While its central motif is a precariously perched violinist, “Fiddler on the Roof” has about as tight a grip on the Jewish — and non-Jewish — imagination as any work of popular culture. This was abundantly in evidence on Monday night, at the jubilant celebration of the 50th anniversary of the iconic musical, orchestrated by the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre.
And what a celebration it was. From the exuberant opening act, in which violinist Joshua Bell played a selection of “Fiddler” tunes with great verve, to the stirring finale, with dozens of “Fiddler” veterans from multiple productions of the show, the gala demonstrated how much “Fiddler” continues to resonate half a century after its premiere.
Among the highlights: Nine different “daughters” from productions over the decades sang “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” together, with their original cast photos shown on a video screen. Fyvush Finkel and Mike Burstein did a hilarious rendition — in Yiddish — of the mixed-up negotiation for Tevye’s daughter, Tzeitel, before breaking into the obligatory “L’Chaim, L’Chaim, To Life.” And Sheldon Harnick, “Fiddler’s” lyricist, whose 90th birthday was marked at the event, sang a touching version of “Do You Love Me?” with Andrea Martin, who played Golde in a recent Broadway revival.
There were also star turns aplenty, including Karen Ziemba (currently starring in “Bullets Over Broadway”) crooning “Dear, Sweet Sewing Machine,” which was cut from “Fiddler.” But the biggest applause of the evening was reserved for Topol, the star of the film, who flew in from Israel to sing “If I Were a Rich Man” a cappella.
The finale, which began with a multi-ethnic cast of children lining the aisles and singing “Sunrise, Sunset” in Yiddish, culminated with the entire company on stage to deliver “Tradition” and “L’Chaim.”
But the enduring power of “Fiddler” was summed up most movingly by Pia Zadora, who played Bielke in the original production. The non-Jewish actress stepped forward to talk about how her dysfunctional childhood in Hoboken was redeemed by finding an “escape” and “safe haven” in “Fiddler,” where Zero Mostel became her surrogate father and the cast became her extended family. Zadora spoke for generations of artists and audience members alike for whom the characters in “Fiddler” have become, indeed, a kind of substitute family and an essential entrée into Eastern European Jewish culture.
The Folksbiene’s centennial year continues with Itzhak Perlman’s concert, “In the Fiddler’s House,” slated for next March at Lincoln Center, to be followed by a whole season of Yiddish performances, symposia and other events. But “Fiddler on the Roof” remains, as the gala made clear, the most evocative expression of the Eastern European Jewish heritage ever conceived.
If the gala is any guide, the sun will never set on “Fiddler.”