For 50 years, “Fiddler on the Roof” and theatergoers have been a matchless match.
Practically from the moment the curtain rose on its Broadway debut, on Sept. 22, 1964, “Fiddler” ascended to the zenith of great American musicals, while also becoming a permanent cultural touchstone.
Audiences embraced it. Jews embraced it. The show and the 1971 film version have been hits everywhere, from Buenos Aires to Helsinki to Tokyo, with each culture seemingly adopting it as its own.
That’s because everywhere on Earth, when parents watch their children get married, they think to themselves, “I don’t remember getting older. When did they?”
To mark the musical’s golden anniversary, starting next week, the Bay Area’s Jewish and academic communities will hold a string of panel discussions, film screenings, concerts and sing-alongs.
Besides the obvious attributes of a simple yet elegant plot, indelible characters and truly great songs, what accounts for the show’s enduring popularity?
“[‘Fiddler’] has provided Jews and non-Jews with an attractive narrative about the relationship between American Jews and Eastern Europe,” says Stanford University professor Gabriella Safran, one of the organizers of the celebration. “It’s given us a story.”
Several months ago, Safran and fellow Stanford professor Ari Y. Kelman saw the anniversary coming up, and thought it would be worth marking. Other institutions wanted in, among them the Contemporary Jewish Museum and Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union.
At Stanford and GTU, upcoming symposia will analyze the show’s impact, its Yiddish origins and why younger generations far removed from the shtetl continue to make “Fiddler” their own.
Two generations after the real-life Tevyes and their families made it to America, their descendants were part of a thriving, Jewish community, the safest, strongest and most prosperous the world had ever known. While the first generation may have tried to shed its associations with the shtetl and the Yiddish language, the next was ready to take a look back and celebrate. That was the historic moment that gave rise to “Fiddler on the Roof.”
That it also turned out to be inarguably one of the greatest works of its genre made that look back all the better.
According to Columbia University arts and culture professor Alisa Solomon, “Fiddler” came at a time when the American counterculture was growing, feminism was coming to the fore, and involvement in the Vietnam War was accelerating.
At a Princeton University symposium about the musical held last month, she said, audiences saw the developing “generation gap” through the eyes of both Tevye and his daughters: “Part of the genius of the show is to have both perspectives.”
Solomon will be one of the featured speakers at two upcoming Bay Area panels about “Fiddler.”
Safran will join her. As a professor of Jewish studies and Slavic languages, Safran specializes in pre-revolutionary Russian Jewish literature. She knows the “Fiddler” source material — Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye stories — backward and forward, in the original Yiddish.
The plot involves Tevye, in dialogue with God and the audience, pondering the mysteries of life, while his three elder daughters give him tsuris. Each one gives him more grief than the previous, with Chava, his third daughter, pushing him to his limit by marrying a non-Jew.
Delightful as it is in song, dance and comedy, at heart “Fiddler on the Roof” is about the loss of the vanished shtetl culture. The show about tradition is more about the end of tradition.
In fact the show and the film have come under fire over the years for over-romanticizing the shtetl, perpetuating a vision of Jewish life that never existed. Critics point out that for many non-Jews around the world, the gussied-up village of Anatevka gives a false view of Jews and Judaism — the only one many people ever encounter.
Others counter by claiming the music allows contemporary Jews to reach back and embrace a history their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents tried to discard when they immigrated to America.
Safran readily concedes that “Fiddler” took many liberties with the reality of shtetl life, but that for the purpose of making great art, it’s OK.
“There is a place for accurate well-researched history,” she says, “and you can also be clear that ‘Fiddler’ is not telling you the truth. But it’s giving you pleasure, community, music and hummable songs. We don’t need it to be true.”
The numbers tell the tale.
After its Broadway debut, “Fiddler on the Roof” won nine Tony Awards, including best musical, best score (for songwriters Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock), best choreography (for Jerome Robbins) and best actor for Zero Mostel, who originated the role of Tevye.
