TheatreWorks is slated to livestream the world premiere of “Before Fiddler,” a musical by acclaimed pianist and performer Hershey Felder, 5 p.m. Sunday from Florence, Italy.
Featuring Italian quartet Klezmerata Fiorentina, Felder’s one-man show focuses on author Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916), whose Yiddish stories became the basis for the hit musical “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Felder, who plays Aleichem, hopes to bring a creative twist to the production by exploring the author’s experiences.
“I always wanted to play the role of Sholem Aleichem because he’s been so fascinating and so influential,” Felder said in an interview with the Town Crier. “But I can’t tell the story ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ because that’s told very well, so I thought it would be fun to tell the story of the guy who actually wrote that story. So before‘Fiddler,’ before Tevye existed, a whole lot happened, and it’s interesting to hear what happened to him and how it did.”
At first, Felder thought he’d have to stage the set to look like Russia, where Aleichem was born, but he was pleasantly surprised to find that Aleichem had spent four years in a part of Florence, only hours away from Felder’s home. That enabled Felder to stage the musical in the same location Aleichem lived for four years, using music reflecting the author’s life.
“We’re actually going to be filming exactly where this happened,” Felder said. “I’m using these four amazing musicians and playing traditional music of the period, late 19th-century real Jewish music, the way it was played in Europe and in Russia.”
Along with the music and Aleichem’s story, Felder is fascinated by the time period in which “Before Fiddler” is set.
“Looking at the characters before ‘Fiddler,’ before the Russian Jewry was devastated, before the first World War, before the second World War – a lot of befores,” he said. “It’s an old world. And there is something fascinating about bringing that old world back to life.”
Felder’s own Jewish Canadian background makes his musical about a Jewish author especially important to him.
“I’m first-generation North American; my parents were both born in Europe and they’re both survivors of the Holocaust,” he said. “I grew up in a very European household. So to me, all of this is very familiar.”
Felder believes the current political climate makes the story all the more necessary to tell.
“I think it was quite shocking to a lot of people the degree of anti-Semitism that we have been seeing in not just America, but worldwide – but in America so blatantly, especially with the kinds of things that were happening (Jan. 6),” he said. “What this is to me is somehow telling a story about Jews and this kind of thing. It’s meaningful and valuable, and I think it’s important.”
In terms of the performance, Felder sees some advantages to the virtual format, finding ways to capture emotions and perform on camera that might not always be possible in the theater.
“I get to do things on camera that you don’t get to do in the theater, because nobody would hear you or see you,” he said. “With the lens literally this close, you get to see emotions and you don’t have to act big, you don’t have to speak louder.”
For streaming access ($55 per household) and more information, visit TheatreWorks.org.