Fiddler on the Roof, which is set in the Russian Pale of Settlement circa 1905 during the reign of Tsar Nicholas II (“may G-d bless and keep the Tsar . . . far away from us”), became one of the earliest popular depictions of pre-Holocaust Eastern European Jewry. It tells the well-known story of Tevye, an impoverished milkman who barely ekes out a living in the shtetl of Anatevka while struggling to preserve his Jewish religious and cultural traditions against the encroachment of modernity and other outside challenges – including particularly the challenges presented by his headstrong daughters, who have ideas of their own regarding “tradition.”
The original working title for the show was The Old Country, and other rejected titles include Tevye and Not So Long Ago, Not So Far Away. It ultimately became Fiddler on the Roof based upon a painting by Marc Chagall (see exhibit). Director Jerome Robbins had met and admired Chagall for his renditions of his childhood Chassidic community of Vitebsk, where dance and music stirred faithful devotion, themes which Robbins believed characterized the quintessence of Fiddler. Although Chagall declined an offer to design the set (he reportedly disliked the musical), it was nonetheless designed in his distinctive style and the play’s colorful logo was similarly inspired by the palette of Chagall’s paintings.
The much-loved show, directed by Jerome Robbins (1918-1998) and with music by Jerry Bock (1928-2010), lyrics by Sheldon Harnick (b. 1924), and book by Joseph Stein (1912-2010), ran for eight years and was at its time the longest running Broadway musical with 3,242 performances. It won nine Tony Awards, including best musical, score, book, direction and choreography, and both the play and its 1971 film adaptation continue to enjoy broad international popularity more than five decades after its Broadway debut. Just last year, the Library of Congress selected the original Broadway cast recording for inclusion in its National Recording Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Bock and Harnick originally intended to write a musical based upon Sholem Aleichem’s Wandering Stars (1909), a tale of a traveling Yiddish theater company, but they ultimately decided against it because of the infeasibility of staging a play of such broad scope. However, they had both become enamored with Sholem Aleichem’s work and decided instead to create a musical based upon Tevye the Milkman, an amalgam of his tragicomic Yiddish tales written between 1894 and 1914 about Jewish life in a Russian shtetl at the turn of the 20th century.
Fiddler was not the first dramatic adaptation of Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye tales. Sholem Aleichem (a pen name for Sholom Rabinovitch) himself adapted some of his material for Tevye the Milkman: A Family Portrait in Five Scenes, which was directed by and starred Maurice Schwartz, a pillar of Yiddish theatre. In 1919 – only three years after Sholem Aleichem’s death – Schwartz staged a version of the story at the Yiddish Art Theater, which was later made into Tevye, an important 1939 film that became the first non-English language movie to be selected for preservation by the National Film Registry (1990). In 1949, Rodgers and Hammerstein optioned Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye stories, but they let the option lapse when they commenced work on The King and I. Finally, Arnold Perl used three Sholem Aleichem short stories for his 1950s Off-Broadway play, The World of Sholom Aleichem.
Robbins went to great lengths to portray the characters and Jewish life in the shtetl with utmost authenticity, assigning various books about Jewish life in Eastern Europe to the cast as “homework,” and Harnick commented that The Culture of the Shtetl was their bible. Robbins even went so far as to take the cast on trips to New York City to observe Orthodox weddings; Zero Mostel, who played Tevye and was often in conflict with Robbins, mockingly commented, “A couple of weddings in Williamsburg and that putz thinks he understands Orthodox Jews.” Although most now agree that Robbins succeeded in great measure in his drive for authenticity, critics originally panned the play. For example, Philip Roth characterized Fiddler as “shtetl kitsch,” Cynthia Ozick called it vulgar, and Irving Howe described it as “gross” and sarcastically referred to Anatevka as “the cutest shtetl we’ve never had.”
Notwithstanding Robbins’s best efforts, several conspicuous inaccuracies made their way into the play. For example, no rabbi in an East European shtetl would ever dance with a woman (wedding scene); no tailor in such a shtetl would ever show up for a Shabbat Friday night Shabbat dinner wearing a tape measure around his neck (as does Motel); and Yenta as the town matchmaker is an incongruity, given that the matchmakers of Fiddler’s era were men. (Notably, Sholem Aleichem’s matchmaker in his Tevye stories is male, “Ephraim the Matchmaker.”)
