For director Bartlett Sher, reviving "Fiddler on the Roof" was not just about giving a fresh vision to the classic musical about refugees holding onto one another and "Tradition" in the face of relentless persecution.
His touring Broadway production that played Minneapolis in 2019 and lands again Tuesday at the Ordway Center was part of a personal quest that touched on larger questions about the state of the nation's soul.
"My family is Jewish, although we were raised Christian," Sher said.
When "Fiddler" first lit up Broadway in 1964, Americans were clear about the country's origin story and its values, Sher said. In contrast to the Soviet Union, the U.S. stood for freedom and democracy and welcomed immigrants, even if the nation's dreams were not extended to all its citizens.
The show now lands at a time when the country's stance and values have become open questions.
"We're not sure who we are," Sher said. "We've lost the narrative of ourselves."
Having a story of a people is one of the things that "Fiddler" is all about. Like the rest of the folks in his Russian shtetl, Tevye, the titular milkman, is trying to hold onto a sense of self, family and history in the face of oppression and historic churn.
Sher, whose revival of "Fiddler" opened on Broadway in December 2015, is not one to pine for the good old days. Theater and theater-making are about today, he insists, and a show like "Fiddler" has to say something to us now. What that may be is ever-changing.
It falls into a small roster of stage works that are so iconic that they have barely changed with time. Think "A Chorus Line," with its elemental presentational style and confessional format. Or "West Side Story," with its feral hunger and Jerome Robbins' razzle-dazzle choreography.
Robbins brought the same protean creativity to the original "Fiddler," as well. All four Broadway revivals before Sher's production were faithful to Robbins' dances and to the Marc Chagall-inspired shtetl set.
"With shows that are this iconic, the revivals are basically copies of the original," said Rod Kaats, artistic director of the Ordway.
Sher, who was raised Catholic but later found out his Lithuanian-born father was Jewish, set out to change that. He invited Israeli-born, London-based choreographer Hofesh Shechter to create new dances for the production.
Shechter was respectful but also very clear about the task before him.
"There's no real way to match its history — I walked with the attitude of being highly creative and not trying to imitate what was done before," Shechter said. "I had to make it fresh, from my perspective and with the people in the room."
Those people included the dancers, of course. But Sher also had things he wanted, like to have the show be more deeply rooted in Jewish lore and culture.
"It had a very American cast and feel," Sher said. "I wanted to make it, for lack of a better term, more authentic."
He also wished to see it be more gritty than grand, more earthy than ethereal. That was right up Shechter's alley.
"When Bart came and spoke with me about the project, I felt a connection," said the choreographer. "Those things he wanted — something grittier and closer to the ground — are qualities that connect with how I make dance. When I make my own shows, it's not very often about the beauty in visual sense of satisfying the eye. It's about digging and delving into something human, humble and simple."
Still, there were things he could not change in "Fiddler," even if he wanted to. The bottle dance that Robbins created, for one.
"There are a couple of moments there where I was like, 'this is an immovable part of the piece, you have to quote it step for step,'" Shechter said. "The subject is heavy but this was such a joyful, emotional show."
Shechter identifies with the story, and sees it as a statement about humanity.
"Aren't we all immigrants moving from place to place?" he said. "Dance is an immediate, visceral communication. And working on this show made me feel that you can't really forget where you came from, no matter how far you go. I was born in Israel, live in England, am Jewish and have traveled around the world. This show made me feel more Jewish than I normally do. It made me feel like I belong to something greater than myself."
'Fiddler on the Roof'
Who: Composed by Jerry Bock with lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and book by Joseph Stein. Directed by Bartlett Sher.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Fri.; 2 & 7:30 p.m. Sat. & Sun. Ends Dec. 12, when there is one show, at 2 p.m.
Where: Ordway Center, 345 Washington St., St. Paul.
Tickets: $48-$122. 651-224-4222 or ordway.org.
Protocol: Proof of vaccination or negative COVID test. Masks required.