Songs from Musicals: #25, “Bottle Dance,” from Fiddler on the Roof

Honorable mentions: “Tevye’s Dream,” “Tradition”

The bottle dance from Fiddler on the Roof is about as Jewish as eating Chinese food on Christmas, which is to say there’s nothing inherently Jewish about it, but if you watch enough late 20th Century media on the topic, you’d certainly think it was.

It hurts a little not to include a song from Fiddler which features Tevye, one of my all-time favorite characters from any musical. I love “Tevye’s Dream,” which is goofy and has French horn rips and Fruma Sarah, who, as far as I can tell, does more with less time than any character in any musical. “To Life” is a rousing number so good that it made its way into Lin-Manuel Miranda’s wedding reception. But the music from the bottle dance is my favorite music from Fiddler on the Roof, because it provides a surprising showcase for a somewhat underrated instrument.

Clarinets squeal. This is sort of what they do, unless you’re Mozart and you know how to temper that sound with strings. Maybe if there were no saxophones, clarinets would be a better beloved instrument; both of them have the same propensity to ingratiate themselves through squeaking and jawing their way into a piece of music, but saxophones go through puberty. And if they had saxophones in Tsarist Russia (“May God bless and keep the Tsar…far away from us!”), I have no doubt that the solo in “Bottle Dance” would have been written for an alto sax. But thank goodness, the clarinet is the star in this piece instead, and we get a virtuoso display of what it’s capable of in the right context.

It calls the assembly to order, more or less, tiptoeing and lilting and teasing its way into the melody, which it leads itself. Percussion is its best friend in the early going, just as it is in Benny Goodman tracks. The strings follow behind, plucking or groaning as the case may be, following the clarinet’s lead. It holds serve; one man puts a bottle on his head; another follows. The group claps, and everyone sort of sings  a low “Ah!” underneath the clarinet, which is climbing a mountain into a different octave. Four men have bottles. The strings get louder. They buzz. The clarinet screams, the lilt from less than two minutes prior becoming almost agonizing.

The relief that follows is intense, the reason I keep coming back to “Bottle Dance” over and over. The clarinet keeps screaming, at this point on another planet from the rest of the orchestra, but the brass section is carrying the melody now, and the cymbals are marking time. The clarinet only has a two minute solo, but it is hypnotic and delightful and raises your blood pressure. It makes a dance which is technically impressive but hardly eye-popping into the entire show’s great spectacle, virtually all by itself.

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