It became the first Broadway musical to top 3,000 performances (the record held for a decade), has enjoyed multiple Broadway revivals and remains one of the most performed amateur and community theater musicals in the country. Early next month, Sonoma State University will stage a new student production.
Solomon wrote about “Fiddler” and its enduring influence in her new book. “Wonder of Wonders,” published in October, offers a detailed look at the show’s origins, going back to the Sholem Aleichem stories and the author’s ill-fated attempt to break into New York’s Yiddish theater (see review, page 20).
Before he died in New York in 1916, the man born as Solomon Rabinovich in a small city outside Kiev could not have guessed that the Tevye stories written under his pen name would evolve into one of the most successful stage-works ever.
“For those who saw ‘Fiddler’ as an incomplete Broadway version of Sholem Aleichem, all you can say is: Yes, it is,” notes Solomon. “But a lot of people became more interested in learning about that history and about Sholem Aleichem than might have otherwise because of it.”
Solomon will join Safran and several other academics at a Jan. 9 “Fiddler at 50” symposium at GTU. She will not only share her scholarly views of the show, but also serve up some juicy stories about its creation.
Researching her book, she had access to the archives and private papers of Harnick, Mostel and Robbins. The New York Library of the Performing Arts also proved a valuable storehouse of Fiddler-ana.
“There are various script drafts, tons of notes from Robbins, discarded lyrics, songs that didn’t go in,” she recalls. “Piecing all that together was really fun.”
Solomon learned that just before the show completed its try-outs in Detroit and Washington, D.C., only days before the New York premiere, producers dropped a key scene. An expressionistic wordless ballet, it featured Tevye wandering in the forest, devastated by daughter Chava’s betrothal to the Russian, Fyedka.
“Sheldon Harnick and others told me it was incredibly powerful,” Solomon says. “Zero was unbelievable in it, but in the end, it was too long, and unnecessary.”
Mostel played a crucial role in the development of the show. He was Robbins’ first choice for Tevye, but played hard to get, in part because he and Robbins despised each other (bad feelings left over from the McCarthy era; Robbins named names, Mostel kept his mouth shut and was blacklisted).
The actor even put his signature on one of the show’s most memorable songs, “If I Were a Rich Man.” Mostel is the one who came up with the “dibby-dibby-dums.”
Zero Mostel was the first Tevye (he only stayed nine months in the original production) but he had many worthy successors.
The ageless Theodore Bikel (actually, he is 89) turned in more than 2,000 performances as Tevye, touring all across North America.
He saw the show several times in its first Broadway run, and says he knew even then he would eventually star in it.
“I was very impressed both by the show and [Mostel’s] performance,” Bikel recalls. “Then I saw it again and he tended to get bored and started to do shtick. I decided to play [Tevye] as my own grandfather, because he was my role model. He was so much like Tevye, I didn’t have to reach too far to get a grip.”
Israeli actor Chaim Topol originated the role in London and Tel Aviv, ultimately becoming the most immortalized Tevye when he starred in the 1971 film adaptation. He was cast when director Norman Jewison watched him bring down the house in the 1968 London production.
“He said ‘You’re the one I want,’” Topol told J. “He had a big fight with [the studio]. They wanted actors whose names were already established. He won the battle and I won the privilege of playing [Tevye].”
Among his favorite memories is shooting the scene in which Tevye persuades his wife, Golde, that the ghost of Fruma-Sarah, the late wife of Lazar Wolf the butcher (betrothed to Tzeitel, Tevye’s eldest daughter) came to him in a dream, warning him to call off the wedding.
“Luckily, I rehearsed 250 times before I came in front of the camera,” Topol added, “so I knew exactly where I was going, what I was feeling in every shot. Even if they give you a good part, you’d better be lucky.”
Author Solomon says the reach of the film has been greater than the stage version in some ways, having been rescreened in theaters and shown on TV countless times. But the stage version has an edge in other ways. “A lot of people never saw a professional production but their kid was in it in high school or a community theater did it. It still has a very big life, with some 200 productions every year.”
