The only way it was "modernized" (usually done by adding expletives, etc.) was a brilliant envelope: They had action at the beginning and end which compels us to consider sharing the burden of those under oppression. For the Jewish people of Anatevka, where the musical takes place, it is the pogrom that sends them away. For Christians in ISIS occupied territories today it is the nun.
Fiddler was first produced on Broadway in 1964, and the first person cast in the production was Austin Pendleton, who I interviewed in grad school. It held the record for the longest running Broadway show by the time the first production closed ten years later. This is the sixth Broadway production, and it's been performed all over the world, with an astonishing 1,300 performances in Japan. I know I sang "Sunrise, Sunset" in elementary school, though I can't recall the context.
I think it's a perennial favorite for the same reason Downton Abbey was so popular that it's been shown in every television market on earth. Both portray the tension between tradition and modernity. Proponents for keeping tradition are overjoyed because it shows the need for traditions. As Tevye says, "Remove tradition and we're as shaky as a fiddler on a roof!" Those that want to see traditions changed for a better world love it because they see how progressive ideas take hold.
Fiddler even has a solution for how to determine which traditions to keep and which to leave behind. At Tzeitle and Motel's wedding Perchik asks if any of the young women would like to dance with him. This is unheard of in their culture and his request is called sin. Perchik asks the rabbi if it is sin. Is it forbidden in the Good Book? The rabbi can't think of anything that forbids dancing, and so they dance. Had the rabbi been given a moment to think and pray it might have come to him that throughout The Song of Solomon the phrase recurs: "Don’t excite love, don’t stir it up, until the time is ripe—and you’re ready." (The Message) Not that I'm condemning all dancing. There was a saying among Christians when I was growing up: No premarital sex because it could lead to dancing. My point is that young people should be encouraged to keep their heads clear so they can hear the Lord's call to marriage and not rush where their hormones are leading the way.
After my performance of Beyond the Chariots in St. Louis I answered questions, and one was from a mother with a couple of teenaged daughters wanting to go into the arts professionally. She asked what is one thing I would recommend for them. I recommended getting plugged into a Christ-centered, Bible believing congregation. Without a foundation whatever faith structure has been built in their lives will be in grave danger of falling. I added another: Read the Bible cover to cover every year. Without a solid foundation in the Good Book everything will sound good enough.
I was a sociology/social work major at George Fox University, and my mentor, Mike Allen, taught a concept that has been a guiding light for me along the way: Cultural relativity is fine, so long as it lines up with biblical absolutes.
One of my favorite moments in the production was when they celebrated Sabbath. As they lit their candles the walls of their home flew up revealing all the other families of Anatevka and all over the world lighting their candles and welcoming the Lord's presence into their day of rest. It highlighted the power of community in using traditions to keep us close to the Lord.
Christians should know:
*Some honest conversations with God, like "With Your help, we're starving to death!"
*A couple of sexual innuendos
*Some smooching to celebrate an engagement
*Hope expressed that the Messiah will come at some point in the future