It’s been 58 years since “Fiddler on the Roof” first arrived on Broadway and changed our lives forever. The musical retelling of the Sholom Aleichem tale of Tevye the dairyman and his three daughters in the village of Anatekva brought us the most unforgettable songs, including “Tradition,” “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” and “Sunrise, Sunset.” “Fiddler” is still so iconic, enjoyable and relevant all these decades later — so much so that director Thomas Kail is currently working on a new screen adaptation of the show.
But three years after its Broadway premiere, something kind of amazing, that you might not know about, happened to this Jewish production: It became a hit in Japan.
“Japan was the first non-English production and I was very nervous about how it would be received in a completely foreign environment,” Joseph Stein, who wrote the show’s book, shared in The Guardian in 2007 (a Dutch production of the show did premiere a year earlier, however, starring Lex Goudsmit, who ended up playing Tevye on the West End production of the show). “I got there just during the rehearsal period and the Japanese producer asked me, ‘Do they understand this show in America?’ And I said, ‘Yes, of course, we wrote it for America. Why do you ask?’ And he said, ‘Because it’s so Japanese.’”
Watching that production, Stein realized that Fiddler had “something very special and apparently universal. The themes of the show are as true to the Japanese experience and Japanese culture as they are to American or English: the breakdown of tradition, the differences between generations, the eagerness to hang on to a religious background. These things are very much a part of the human experience. I think if anything Fiddler on the Roof is even more relevant today, because it talks about a world in turbulence.”
It’s clear why a show about the pull between tradition and modernity really resonated — and still resonates — in Japan, where traditional gender roles and customs have such a strong hold. And it’s clear why footage from the Japanese production, which recently went viral on Twitter, is still entertaining people today. Even Broadway star Josh Gad agrees that these videos are a balm — you don’t have to understand a single word to enjoy them.
Here’s “L’Chaim, To Life,” in Japanese, featuring the Japanese word for cheers, “kampai,” from the original production of the show:
Here’s “Tradition,” from a rehearsal of the show:
Here’s a delightful sampling from the 2004 revival of the show, starring Masachika Ichimura as Tevye. Ichimura played Shylock in a Japanese production of “The Merchant of Venice,” voiced Jack Skellington in the Japanese version of “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” and starred in Japanese productions of “A Chorus Line,” Carousel,” “Cats,” and “The Phantom of the Opera,” to name but a few. Ran Otori, who plays Golde in the show, was a member of Takarazuka Revue, an all female theater troupe that is known for their productions of popular Western plays and based on beloved mangas.
Here’s “Sunrise, Sunset,” again from the original production, featuring iconic Japanese actor Hisaya Morishige, who played Tevye 900 times, and celebrated theater and film actress Fubuki Koshiji as Golde (Koshiji’s Edith Piaf covers are absolutely gorgeous).