The Show Must Go On(line): Virtual Fiddler
When our campuses closed due to Covid-19, the cast of Fiddler on the Roof was only weeks into rehearsals. Most schools had canceled their spring performances, but our cast was determined. The students and show leaders met over Zoom to discuss whether they should continue. From the outset, there was a resounding response from the students that “The show must go on.” As one sixth grader noted: “The coronavirus has already taken so much from us—we can’t let it take our production away, too.” And so began our journey into a reimagined, virtual production of Fiddler on the Roof.
Applying the design thinking approach, our directors asked the students to reimagine the musical, to consider what to keep from the traditional musical model and how to adapt it to changing circumstances. They had to rethink many aspects of the show that are not possible to replicate with social distancing restrictions in place. They recreated scenes featuring multiple characters in dialogue or song together, and the newly interpreted scenes managed to be both resonant and modern. For example, the “Matchmaker” number has our young women sharing the same hopes, dreams and fears in song, but their “matchmaker” is an online dating app.
Similarly, whereas in the original show “To Life” celebrated the simchah of a planned wedding, our middle school production presented this song as a tribute to the students whose bnei mitzvah were revised or postponed. The changed medium also provided new opportunities for creativity that would not have been possible on stage, as in the scenes when Hodel is filmed singing “Far From the Home I Love” in front of a historic B&O railroad station, and when our Fiddler character plays her violin on the roof of her family home.
The experience held moments of unexpected joy, too. We learned with renowned producer and composer Zalmen Mlotek (of the hit Off-Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish). He even recorded a number for inclusion in our school musical! Extensive outreach to press got our story picked up by JTA, and readers across the country saw our middle school production. In addition, our show was streamed on the website of Washington Jewish Week, which also ran an article about our production.
Virtual Fiddler was the embodiment of our school’s culture of creativity, innovation, courage amidst uncertainty, and faith in the capability of students, alongside our tradition of parent engagement. In addition to a teacher/producer, two parents served as co-directors and they were supported by a troupe of volunteers with film and theater backgrounds and expertise in Yiddish, Jewish history and Jewish literature. We were inspired by the creativity, courage, talent and resilience of our middle school actors and the commitment of the volunteers who supported the student thespians to bring this production to life. Like Tevye, we were balancing tradition with changes that sometimes come unexpectedly.