An Illuminating History About One of Broadway’s Most Beloved Musicals

Dec. 4, 2013Bookmark and Share

Tradition! Tradition! Alisa Solomon, a professor at the Graduate School of Journalism, has written a book about a musical that was so wildly successful, it became a tradition all its own.

Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof examines far more than the 1964 Broadway juggernaut whose songs have been enjoyed by millions of Jews and non-Jews alike and has had countless productions mounted in every corner of the globe, from high school auditoriums to the Alhambra theater in Jaffa, Israel.

Zero Mostel as Tevye
Zero Mostel as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.

Solomon shows how a musical set in a Jewish village in czarist Russia at the turn of the 20th century raises universal questions about tradition versus modernity, generational conflict and a community buffeted by change. Its plot follows three marriageable daughters who increasingly test the authority of their father, Tevye, the world’s most philosophical milkman.

“This show has seeped into the culture,” said Solomon, who leads the arts and culture concentration at the Journalism School. “It turns up in places such as The Colbert Report and The Simpsons as a shorthand for Jewishness.”

The musical derives its poignancy from an inventive series of tragicomic stories written in Yiddish by Sholem Aleichem between 1894 and 1916, the year he died. “It’s the first pop culture representation of a world that no long existed after the Holocaust,” Solomon said. “People argue over whether it is authentic, a burden the show assumed because the real places it referred to were wiped out; nobody does that with Brigadoon”—the 1950s musical about a tiny Scottish village that appears once every 100 years.

Fiddler on the Roof, which won nine Tony Awards, made Broadway history by being the first musical to exceed 3,000 performances. The small, vanished world it depicted proved to be popular around the globe. If there were any doubt as to its resonance, Solomon recounts an anecdote the librettist Joseph Stein liked to tell about a producer in Japan who mused, “How do people understand the show in America? It’s so Japanese.”

That’s because, the show operates in two simultaneous registers: “If you turn off the sound on the wedding scene with the bride circling the groom, it looks like an Orthodox wedding. If you play just the music, it sounds like a midcentury popular American waltz,” she said.

Solomon interviewed Joseph Stein and corresponded with composer Jerry Bock before they died in 2010 and met on several occasions with the lyricist Sheldon Harnick. She immersed herself in the show’s archives, going over licensing contracts, production notes, design sketches and opening night telegrams. The appointment and phone message books of director/choreographer Jerome Robbins were so helpful that she felt she knew him, albeit posthumously. “I spent two years reading his mail,” she said.

Her extensive research uncovered surprising facts about the show. Who knew, for instance, that Columbia’s iconic Broadway team of Rodgers and Hammerstein optioned the Tevye stories but let them go? Or that suitors of Tevye’s daughters might have been played by such well-known actors as Elliott Gould, George Segal, Sam Waterston and Gene Wilder, while Danny Kaye, Rod Steiger and Eli Wallach were considered for the lead role of Tevye? The comic genius Zero Mostel, however, was always the hands-down favorite, with producer Harold Prince offering him the whopping salary of $4,000 a week—higher base pay at the time than Yankee slugger Mickey Mantle’s $100,000 single-year contract at the time.

The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem
Read a related story on Professor Jeremy Dauber’s book The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem: The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye.

The star and the director had a rocky relationship from the start, not least of which because Mostel was blacklisted in the 1950s while Robbins had named names. The librettist Stein said when Robbins and Mostel were at work, their relationship simmered at “two degrees below hostile.”

Erect in posture as the former dancer he was, Robbins compared the hefty Mostel to “a bagful of water that has gotten up and started to float around.” It didn’t help matters that Mostel clowned around constantly, walking on the rear of the stage with his foot in a bucket and finding other antics that needled Robbins.

Solomon writes that a friend with catering connections gave Robbins access to Orthodox Jewish weddings, where he conducted research. After seeing a man balancing a bottle on his head, Robbins turned it into a major dance number that became so popular that a group of Orthodox-garbed entertainers called the Amazing Bottle Dancers began performing it at Jewish weddings and bar mitzvahs. They referred to the dance as an authentic tradition when—irony of ironies—they were just copying the show.

As Yente the matchmaker might have said, Solomon made the perfect match to plumb the origin, production and enduring cultural influence of Fiddler. A former winner of the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism, Solomon grew up in a Chicago suburb in a home steeped in Jewish culture and education; her mother was a Hebrew school principal. Coincidentally, her book was published just two weeks after Columbia scholar Jeremy Dauber’s biography of Aleichem, The Worlds of Sholem Alecheim, but Solomon feels no competition with the Atran Professor of Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture. The two have, in fact, spoken together at recent events to discuss Tevye and the men who created him on the page and stage.

Reading Dauber’s biography might have saved her time spent conducting research, said Solomon. “The only thing I dislike about his wonderful book is that it did not come out sooner.”

—Story by Gary Shapiro
—Photo by Friedman-Abeles ©The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

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