‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ approaching 50th anniversary, proves its staying power

Click photo to download. Caption: Erik Stein as Tevye in the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts summer 2013 production of "Fiddler on the Roof." Credit: Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts.

By Michele Alperin/JNS.org 

Worldwide performances of “Fiddler on the Roof” attest to its cultural power, as it evokes the yearning for tradition in a changing world. What is behind its staying power? According to Alisa Solomon, author of the new book “Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof,” it is the show’s balance between the universal and the particular. 

During a recent symposium at Princeton University celebrating the upcoming 50th anniversary of the play’s Broadway opening on Sept. 22, 1964, Solomon, a professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, said the show— which was still going strong with empty seats or standing-room spots at its 900th Broadway performance in November 1966, surpassing the expectations of its creators—“quickly belonged to everyone.” She shared an anecdote about a Tokyo rehearsal where a local producer asked Joseph Stein, who wrote the play, whether Americans really understood “Fiddler.” A very surprised Stein quickly asked “Why?” and received the response, “Because it’s so Japanese!”

While its appeal is universal, for Jews “Fiddler” calls forth the “old country.”

“To this day it is taught as a document of shtetl life and thus came to stand for Jewishness itself,” Solomon said at the Nov. 14-15 Princeton symposium, which probed the play’s roots, its creative development, and its cultural resonances at home and abroad. 

Solomon suggested that the key to the show’s abiding power, in a way its authors couldn’t have guessed, is that it is “focused on tradition rather than Torah or law.” The idea of tradition, she adds, is dear to any culture in the modern world. “It is a way of embracing a legacy without having to adopt its strictures,” she said. 

By successfully representing the idea of the East European Jewish past and an idyllic idea of the shtetl, said Solomon, the show “served a need of American Jews, who both needed to honor, recognize, claim, and embrace a heritage and life that was no more and at the same time needed to distinguish themselves from that.” 

In pondering the implications of her own profound response to the music of the “Sabbath Prayer” song in the show, Jenna Weissman Joselit, professor and program director of Judaic studies and professor of history at George Washington University, noted that in the new world “the Sabbath experience was more in the breach than in observance.” The power of “Sabbath Prayer,” she said, is that it “directly assuaged the concern of the American Jewish community—it’s future. 

“It raised the possibility that in abandoning the Sabbath, American Jews had missed something special, but it was not too late to stage its resurrection,” Joselit said. 

Click photo to download. Caption: Krysta Michelle Smith as Hodel, Karin Hendricks as Tzeitel, and Jessica Chanliau as Chava in the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts summer 2013 production of "Fiddler on the Roof." Credit: Luis Escobar.

But at the same time, this “prayer” is not from the liturgy, but was totally fabricated by the creative team, and language like “keep them from the stranger’s way” and “defend them” was included purposefully, said Joselit. 

“It was designed to encapsulate conditions at time of play,” she said. “The language was designed to integrate the self into the body of the play and concerns about exogamy, change, and the need to preserve the Jews.” 

The play came to be at a moment in the U.S. when the counterculture was growing, feminism was coming to the fore, and the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was increasing. Solomon noted that its 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,” she said. 

To illustrate this, Solomon alludes to the arrival in Anatevka of Perchik, who will eventually marry Tevye’s daughter Hodel, but early on mocks Tevye and his friends. When they ask where he is from, Perchik responds that he is from the university in Kiev. A townsman then asks, “Is that where they teach you to speak to your elders like this?” Solomon observed that, given the developing gap between parents and children in the early 1960s, the play’s audiences “know why that was a joke in ’64.”

Politics also affected the actors themselves during the first Broadway performances of “Fiddler.” Joanna Merlin, who originated the role of Tzeitel, the eldest of Tevye’s daughters, related the tension that remained between Zero Mostel, who played Tevye, and the show’s director/choreographer Jerome Robbins because of their different experiences with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Robbins had been a cooperative witness, eventually “naming names” to the congressional committee that investigated allegations of communist activity in the U.S. during the early years of the Cold War, whereas Mostel had been blacklisted. 

Merlin was blunt about the two men’s relationship. “Zero hated him but agreed to work with him because he respected him as a director, and he didn’t hide his feelings,” she said. “Jerry felt very guilty and humiliated. There was a lot of tension during rehearsals because of that.”

Sheldon Harnick, the lyricist for “Fiddler on the Roof,” had a different perspective. He recalled that on the first day of rehearsal, which is kind of a meet and greet among participants, the cast wondered what would happen when the two men met. Mostel arrived first. When Robbins walked in, said Harnick, “Zero said, ‘Hi there, blabbermouth.’ Luckily everyone in the cast and Robbins laughed.” His perspective was that after that incident, Mostel kept his feelings to himself and worked very hard.

According to Solomon, “Fiddler” also got entwined in the 1968 controversy between the United Federation of Teachers, which was 90-percent Jewish and entirely white, and the experimental school districts over local control of schools. The conflict climaxed in a citywide public strike that shut down New York City schools through the fall of 1968. During the teachers’ strike, the drama teacher in a middle school on the edge of Ocean Hill-Brownsville decided to present “Fiddler” as the spring musical. Some Jews were against this for fear that black and Puerto Rican student actors would use it to make fun of Jews, although a clip shown by Solomon suggested that the actor and actress who played Tevye and Golde, ages 13 and 14, respectively, played their parts with great integrity and talent.

Another “political” use of “Fiddler” has been in Eastern Europe, where the play has been used as a way to delve into the history of a locale’s Jews. Its performances are accompanied by booklets that detail what happened to the area’s Jews during World War II.

In the end, the legacy of “Fiddler on the Roof” may be its ability to reach both backward and forward. Joanna Merlin’s favorite moment was the farewell scene. “It was very reminiscent for me of my grandmother leaving,” she said, noting that the final scene was a prelude to an unknown future. 

“I was kind of experiencing what they were looking forward to when they were leaving each other, in addition to having to say goodbye to each other, as they were all going to different parts of the world,” Merlin added. “It was very close and personal for me.”

George Washington University’s Joselit touched on Merlin’s sentiments, but in a different way.

“What the play is about, despite moments of wrenching loss, is possibility,” she said.

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Correction: This story initially incorrectly spelled the last name of Sheldon Harnick, the lyricist for “Fiddler on the Roof,” as "Harnack."

Posted on December 3, 2013 and filed under Arts, Features, U.S..