April 2, 2020

‘Fiddler on the Roof’ Revisited in ‘Encore!’ TV Reunion

From left: Jeff Simpson, Michelle Anderson, director Chase Brock and host Kristin Bell. Photo by Disney +/Tony Rivetti

In 2001, students at Katella High School in Anaheim put on a production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Eighteen years later, seven of the cast members reprised their roles with the help of Broadway professionals and host Kristen Bell for the Disney+ series “Encore!” During an intensive, emotional six days of rehearsals before a public performance at the Pasadena Playhouse, the alumni rekindled relationships and learned some truths about themselves. 

The “Fiddler” cast members include Jeff Simpson and Michelle Jeanette Anderson, who discussed reprising their roles as Tevye and Golde in emails. Simpson, a voiceover artist now living in Orem, Utah, jumped at the chance to “take another crack at Tevye” and hang out with his high school friends. 

“In a way, I feel like I’ve walked on the moon,” he said. “I was given this incredible opportunity that has only been made available to a handful of other people. My former castmates and I resealed a bond I hadn’t realized was there all those years ago. I was grateful for the gift of seeing my drama pals again. I was surprised at how little we’d changed and how it seemed hardly any time had passed. Performing in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ after almost 20 years helped me remember how much I love to perform, and how I really ought to make it a part of my life over the years, even if it’s only in a regional capacity.”

For Anderson, who has continued to act, participating in the reunion validated her decision. “I’m where I’m supposed to be,” she told the “Encore!” cameras. She felt “honored and excited” to reprise her role as Golde “because this was such a special time in my life, and an important musical to me and my family. It was one of the best weeks of my life, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I know I’ll never get the chance to do anything like this again and I’ll be forever grateful.”

It was music director Adam Wachter’s challenge to get the cast into stage-ready shape, and he applauds their efforts under fire. “It’s a very rushed process but we always come across with some kind of entertaining product,” he told the Journal. “I think what people are really enjoying about ‘Encore!’ is the heartwarming nature of it. These people are at very different places in their lives, and to see them reflecting on high school, reconnecting and recapturing their love of performing and theater is so moving.” 

Adam Watcher

Wachter, who was the music director on the “Into the Woods” pilot for “Encore!” in 2016, returned for six more of the episodes and calls “Fiddler” his favorite so far. “It has a special place in my heart,” he said, explaining that he was in a community theater production of the musical with his parents and sister when he was 10. Growing up in one of three Jewish families in Holland, Mich., “ ‘Fiddler’ was a way for us to connect to our neighbors and the community through putting on this musical and [representing] our traditions,” he said. 

“I think what people are really enjoying about ‘Encore!’ is the heartwarming nature of it. These people are at very different places in their lives, and to see them reflecting on high school, reconnecting and recapturing their love of performing and theater is so moving.” — Adam Wachter

Wachter believes that the Tony Award-winning show is enduringly popular for reasons beyond its “stunning” score. “It’s so specifically about the Jewish experience, but at the same time it’s completely accessible to anyone who has any kind of tradition,” he said. “At its heart, it’s about a community dealing with change and progressive ideas in the world. That’s something everyone can understand and relate to.”

With immigrant German roots on his father’s side, Czech-Hungarian ancestry on his mother’s and a grandmother who survived the Holocaust, Wachter can relate on several levels. He grew up in family that kept kosher and belonged to a Conservative congregation where he became a bar mitzvah. Although he no longer is observant, he nevertheless feels a strong Jewish connection. “Even if we move away from the faith and the rituals, the essence of it, the culture and the pride in being Jewish, never goes away,” he said.

Wachter’s life has revolved around music and musical theater from an early age, when he took piano and viola lessons and followed his older brother onto the community and summer theater stage. In his senior year of high school, he was cast as Motel the tailor in “Fiddler.” It was to become a pivotal moment. “ ‘Miracle of Miracles’ was too high [in range] for me,” he said. “I volunteered to transpose it and rewrite the orchestra parts, but the theater director said no. So I quit the play and joined the orchestra, and from that moment I never looked back.”

Today, Wachter composes and writes musicals and is a professor of musical theater at Point Park University in Pittsburgh. He looks forward to doing more episodes of “Encore!” “It’s never too late to have a transformative experience that can fundamentally change who you are and allow you to explore sides of yourself you may have forgotten about, and reconnect with people from the past,” he said. “That’s the transformative power of musical theater.”

“Encore!: Fiddler on the Roof” is now streaming on Disney+.