ED Goes to Broadway: Behind the Scenes of "Fiddler on the Roof" in Yiddish

Editor in chief Whitney Robinson chats with set designer Beowulf Boritt, the man behind Fiddler’s deceptively simple—yet incredibly powerful—stage design.

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Matthew Murphy

Tony Award-winning set designer Beowulf Boritt gives ELLE Decor Editor in Chief Whitney Robinson some behind-the-scenes insight into the set design of the Off-Broadway show, Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish.

Whitney Robinson: Fiddler is like an unscripted, scripted show. Does that change how you approach the set design?

Beowulf Boritt: Normally, I want the set to thematically mirror the show. The set, to some degree, is trying to provide location, but that’s almost the least interesting part of it, for me. The theme and punctuating story is what’s interesting to me, but with something like freestyle—where the story or the theme changes night to night—you can’t approach it that way. So it’s a different kind of challenge. The set almost becomes its own art piece that sits around the show.

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Actors Steven Skybell and Bruce Sabath perform a scene.
Matthew Murphy

WR: I’ve seen Fiddler twice, and this set is deceptively simplistic. It seems like a central character in the show and also a deliberate statement. How did you come to that?

BB: I’d never done Fiddler before, and when Joel [Grey, the acclaimed actor who is directing this production] asked me to do it, I thought, “Oh, this is interesting.” I don’t speak any Yiddish—at least, not more than the three words that every New Yorker knows. There’s been a romanticism to the way we’re used to seeing Fiddler, and putting it into Yiddish somehow made it more raw and more basic. There’s a power to that, and so we were trying to find a way to reflect that with the set design.

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So that’s a long way of saying that what I was trying to get at with the Fiddler set is the fragility of our lives, and obviously that’s a story about very poor people who have a life that’s rich in tradition. Tevye says he complains a lot, but, basically, they’re a happy, loving family. And you realize how fragile life is. Your reaction to the set is exactly what I hope for: that people almost think there’s not a set there. We’re trying to make you think it’s just a bare-bones, simple telling of the story, which has a lot of strength to it.

So at the end of the first act, when the Russian police come in and shred part of the set in front of you, it’s shocking for people.

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The torn paper on the set of Fiddler on the Roof.
Beowulf Boritt

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BB: Yeah, people recognize that it’s an act of actual destruction. It’s not theatrical-ized. We are really destroying this thing in front of you, and the fact that it’s ripping through the middle of the word Torah is obviously important. The Torah is a strong thing to violate, and that is also so much of what the story is about: the breaking of traditions and learning to deal with traditions changing.

But when we come back in the second act, they’ve stitched it back together again. Hopefully, it’s a statement for anybody about how, as life goes on and changes, you adjust, you put yourself back together, you move forward.

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Steven Skybell and Jennifer Babiak, who play Tevye and his wife, Golde, perform a scene during the second act, after the set has been stitched back together.
Matthew Murphy

WR: I know what goes on behind the scenes. I was like, “Oh my God, they just tore it in the middle, and then they’re going to repair it—and they’re going to have to replace it day after day after day, forever.” That’s a lot of paper. From a technical standpoint, how does that work?

BB: It’s a special paper made for photo shoots, like a seamless, and it’s inherently flame-retardant. We buy it by the roll, but then it has to go to a shop where they can stencil on the word Torah and it can be crumpled. There’s not a fine art to how the paper is crumpled, but it has to be done carefully so it doesn’t tear before the show.

WR: Do you know how many pieces you’ve gone through? How many performances have there been?

BB: About 400 at this point.

WR: So the crew stitches it together during that moment in intermission?

BB: Actually, no, that is stagecraft. We have stitched-together ones that are ready to go, because it takes too long to do that work at intermission.

WR: Do the actors have to train to tear the paper a certain way?

BB: Yeah, the guy who plays the Constable has to practice. It’s harder than you would think to tear through it.

WR: Alright, my last question for you: How’s your Yiddish now?

BB: It’s slightly better after sitting and listening to the show so many times. The show really has an emotional effect—it makes me cry every time I see it.

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