's end with one more song. Let's end with "Sabbath Prayer" from the Yiddish production of "Fiddler On The Roof."

GREY: I always cry in the theater when this happens.

GROSS: When you hear this? Why?

GREY: Yeah.

GROSS: Why do you cry?

GREY: I don't know. It's just - there's just something so deep and simple with these - you know, small family group of seven or eight people doing the exact right thing - the traditional Sabbath prayer.

GROSS: And this whole show is about, like, the conflict between tradition and living in the moment because the moment is changing.

GREY: That's right.

GROSS: Steven, this is a duet. Who are you singing with?

SKYBELL: My wife called Jennifer Babiak.

GROSS: So here's "Sabbath Prayer." Thank you both so much, and congratulations on the show.

GREY: Thanks.

SKYBELL: Thank you.

GREY: Thanks for having us.


JENNIFER BABIAK AND STEVEN SKYBELL: (As Golde and Tevye, singing in Yiddish).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing in Yiddish).

BABIAK: (As Golde, singing in Yiddish).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing in Yiddish).

SKYBELL: (As Tevye, singing in Yiddish).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing in Yiddish).

SKYBELL: (As Tevye, singing in Yiddish).

GROSS: Joel Grey directed the off-Broadway production of "Fiddler On The Roof," performed in Yiddish. Steven Skybell stars as Tevye. The cast recording will be released later this summer. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be Caitlin Dickerson, national immigration reporter for The New York Times. She's reported on the immigrant children being held in squalid conditions at a Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas, conditions which have provoked public outrage and condemnation from federal judges. She'll talk about the crisis at the border and prospects for change. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media as Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF CANNONBALL ADDERLEY'S "TO LIFE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.