Rethinking 'Fiddler on the Roof' on Its 50th Anniversary

With the Broadway classic about shtetl life turning 50 and preparing to relaunch, contributors to its history gathered to reminiscence.

New York — It was an unlikely match from the start: life on a Russian shtetl and the bright lights of Broadway. But Yenta knew what she was doing, and “The Fiddler on the Roof” was an instant hit. Half a century after its premiere in 1964, the musical is firmly embedded in the DNA of many American Jews, a tradition in its own right.

“’Fiddler’ itself has become part of Jewish legacy,” writer and scholar Alisa Solomon told Haaretz. “It’s become folklorized.”

On Monday night, Solomon and a panel of guests involved in the production’s long history gathered as part of the Public Forum Drama Club at The Public Theater in Manhattan to tell stories about “Fiddler’s” birth and discuss why it still speaks to audiences today. Among them were Sheldon Harnick, the show’s lyricist, Austin Pendleton, an original cast member, and Harvey Fierstein, who portrayed Tevye to acclaim in a 2005 revival.

The event, part-storytelling, part-dramatic reading, was inspired by Solomon’s entertaining and informative biography, “Wonder of Wonders: A Culture History of ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’” (published in October) which tracks “Fiddler’s” transformation from a collection of Yiddish short stories to an icon of American theater.

The announcement, two weeks ago, that “Fiddler” would return to the Great White Way in fall 2015 for its fifth revival added to the evening, making it both a tribute to the past and something of an appetizer for the future.

Discovering Tevye’s daughters

The story of “Fiddler” begins with the story of its creator, Sholem Aleichem, the Ukranian pioneer of modern Yiddish literature. While the revered author maintained a persona as a spokesman of the shtetl, Solomon reminded the audience that he was in fact a sophisticated, cosmopolitan artist. Aleichem’s sprawling love epic “Wandering Star” was first considered for a musical adaptation, but was ultimately deemed too big to distill.

“So we looked at other things by Sholem Aleichem and we found ‘Tevye’s Daughters,’” said Harnick. “We thought they were so human and so beautiful.”

Tevye, the hapless but loveable dairyman, was introduced to readers in 1894 as the subject of a series of short stories chronicling his relationship with his seven daughters, who often tested his patience and his faith. Monday’s event focused on the many iterations of the story of Chava, who marries a non-Jew.

When adapting the material for theater, the creators gave Tevye five daughters instead, focusing only on the oldest three. The story of Sprintze, for example, who ultimately drowns herself when she cannot marry the man she loves, was left out.

“It’s a moving story,” said Harnick, “but we thought it was a little too tragic for the show we wanted to do.” Indeed, the power of “Fiddler” largely comes from a less definable or tangible sense of loss: a mourning for community rather than individuals. “Fiddler” is the rare theater piece that is more about peoplehood than people.

Larger than life

Bringing these characters and the world of Anatevka (the village where “Fiddler” is set) to life required the right team. Rogers and Hammerstein had an option on the material for a while, which would have made for a very different musical.

Thankfully, it was Harnick, composer Jerry Bock and playwright Joseph Stein who took Aleichem’s writings to legendary director Hal Prince (“Cabaret,” “Evita” and “Phantom of the Opera,” among others), but he passed, saying, “It’s not my cup of tea.”

Prince suggested Jerome Robbins, the choreographer/director who already had “West Side Story” under his belt. Robbins, while not a practicing Jew, felt deeply connected to “Fiddler,” which allowed him to explore his cultural roots.

“When we asked him to do the show, for him it was the opportunity to give the shtetls another life,” said Harnick. “He was a man obsessed; his research and passion made the show a success.” (Coincidently, but symbolic nonetheless, Aleichem and Robbins’ birth names are Rabinovich and Rabinowitz, respectively.)

But who to play Tevye? Harnick confirmed that they had talked with Frank Sinatra’s manager, drawing laughs from the audience, and revealed that the part was offered to Danny Kaye, whose wife thought him too young to have five daughters. Robbins insisted on someone larger than life and advocated for Zero Mostel (who was already a multiple-Tony Award-winner) despite their tense relationship (Mostel was blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee; Robbins named names).

After eight weeks of rehearsals in New York (Pendleton recalled that they had perhaps three or four days off during that time), the show opened for out-of-town previews in Detroit and then Washington, D.C. When the company arrived in Washington, a long line around the theater greeted them.

“We thought: This show must be special,” said Harnick.

A key to suppressed conversations

Reviews were mixed. But the show would go on to become the longest running Broadway musical at the time. Unsurprisingly, it was embraced by the American Jewish community, which, for the first time, saw their culture represented in the mainstream not through Vaudevillian stereotype but “engaged with affection and a sense of what was lost,” according to Solomon.

Several decades and an Academy Award-winning film adaptation later, “Fiddler on the Roof” continued to make a social impact. While productions had been staged all over the world after its successful debut, the first Polish production wasn’t until 1983. It has since gained surprising popularity there and spurred dialogue amongst Poles about the fate of the country’s once-large Jewish population.

“’Fiddler’ became a key that unlocked a long-suppressed conversation,” said Solomon of the phenomenon.

When Anatevka is rebuilt on the Broadway stage next year, it will be in a world that looks very unlike the one it was born into half a century ago. So how will audiences respond today?

“There’s nostalgia for the show itself,” said Solomon after the event, drawing a comparison to nostalgia for the way of life it portrays; few seriously romanticize the Pale these days. Still, she pointed out, “Fiddler on the Roof,” like the writings of Sholem Aleichem, has much to share with modern audiences.

“The show’s universal themes don’t go away,” said Solomon. “The pressures of change, of loss, of moving away, of breaking ties.”

AP