Naomi Seidman is pretty sure she saw Topol as Tevye when as a little girl she saw “Fiddler” for the first time. Her memory is hazy — she was only 6 at the time.
Though Seidman was part of an ultra-Orthodox family — the kind that would normally eschew glitzy Broadway — this show was not to be missed.
“It was one of my first experiences going into Manhattan,” recalls Seidman, now a professor and director of the Center for Jewish Studies at GTU. “We loved it. Obviously there are lots of things that don’t ring true, but on the other hand when you see something that close to your experience on stage or screen it’s really gratifying.”
Seidman still loves the show and sees it as a kind of modern Bible for Jews.
“It’s really helpful to have this one text everyone knows,” she says. “When I teach Eastern European Jewish culture I can refer to it as a touchstone. Everyone knows about it, the Jewish and non-Jewish students. Everyone knows the songs by heart.”
She views the show as a commentary on modernity, with Tevye addressing the price that society — any society — pays for progress. In the case of “Fiddler,” that includes the move away from extended family and arranged marriage to greater individual freedom.
“The genius of Sholem Aleichem, and what differentiates this from other works of literature, is he tells it from the perspective of the father,” Seidman notes. “The children are the ones whose romantic interests we identify with, but what does it mean to tell it from the perspective of the father? The painfulness becomes clear.”
The ecumenical appeal of a show so intrinsically Jewish has long intrigued scholars.
Safran recalls teaching a class on Eastern European Jewish literature, and among the students was a young Mormon man from Provo, Utah.
“He said to me at one point, ‘I think I get this stuff much better than the American Jewish students. Where I grew up was much more like the real [shtetl], a traditional community where people knew each other and checked up on each other.’”
Today, the shtetls are gone. They belong to the realm of the scholars, with one grand exception: the Broadway musical that will forever preserve something of that defining time in Jewish history.
Book writer Joseph Stein told Solomon during her research that he and his colleagues “weren’t trying to change the world” with the show.
Nevertheless, they did.
“[‘Fiddler’] provided an image, and therefore a focal point, for thinking about, remembering, learning about and expressing feelings toward a vanished past,” Solomon says. “At the same time it celebrated what people who had come to the United States had achieved. It did that in its moment. That was a powerful thing to have done.”
JNS contributed to this story.
Wonder of wonders: Lineup of ‘Fiddler’ events in the Bay Area
From a communitywide “Fiddler” sing-along to a concert with a veteran of 2,000 performances as Tevye, the Bay Area will soon be brimming with events celebrating the 50th anniversary of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
The party will begin on Tuesday, Jan. 7, with a free 2 p.m. screening of the 1971 film adaptation starring Chaim Topol, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.
The fun will continue on Wednesday, Jan. 8 at the California Theatre on Kittredge Street in Berkeley, with a cinema showing of the film and a sing-along hosted by monologist Josh Kornbluth. The 6:30 p.m. screening costs $15, or $12 for students and seniors.
After the credits roll, there will be a reception and klezmer dance party one block over, on Allston Way, at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life. The Old World trio Veretski Pass will be fiddling up a storm, and desserts from the Old World Food Truck will be available. Admission is free with a ticket stub from the movie screening and sing-along.
The music will continue on Jan. 9 with Theodore Bikel and Bosnian accordionist Merima Kljuco in concert at the Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse in Berkeley.
In addition, there will be a free conference on Thursday, Jan. 9, with speakers offering multiple perspectives on “Fiddler” and its legacy, at U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union library.
Hillel at Stanford will host a freebie tribute to “Fiddler” and Sholem Aleichem (author of the story upon which Fiddler is based, “Tevye and His Daughters”) on Jan. 12,
followed by a Jan. 13 afternoon symposium and evening lecture by Columbia professor and drama critic Alisa Solomon. Both will be at Stanford and are free.
Solomon will share more “Fiddler” insights at the JCC of San Francisco on Jan. 14.
