How 'Fiddler On The Roof' (And Writing Its Sequel) Helped An Actress Find Closure

Jul 1, 2017

If you know any musicals at all, then you probably know the beloved Fiddler on the Roof. It tells the story of the dairy man Tevye and his family, and it's set in the town of Anatevka in czarist Russia.

In the musical, and second eldest daughter, Hodel, makes the bold decision to leave her family and everything she knows to find her fiancé, who has been sent to a labor camp in Siberia. As she boards the train, Hodel says to her father, "God alone knows when we shall see each other again."

That's how Hodel's story ended — until now. Actress and author Alexandra Silber has written a sequel to Fiddler on the Roof called After Anatevka. Silber played Hodel in a West End production of Fiddler on the Roof, and she also played Hodel's sister Tzeitel on Broadway. She says, "My journey with Fiddler began as a sophomore in high school when I gave the world my Golde, who was the mother of the family. So I've always, always loved this story."

Silber is also Jewish and a descendant of people from the Pale of Settlement, the only part of czarist Russia where Jews were allowed to live. She says Fiddler on the Roof has "always been a very personal story, but also a very universal one."


Interview Highlights

On what inspired her to write a sequel to Hodel's story

It actually was a very, very personal project that I never really had an intention of sharing with the wider world. When you're an actor, most characters do endear themselves to you and they inhabit your psychology and your heart in a very specific way. But for me, this character took over my blood and my bone marrow in a way that I had never known.

For me, the process of being with Hodel in that London production really happened over the course of two and a half years. And when it was over, I felt like a very, very close friend of mine suddenly stopped calling me, and I was bereft without her. It's this 18-year-old girl that boldly goes off toward adventure and danger, and we as an audience don't know what happens to her. And I think, for me, I needed to see it through. I needed to know. And so I very privately started writing this story for myself, not telling anybody about it, as a very personal project.

Oh deciding she wanted to share the story

I started to recognize that the specificity of Hodel's journey was illuminating something that was universal, something that could resonate with all people — not just women, not just Jews, not just people that love Fiddler or love history — and, you know, recognizing that oppressed people everywhere, and courageous and tenacious people everywhere, needed a new heroine.

On the how she researched the book

This is one of the most brutal and tumultuous periods in European history and I wanted to show the reality of what it was like to be processed in a Siberian work camp. ... I realized at a certain point in my writing of this that one needs to actually make a physical journey to replicate a journey that's happening within you. And for me that really was about sort of making a pilgrimage, if you will, to Siberia itself, immersing myself in the culture. And, you know, really digging my fingernails into the soil was something that was really important to me and I do think changed my writing and changed the way that I approached the book.

On the parallels between her own story of losing her father and Hodel's story

My father passed away of a very long battle with cancer when I was just 18. And it's a very odd time to lose a parent. You're sort of cut off at the knees at a very, very specific and difficult time. And I felt like I was presented with a decision that is not dissimilar to Hodel's. Option one was: "Alright, well, I can curl up and die, too." And I don't think anyone would have blamed me. And Option two was: "OK, in the face of this tragedy, I could really, really live. I could go on a great adventure and nothing could ever possibly be more painful than this."

I think losing someone you love is the thing we all fear the most. And I faced it and I survived, so what could ever possibly be difficult again? And I responded to that by getting on a plane and moving to Scotland. It's sort of crazy now and you sort of go, "How brave." But just like Hodel it didn't feel brave; it felt necessary. It felt like if I don't make this bold leap, I won't become myself. And only now, as an adult, do I see that there is a direct parallel [between] ... a young woman who says goodbye to her father and gets on a plane to Scotland, and ... an 18-year-old woman who says goodbye to her father and gets on a train to Siberia, both of whom are then to fulfill their destinies.

On how writing Hodel's story and acting in Fiddler on the Roof has helped give her closure

I didn't realize that in finishing Hodel's story and making sure that she was alright, I was taking care of myself. And as an epilogue to that, Fiddler in London gave me an opportunity to say goodbye to my father — you know, to literally say, "Papa, God alone knows when we shall see each other again."

And I was also gifted a sort of second endemic father-daughter experience when I played Tzeitel. The one thing that I think I still, as a young woman, think about is I will never be walked down the aisle by my father at my wedding. And what I didn't realize, again, until the middle of rehearsals for playing Tzeitel on Broadway was I did get that. Fiddler gave that to me too because Tzeitel is the character who gets married. And so Fiddler has not only given me a goodbye, it's allowed me to dance with my father at my wedding.

Matthew S. Schwartz, Tori Whitley and Ammad Omar produced and edited the audio of this interview. Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "FIDDLER ON THE ROOF")

UNIDENTIFIED ENSEMBLE: (Singing) Tradition. Tradition.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If you know any musicals at all, then you probably know the beloved "Fiddler On The Roof," the story of Tevye, the dairyman, and his family, set in the town of Anatevka during Czarist Russia. Now, you might remember that right as the musical ends, second-eldest daughter Hodel makes the bold decision to leave her family and everything she knows to find her fiance Perchik, who's been sent to a labor camp in Siberia. As she boards the train, Hodel says to her father...

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "FIDDLER ON THE ROOF")

ALEXANDRA SILBER: (As Hodel) God alone knows when we shall see each other again.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Tevye) Then we leave it in his hands.

