Here’s the problem with reviving a classic musical: On the one hand, it’s a classic because people love it. On the other, because people love it, you’d better treat it well — or else.
Which says something about the chutzpah of Charleston’s Threshold Repertory Theatre, a black box operation on Society Street that’s opening its fourth season in October with a production of Fiddler on the Roof. Even in the era of the hyper-produced-multimillion-dollar-mega-hit, Fiddler’s original run from 1965 to 1972 remains the 15th longest-running show in Broadway history. It’s been produced around the world, including Charleston in 1995.
So there’s pressure to do it well. And then there’s logistics.
Technical director Michael Kordek does some quick math in the lobby. The configuration he’s designed for staging Fiddler in Threshold’s black box performance space allows no more than 100 seats. Figure in the 24-person cast, a five-piece band and a tech staff of two or three, and that’s just three audience members for each participant. Talk about a daunting ratio.
“It is [daunting], and then there’s the roof!” says Pamela Nichols Galle, Threshold’s artistic director. “And the fiddler! I just say to [Kordek], ‘Can it be done?’ and he says ‘Yes.’”
Threshold picked the story of Tevye and his five daughters because it fits into the season’s theme of family. It’s the story of Jews caught up in the pograms of early 20th century Russia, but its exploration of tradition in the face of changing times gives it a universal quality, Galle says.
Threshold has been through its own share of changes since 2010, with several of its founders moving on. But in the increasingly crowded Charleston theater scene, the company still defines itself by emphasizing process over genre. Because of that Threshold has no go-to style.
“You have no idea what shows people are going to come to,” Galle says. “You think you know … but you can have a hell of a show — a comedy, you think people will come — and it’s not as well-attended as something else you had no expectation about. People know this show. But that’s really a smaller piece than ‘Do you love it?’ You pick it because it says something. You think it speaks to you.”
Galle and Kordek have worked together at Threshold more or less since its inception, and each carries a sense of the hall’s possibilities. Black box theater is traditionally whisper-intimate, but their experience staging The Robber Bridegroom in season two convinced them that Threshold’s physical limitations can be used to reshape a big musical into something remarkable.
“We’ve had some big, beautiful voices [in here], and they work,” Galle says. “What happens in this space is that the audience seriously begins to blend with the story. And if we do this show right, it will happen again. That’s my expectation.”