Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Play It Again: Fiddler's "Do You Love Me?"

PLAY IT AGAIN: Fiddler on the Roof's “Do You Love Me?” 

For this new series, Jeff has invited me to choose some classic Broadway show tunes and compare versions of these songs from several different cast recordings. Wherever possible, I’ll link to the songs on YouTube, where I listen to most of them myself.

This week I’ll be comparing five recordings of the second-act duet
“Do You Love Me?” from composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick’s classic Fiddler on the Roof. The recordings considered below are from the original Broadway cast, the film soundtrack, the two most recent Broadway revivals, and the off-Broadway Yiddish production (where the song is called “Libst Mikh, Sertse?” with lyrics by Shraga Friedman). 

A masterpiece of character-driven songwriting, “Do You Love Me?” comes at a crucial point in the second act of the show, when milkman Tevye has decided to let one of his daughters marry for love rather than practical considerations. Recalling his own arranged marriage, he poses the titular question to Golde, his wife of twenty-five years. Not accustomed to thinking in such terms, she at first mocks him for asking such a pointless question, and then enumerates the many things she’s done for him over the years as evidence of her feelings; but Tevye is not satisfied and finally persuades her to say that she loves him, a sentiment which he immediately reciprocates.

My overall favorite version is marked with two stars (**); one star (*) is used to indicate that a particular version stands out in terms of singing, orchestra, sound, or other miscellaneous qualities.

- YouTube

Tevye: Zero Mostel; Golde: Maria Karnilova

SINGING: Mostel’s delivery, both sung and spoken, is casual but expressive; he’s especially effective at conveying his increasing urgency as his wife equivocates on answering his question. Karnilova, more than subsequent Goldes, leans into vocal acting rather than pure singing; the result sounds natural enough, but a few of her notes could be a little less piercing for my taste.

ORCHESTRA: The orchestra is surprisingly subdued for the original recording of a Golden Age masterpiece. It’s mostly strings with some woodwinds in the mix for added color, but there’s not much ornamentation.

SOUND: Quite clear, but the vocals are too prominent; the orchestral introduction over the dialogue barely registers.

MISCELLANEOUS: The tempo seems quite fast - though, given that this is the original, maybe it’s more accurate to say that subsequent versions are slow! Regardless, I prefer a more languorous pace for such an eloquent song. This version includes the longest bit of spoken material at the beginning, with a couple of lines for Golde.

- YouTube

Tevye: Topol; Golde: Norma Crane

SINGING: Topol’s interpretation is zestful and expansive, perhaps a bit melodramatic compared to the others, but I can see why he owned this part for so many years, on screen and off. Crane’s delivery is loud and brash, with words somewhat clipped at times. The two approaches are very distinct, yet they sound lovely together at the end. A juicy highlight here is this quick exchange: “You’re a fool!” “I know.”

*ORCHESTRA: It’s not a level playing field, really, since this version has the advantage of music adapted and conducted by John Williams. The shimmering strings, woodwind flourishes, and sudden dynamic bursts are a perfect match for the song’s shifting emotional landscape.

SOUND: Not great; individual sounds tend to blend together, and the vocals are sometimes very loud.

MISCELLANEOUS: The tempo is pleasantly slow here, and Topol does a great job with the introductory monologue.

- YouTube

Tevye: Alfred Molina; Golde: Randy Graff

SINGING: Both actors are surprisingly subdued here; they hit the notes but skip the character touches that are so ubiquitous in the other versions. Graff’s beautiful soprano, in particular, does very little to distinguish Golde from Fantine. Molina’s voice is pleasant and natural, with some nice dynamic changes, but otherwise does little to establish Tevye’s character or state of mind. Pleasant but undistinguished, “vanilla” is the word I’d use to describe this entry overall.

ORCHESTRA: The chamber-like ensemble is the smallest of them all, but the delicate orchestration makes up for it, with lots of colorful touches. I especially like the low flute at the beginning.

SOUND: This is a very clear recording, with a nice balance between vocals and orchestra.

MISCELLANEOUS: Like the original recording, the tempo seems quite brisk. There’s no introductory dialogue, but that does make it easier to hear the charming orchestral introduction. (Irrelevant note: this recording features by far my favorite cover art.)


Tevye: Danny Burstein; Golde: Jessica Hecht

*SINGING: I think both singers achieve the best mix of beautiful vocals and effective characterization on this recording. Burstein’s interpretation is reminiscent of Mostel’s in terms of expressive detail, but he’s also capable of a more traditional, musically satisfying delivery, especially on sustained notes. Similarly, Hecht’s vocals manage to seem as pure as Graff’s but as distinctive as Crane’s. One particular highlight is the comical mini-outburst when they exchange barks of “I’m your wife!” and “I know!”

ORCHESTRA: The orchestra and arrangements are similar to those on the 2004 revival recording, but with a fuller string section.

SOUND: Not the best of the lot. The sound is a little muddled, with the orchestra too prominent; certain loud parts seem somehow pinched (unfortunately, I lack the technical vocabulary to be more precise than that!).

*MISCELLANEOUS: Tevye’s introductory spoken lines, as well as the orchestral underscoring, sound particularly good together here. The tempo is perfect: mostly unhurried, but with some shifts, including an appropriately accelerated middle section (“The first time I saw you…”).

- YouTube

Tevye: Steven Skybell; Golde: Jennifer Babiak

SINGING: The vocalists are very well-matched, each taking a fairly straightforward approach with a few nice touches to maintain effective characterization. Skybell has a pleasant voice throughout, and his increasingly whispered pleas are a particularly nice choice. Babiak has a more refined and traditional voice, like Graff, but she knows which words need a little extra punch. The two sound better than any other pair when they sing together at the end.

ORCHESTRA: I was expecting Fiddler-lite on this particular recording, but the orchestra is actually surprisingly full, with lush strings and lots of woodwind touches. This version is unique in having a sort of brassy ending, compared to the strings and bells of other recordings.

*SOUND: This is an extremely clear and well-balanced recording; all musical details are easy to hear. This was especially obvious when I noticed the “Tradition”-like accordion figure after Tevye sings “I’m asking you a question” - I had to go back and make sure it was actually present on the other recordings, rather than something added for this one.

MISCELLANEOUS: Not much to add: the tempo is moderate, and the track does include a Yiddish version of Tevye’s introductory monologue.


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