MARTIN: And that is how you had to leave it until now. Alexandra Silber, who you just heard playing Hodel in London's West End, decided she could not leave it at that. And she decided to write a sequel to "Fiddler On The Roof" called "After Anatevka." And she joins us now from our studios in New York City. Alexandra Silber, thank you so much for being here.

SILBER: Thank you so much for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, I want to mention that in addition to Hodel, you've also played Hodel's older sister...

SILBER: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Tzeitel...

SILBER: Yes.

MARTIN: ..On Broadway. So you know this musical as well as anyone. What I was wondering is if you grew up loving it? I mean, I can't think of an elementary school recital where...

SILBER: I know.

MARTIN: ...Somebody was not singing something from "Fiddler On The Roof." I mean, it just seems to be - it's like the sun and the moon. You can't remember a time when it didn't exist. So I just wondered, did you always love it?

SILBER: Yeah. In fact, my journey with "Fiddler" began as a sophomore in high school when I gave the world my Golde, who's the mother of the family. So I've always, always loved this story. And, of course, I'm a Jewish woman myself, descended from people from the Pale of Settlement. So it's always been a very personal story but also a very universal one.

MARTIN: The musical is based on stories from the 1800s by the famous Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem. Tell me how this project came to take root in your mind and...

SILBER: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...That you thought you could actually do this.

SILBER: It actually was a very, very personal project that I never really had an intention of sharing with the wider world. For me, the process of being with Hodel in that London production really happened over the course of two and a half years. And when it was over, I felt like a very, very close friend of mine suddenly stopped calling me. And I was bereft without her.

It's this 18-year-old girl that boldly goes off toward adventure and danger, and we, as an audience, don't know what happens to her. And I think, for me, I needed to see it through. I needed to know. And so I very privately started writing this story for myself, not telling anybody about it, as a very personal project.

MARTIN: When did you decide that this could actually be a book, like, you could actually take it beyond a personal project? I do want to mention, in fact, the forward, which is written by the lyricist for...

SILBER: Yeah.

MARTIN: ..."Fiddler On The Roof," Sheldon Harnick, he says that actors often write a pre-story for themselves. They kind of settle for themselves what has happened up to the point that they step on stage but that's for them. That's a...

SILBER: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Very private exercise. When did you say to yourself, you know what, this is actually something I can share?

SILBER: I think when I started to recognize that the specificity of Hodel's journey was illuminating something that was universal, something that could resonate with all people, not just women, not just Jews, not just people that love "Fiddler" or love history and, you know, recognizing that oppressed people everywhere and courageous and tenacious people everywhere needed a new heroine.

MARTIN: Now, let's go to the story. And as we said, in the musical, when we last see Hodel, she's at a train station leaving her father to go try to find the love of her life. The book opens - I have to say it's a brutal experience. I mean, she's being abused by guards - by prison guards in Siberia.

What made you decide to open the book this way? It's a jolt. I mean, for those who think of "Fiddler On The Roof" as a very kind of a pleasant experience to take your, you know, elementary school kids, this comes as a bit of a shock.

SILBER: Yeah. I think one of the things that's sort of surprising about "Fiddler On The Roof" itself is that it is - it's incredibly human, an incredible sort of aperture into history and surprising that it's a musical. But this is one of the most brutal and tumultuous periods in European history. And I wanted to show the reality of what it was like to be processed in a Siberian work camp.

MARTIN: Well, to that end, I understand that you did quite a bit of research.

SILBER: It's interesting. I realized, at a certain point in my writing of this, that one needs to actually make a physical journey to replicate a journey that's happening within you. And for me, that really was about sort of making a pilgrimage, if you will, to Siberia itself and immersing myself in the culture and, you know, really digging my fingernails into the soil.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I note that you lost your own dad...

SILBER: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...To cancer when you were 18?

SILBER: Yes.

MARTIN: And I do find myself wondering when I found that out whether that did inform the way you played Hodel, knowing that she was a teenager...

SILBER: Of course.

MARTIN: ...And she had to say goodbye to her dad for different reasons. But I just wondered, was that a part of the story for you? Yeah.

SILBER: So my father passed away of a very long battle with cancer when I was just 18. And it's a very odd time to lose a parent. And I felt like I was presented with a decision that is not dissimilar to Hodel's. Sort of option one was, all right, well, I can curl up and die too. And I don't think anyone would have blamed me. And option 2 was OK, in the face of this tragedy, I could really, really live. I could go on a great adventure. And I think losing someone you love is the thing we all fear the most. And I faced it, and I survived. So what could ever possibly be difficult again?

And I responded to that by getting on a plane and moving to Scotland. It's sort of crazy now. And you sort of go, oh, how brave. But just like Hodel, it didn't feel brave. It felt necessary. And only now, as an adult, do I see that there is a direct parallel to a woman at 18, a young woman who says goodbye to her father and gets on a plane to Scotland and - pardon me for my emotion - but an 18-year-old woman who says goodbye to her father and gets on a train to Siberia, both of whom are then to fulfill their destinies.

And for me, the reason it's so personal is I didn't realize that in finishing Hodel's story and making sure that she was all right, I was taking care of myself. And so I feel like "After Anatevka" has really given me an opportunity to see something through that is more deeply personal than anything I've ever created or offered the world. And I just, you know, I hope other people can say me too to it.

MARTIN: That's Alexandra Silber. She is the author of "After Anatevka," which will be published on July Fourth. It is a novel inspired by "Fiddler On The Roof." Alexandra Silber, thank you so much for speaking with us.

SILBER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.