The principals involved in the creation of Fiddler all had familial ties to Sholem Aleichem’s world and, though none were religiously observant, they all thought it unfortunate that his beautiful tales remained generally unknown beyond a limited Jewish/Yiddish milieu. Playwright Joseph Stein (nee Rabinowitz), who was the only one raised in an Orthodox family, abandoned observance soon after his bar mitzvah, but he always remembered the stories of his youth that his Polish immigrant father had read to him in the original Yiddish. Bock grew up in an entirely secular family, but he remembered fondly the Russian and Yiddish folk songs that his Yiddishe bubbe sang to him in his youth, which gave him what he characterized as his “ethnic juices.”
As a very young child, Robbins’s parents took him to visit his widowed grandfather in Rajanka, Russia, and he came to love his Zaide and the Yiddish songs he sang. When he detoured to Rajanka years later, he learned that its entire Jewish population of some 120 families had been liquidated in the Holocaust, and he became inspired to bring the “Anatevka” of his childhood back to life on the Broadway stage as a way to celebrate the warmth of the now lost Jewish life he had experienced in the shtetl.
As descendants of Jewish immigrants, Bock and Harnick also drew noteworthy inspiration from their Jewish backgrounds. They dedicated their final script of Fiddler “to our Fathers,” and renowned theatrical director/producer Hal Prince later commented that the show was clearly conceived by them “as a kind of valentine to their grandparents.” Nonetheless, neither was religiously observant and, ironically, they began writing Fiddler on September 11, 1961 – which happened to be Rosh Hashanah.
Harnick – himself an accomplished “fiddler” – took pride in the fact that he shared his Hebrew name, Shalom, with Aleichem. He was raised in a non-Jewish Chicago neighborhood, where he was impressed by the dedication and fervor of a group of elderly Jews from “the Old Country” in raising funds and building a synagogue. He was bar mitzvahed in that synagogue and loved its rabbi to the point that, for a time, he considered becoming one himself. As a child, he was subject to frequent antisemitic attacks and taunts of “Christ killer” which, he says, taught him “what it was like to be in a Jewish community where there were very few other Jews” and “that was something I could identify with the community that we were writing about in Fiddler.”
When he first became involved with Fiddler, Harnick solicited input from his relatives about their Jewish history and he learned how his Orthodox ancestors prepared for and observed Shabbat, attended synagogue, maintained separates sets of dishes for meat and milk, etc. In a bitter lesson on the root causes of assimilation, his father explained that he had discarded his own Orthodox practices when he saw his relatives and other Jews compromising their Orthodox practices to accommodate the demands of their businesses and the American “melting pot.”
The successive marriages of Tevye’s three daughters is a metaphor for the “slippery slope” of assimilation, a central them in Fiddler. Though all three daughters breach tradition by marrying for love (“Do You Love Me?”), Tzeitel and Motel’s marriage is characterized by a life of tradition and commitment to each other; Hodel and Perchik are less interested in tradition than in politics and nationalism; and, finally, Chava and her Cossack husband reject every trace of Jewish life.
Harnick and Bock wrote about 50 songs for the musical, but 35 of them ended up on the cutting room floor. Before Robbins convinced them to write Tradition, the show originally opened with Golde and her daughters singing We’ve Never Missed a Sabbath Yet:
So who can relax when there’s so much to be done,
keeping one eye on the soup, and another on the sun?
Oh, there’s noodles to make and chicken to be plucked
liver to be chopped and challah to be baked.
A race with the sun, so at the proper time the candles can be lit and blessed.
Somehow the house will be clean,
floors will be swept, soup will be cooked.
For Shabbat, Queen Shabbat, Sabbath Queen and bride,
All work and all worry must be put aside.
A Butcher’s Soul was to be sung by Lazar Wolf in the famous bar scene where he and Tevye strike a deal for Tzeitel to marry the old, but wealthy, butcher:
You say that a butcher has no soul, it cuts me to the bone . . .
What gave you the idea that a man who makes his living handling liver, lungs, and kidneys has no heart,
a butcher has his feelings, he is not a piece of meat . . .
The song, which was cut because it shifted the focus of the scene away from Tevye, was replaced by To Life! (L’Chayim), which became one of the signature pieces of Fiddler. Also scratched was Poppa Help Me, a heartfelt plea by Tzeitel begging Tevye not to force her to marry Lazar Wolf.
