This Day in Jewish History

1964: 'Fiddler on the Roof' Premieres on Broadway

Its first critics panned it, but the play inspired by a Chagall painting went on to win 9 Tonys.

Sharon Bokov

On September 22, 1964, “Fiddler on the Roof” had its premiere on Broadway, at the Imperial Theater. That original production went on to run for 3,242 performances, a record that held until being shattered by “Grease”.

"Fiddler" subsequently underwent four Broadway revivals, the most recent of which, in 2004, played 781 times. The play has been staged countless times on both professional, amateur and school stages around the world during the past 49 years. It also was adapted successfully for the screen in 1971, a production that was awarded three Oscars.

“Fiddler on the Roof” is of course based on a series of Yiddish stories about “Tevye and His Daughters,” by Sholem Aleichem.

The origins of “Fiddler on the Roof,” according to historian Philip Lambert, go back to 1960, when composer Jerry Bock reported in his diary that “Sheldon gave me a novel called ‘Wandering Star,’” by Sholem Aleichem. “Sheldon” was lyricist Sheldon Harnick, with whom Bock had already collaborated on the 1959 production “Fiorello!,” which won not only the Tony for best musical, but also the Pulitzer Prize.

Together with writer Joseph Stein, Harnick and Bock began to consider adapting the Sholem Aleichem novel, which was about a traveling Yiddish theatrical troupe. By August 1961, the trio had put aside “Wandering Star,” and decided instead that the Tevye stories would make an appropriate vehicle for a musical.

According to Lambert, writing in “To Broadway, to Life!: The Musical Theater of Bock and Harnick,” by early 1962, the three had already begun work on both libretto and songs by early 1962, when they approached producer Harold Prince. He was interested, but suggested waiting for choreographer and director Jerome Robbins to become available before proceeding. That didn’t happen until the summer of the following year, when Robbins finished directing “Funny Girl.”

A cheoreographer falls in love

Harnick, Bock and Stein met with Robbins, who was already legendary both for his work on the ballet stage and also for such musical theater as “On the Town” and “West Side Story.” On August 29, 1963, Robbins sent a telegram to a longtime colleague, Ruth Mitchell stating, “I'M GOING TO DO A MUSICAL OF SHOLEM ALEICHEM STORIES WITH HARNICK AND BOCK STOP I'M IN LOVE WITH IT IT'S OUR PEOPLE."

It was Robbins who thought of approaching Marc Chagall, to design the set of “Fiddler,” and when he was unavailable (“REGRETTE TROP OCCUPE,” he cabled the director), who turned to the Kiev-born Boris Aronson. But it was still Chagall’s 1912-13 painting “The Fiddler,” depicting a violinist perched precariously on a slanted roof, that provided a visual element that runs through the entire play, as well as the inspiration for the show’s title.

“Fiddler on the Roof” is the story of Tevye the milkman and his family. The year is 1905, the place is the fictional town of Anatevka, a Jewish shtetl. In the original stories, Tevye and his sharp-tongued wife, Golde, have seven daughters; the play reduces the number to five, and focuses on the three eldest.

While tradition calls for children to enter into arranged marriages, Tevye and Golde’s daughters demand the right to choose their own partners, on the basis of romantic love.

The first, Tzeitel, wants to marry an impoverished tailor; the next, Hodel, falls for a non-observant socialist; and the third Chava decides she will wed a non-Jew. The third compromise is one that Tevye cannot make, and he tells Chava that if she marries out of the faith, the family will treat her as if she is dead.

A mystical presence

At the same time that Tevye, a decent, God-fearing but modest and uneducated man, must contend with these challenges of modernity, he and his fellow Jews also face the pogroms of czarist Russia. After a violent riot disturbs Hodel’s wedding party, at the end of Act I, by the end of the second, the residents of Anatevka are told they have three days to leave the town. Tevye, Golde and their two younger daughters depart, destined to sail to America. They are followed from the village by the ubiquitous fiddler, who has been a non-speaking and somewhat mystical presence through the entire production.

The first preview of “Fiddler” was in Detroit, on July 29, 1964. Audiences did not respond enthusiastically, and a critic from Variety determined that “There are no memorable songs in this musical.” Austin Pendleton, who played Motel, the tailor who becomes Tzeitel’s husband, told Robbins’ biographer Amanda Vaill that word preceded the play to New York “that the show was a disaster.”

We know now that “Fiddler on the Roof” was anything but a disaster, but it still is worth noting that initial reactions to the play were far from unanimous. Critic and director Robert Brustein declared that the play bore “about the same relation to its source [Sholem Aleichem] as unleavened cocktail wafers do to Passover matzoth.” (Come to think of it, is that such an inappropriate description of matzos?) Irving Howe found it “disheartening” and full of “sentimentalism and exploitativeness.”

Yet the play was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, and won nine of them, including for Best Musical, and best direction and choreography. Both Zero Mostel – Tevye – and Maria Karnilova, who played Golde, also won Best Actor Tonys. Although Mostel is remembered to this day for his performance and identified for many as the quintessential Tevye, so irritating was he to the show’s producers for his insistence on constant ad-libbing when his contract expired, the following year, they replaced him with Herschel Bernardi (he also was passed over in favor of Chaim Topol for the film version, seven years later).

The original production of “Fiddler on the Roof” closed on July 2, 1972. According to theater historians Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon, it earned its backers $1,574 for every dollar invested in it.