An onstage production of the musical will run from Feb. 6 to 16 at Sonoma State University. One of the highlights: a 16-piece orchestra.
And throughout the commemoration, there will be plenty of chances to view the crowd-sourced online video “Break/Tradition.” Produced by the JCCSF’s 3200 Stories, the video remix will feature snippets of contributors, from the Bay Area community and beyond, singing the musical’s famous first number, “Tradition.” The video will be online and played at various “Fiddler at 50” events.
For complete details, including a list of Bay Area partnering institutions, go to www.fiddlerat50.com.
‘Fiddler on the Roof’ timeline
1894: Sholem Aleichem publishes several short stories in Yiddish about a protagonist named Tevye the Dairyman and his six (or seven) daughters in czarist Russia. The collected stories are called “Tevye and His Daughters.”
Dec. 21, 1939: The Yiddish film “Tevye” debuts. It is filmed in Biograph Studios in New York City and on a Long Island farm.
March 15, 1962: “Tevya und seine Töchter” (“Tevye and His Seven Daughters”) plays on West German television as a 90-minute made-for-TV drama.
Sept. 22, 1964: The musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” based on the Sholom Aleichem short stories, premieres on Broadway to universal acclaim. Starring Zero Mostel as Tevye and Maria Karnilova as Golde, the original production runs for 3,242 performances. It also stars Beatrice Arthur as Yente and Bert Convy as Perchik the student revolutionary. Later in the run, various daughters are played by Bette Midler, Adrienne Barbeau and Pia Zadora.
June 13, 1965: “Fiddler” collects nine Tony Awards: best musical; Jerome Robbins for best direction of a musical; Harold Prince for best producer of a musical; Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) for best original score; Mostel for best leading actor in a musical; Karnilova for best performance by a featured actress in a musical; best choreography; best costume design; and best book of a musical.
1965: The “Fiddler on the Roof” album, with songs sung by the original Broadway cast, peaks at No. 7 on the Billboard charts.
Feb. 16, 1967: The play opens a run in London’s West End at Her Majesty’s Theatre, where it plays for 2,030 performances. It stars Chaim Topol. The show goes on to worldwide acclaim, with productions in 32 countries in 16 languages.
May 5, 1968: The Israeli drama “Tevye and His Seven Daughters” opens in movie theaters. The two-hour film includes no musical numbers.
Nov. 3, 1971: The film version of the musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” directed by Norman Jewison and starring Topol, premieres. It goes on to gross more than $83 million at the box office and wins three Academy Awards for cinematography, sound and adapted score.
April 23, 1972: “Fiddler” is handed a special Tony Award for longest running musical in Broadway history, a record it would hold until “Grease” went on a run of 3,388 performances from 1972 to 1980. Since then, 13 musicals have exceeded Grease’s record.
Dec. 28, 1976: The first of several Broadway revivals opens, with Mostel reprising his starring role. Other revivals, in 1981, 1990 and 2004, would follow, with Herschel Bernardi, Topol, Alfred Molina and Harvey Fierstein cast as Tevye. Bernardi is nominated for a Tony in 1981 but does not win.
Feb. 28, 1977: Zero Mostel dies at 62.
May 9, 1986: Herschel Bernardi dies at 62.
June 2, 1991: At the 45th annual Tony Awards, “Fiddler” wins for best revival of a musical, and Topol is nominated but does not win for best performance by a leading actor in a musical.
Dec. 14, 2004: Recording artist Gwen Stefani releases the single “Rich Girl,” which blends hip-hop with a pseudo cover version of “If I Were a Rich Man.”
May 26, 2008: Time magazine ranks “Fiddler on the Roof” as the seventh-most produced musical in American high schools.
Nov. 3, 2010: Composer Jerry Bock dies at 81.
2011: “Fiddler” lyricist Sheldon Harnick writes two versions of the song “Sunrise, Sunset” suitable for same-sex weddings, incorporating minor word changes such as “When did they grow to be so handsome?”