Letters from America, about letters from relatives who had emigrated to America, was to be sung after the pogrom at Tzeitel’s wedding, but it essentially became Anatevka, the finale:
Here in Anatevka, 90 percent are behind in rent and we’re hungry to a man
Once a Rothschild saw our town, crossed himself and ran . . .
If I Were a Rich Man – for which Bock was inspired by a mostly wordless Chassidic chant he heard at a Hebrew Actor’s Union benefit – was originally That’s Life, a lament sung by Tevye to his lame horse:
So you’d like to be lazy and fat, of course,
well it’s your rotten luck to be Tevye’s horse . . .
In Why Jew, Why Gentile, Tevye expresses his feelings regarding Chava’s forbidden romance with Fyedka;
Forgive me for asking, but why did you choose,
to make of your children, both Gentiles and Jews?
These questions, almighty G-d, I hope you’ll excuse,
but I had a daughter, too precious to lose.
When Messiah Comes was to be sung at the end of the show after Mendel, the rabbi’s son, famously asks him “Father, we’ve been waiting for the Messiah all our lives; wouldn’t this be a good time for him to come?” Tevye was then to come forward and sing:
When Messiah comes, he will say to us
“I apologize that I took so long, but I had a little trouble finding you
Over here a few, and over there a few,
you were hard to reunite – but everything is going to be all right.’”
Other songs on the cutting room floor include Dear Sweet Sewing Machine, in which Motel sings a love song to the sewing machine for which he had scrimped and saved for years, and Somehow the Time Shall Pass, Hodel’s response to Perchik’s exile to Siberia.
When Stein showed Fiddler to Mostel, he was starring in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and he initially turned it down, but when he later heard a more complete version of the show, he enthusiastically signed on. In the interim, other actors considered for the lead included Danny Kaye, Alan King, Danny Thomas, Walter Matthau, Eli Wallach, Rod Steiger, Jack Gilford, and Tom Bosley. Actors who played Tevye on stage after Mostel include Harry Goz, Herschel Bernardi, Theodore Bikel, and Paul Lipson (Mostel’s original understudy).
There was no love lost between Mostel and Robbins. Mostel, who rebelled against the Orthodoxy in which he was raised but always remained a proud Jew, maintained a difficult relationship with Robbins, whom he held in contempt because he had betrayed colleagues in testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee while Mostel himself was blacklisted by the HUAC for his failure to cooperate. Robbins, in turn, referred to the rotund Mostel as “a bagful of water that has gotten up and started to float around.”
In one particularly amusing clash, Robbins angrily chided Mostel for kissing the mezuzah each time he crossed the threshold of Tevye’s Anatevka hovel, and he refused to budge even after Mostel explained that, as an Orthodox Jew, this is a religious act that Tevye would have performed perfunctorily. On the next run-through of the scene, Mostel, a comic genius with an always amusing personality, crossed himself when leaving the dwelling, thereby forcing Robbins to back down.
A successful Broadway play is almost always a longshot, but the investors and producers of Fiddler assumed even greater commercial risk given the belief by so many critics and commentators that Fiddler was “too Jewish”; that its insular and parochial subject matter would not appeal to a broad audience; and that a musical “about old Jews in Russia suffering through pogroms” would not win over a Broadway audience. Bock himself feared that “it had no appeal to anybody but the Hadassah group,” but their gamble, however, paid off: the show earned more than $1,500 for every dollar invested in it.
Ultimately, Fiddler’s universal dialectic of personal vs. cultural identity; religious faith vs. assimilationism; modernity vs. tradition; and, above all, raising children who later leave home to pursue their own lives and the dynamics of family love and conflict; proved immensely popular among gentiles and Jews alike. As Alisa Solomon writes in Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof (a good read), the writers, directors, and producers succeeded in combining the romanticism of the traditional American musical theatre with Sholem Aleichem’s hard-edged subject matter by deemphasizing the darkness and melancholy that is the essence of the Tevye stories and focusing instead on the ultimate victory of the characters who, although banished from their centuries-old little shtetl, maintain their fidelity to their faith and retain their traditions in the face of great adversity.
This is an apt and meaningful metaphor for the miraculous survival of the Jewish people through two centuries of bitter exile and, as such, I have always seen Fiddler as essentially an ode to Jewish religious tradition and Jewish survival, notwithstanding painful scenes involving intermarriage and assimilation. At the end of the day, the incredibly talented people who created Fiddler achieved something truly remarkable by creating a commercially profitable and wildly popular Broadway musical while (mostly) not sacrificing Jewish authenticity.