Fiddler on the Roof: Celebrating 50 Years

Fiddler on the Roof scene

Scene from a production at Notre Dame De Namur University Theatre, April 2006

The year 1964 saw the premieres of some of our most outstanding Broadway musicals, including Hello, Dolly!, Funny Girl, and Fiddler on the Roof.

Fiddler on the Roof is based on eight stories about Tevye the milkman by Sholem Aleichem written between 1894 and 1914. Tevye has extended conversations with a character named Sholem Aleichem.

To what extent does this Sholem Aleichem speak with the author’s voice, and to what extent is he as fictitious as Tevye? Even his contemporaries couldn’t figure it out. Likewise, it is not clear how faithful the stories are to real historical conditions.

Aleichem’s stories have no fiddler. The show’s name came from a painting by Marc Chagall, which also inspired the original set.

Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway

The play was nominated for 10 Tony Awards and won nine:

  • Best Musical
  • Best Actor—Musical (Zero Mostel, Tevye)
  • Best Supporting or Featured Actress—Musical (Maria Karnilova, Golde)
  • Best Author—Musical (Joseph Stein)
  • Best Director—Musical (Jerome Robbins)
  • Best Producer—Musical (Harold Prince)
  • Best Composer and Lyricist (Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. Harnick also won a Pulitzer Prize)
  • Best Costume Designer (Patricia Zipprodt)
  • Best Choreographer (Jerome Robbins)

Robbins, went to great lengths to understand authentic Eastern European clothing and living conditions, as well as Jewish tradition as understood there. He sought to avoid the trap of sappy sentimentality that had spoiled earlier attempts to bring Aleichem’s Tevye to the stage.

And yet Irving Howe, an expert in Yiddish literature, excoriated Fiddler on the Roof in his review in Commentary for its inauthenticity and sentimentality. He charged that the play was faithful neither to the appearance of the shtetl nor to Aleichem’s writing.

At least part of the inauthenticity Howe complained about results from the creative team’s reliance on Life is with People, a supposedly anthropological study of Eastern European Jewish life funded by the Department of Scientific Research of the American Jewish Committee.

The book was 12 years old and highly regarded when Fiddler appeared on Broadway. Subsequent research has pointed out the weaknesses of its methodology and conclusions.

Howe was not alone in his displeasure, but as often happens, critics and audiences disagreed on the show’s merits.

When it closed after 3,242 performances, Fiddler on the Roof was Broadway’s longest-running show, although Grease later surpassed it. It has had four Broadway revivals, in 1976, 1981, 1990, and 2004.

Harnick recalled that he and Bock hoped that the musical would last a year or two. They and cast members thought it would close as soon as the Jewish audiences had seen it.

No one expected the success it enjoyed. Harnick added, “But people around the world identified with the struggle to keep family traditions. The show has lasted so long because it is really all about family.”

Fiddler on the Roof, the movie

Fiddler on the Roof poster

Fiddler on the Roof is among the musicals most frequently performed by high schools.

When preparation for the movie version began, United Artists had a contractual obligation to offer Robbins the chance to direct it. He had earlier directed the movie of West Side Story and didn’t want a repeat of the conflicts he endured, so he turned it down.

The eventual director, Norman Jewison, considered Mostel “too big” for the film and passed him over. Two other actors turned the part down. Chaim Topol, who plays Tevye in the movie, played the part in Tel Aviv, but not in English. He hardly spoke English at all until he learned it by studying the script.

Jewison went to great lengths to make the sets realistic. He and his crew visited Yugoslavia to find something resembling a shtetl (Jewish little town). That village had everything but a wooden synagogue.

The Nazis had destroyed all of them they could find, and there were none left in the Soviet Union, either.

Synagogues such as would have existed in a place like Anatevka existed only in a few paintings, but Robert Boyle, the production set designer, used whatever resources he could find to construct as authentic a synagogue as he could, both inside and out.

The film did not meet with great critical enthusiasm. It received eight favorable reviews, six unfavorable ones, and two mixed one. It made good money: $50 million in its initial release compared to the $9 million cost of making it.

Fiddler on the Roof won three Academy Awards in 1972 out of eight nominations.

Synopsis

Tevye, a milkman who habitually quotes scriptures and complains to God, addresses the audience to introduce the cast. He tells about the life and traditions in the Russian shtetl of Anatevka. “Without our traditions,” he observes, “our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.”

But those traditions were dying. Tevye and his wife Golde have five daughters. The eldest three marry in quick succession. Each marriage departs farther from tradition.

Tevye arranges for Tzeitel, the eldest, to marry Lazar Wolf, a wealthy man of his own age. Tzeitel, however, had promised to marry the tailor Motel Kamzoil. The two of them persuade Tevye that they’re in love, and that she would be miserable married to Lazar.

But at least they had a traditional wedding under a canopy. The second daughter Hodel and a radical scholar named Perchik simply inform Tevye that they plan to get married. They don’t want his permission, only his blessing.

Perchik goes to Kiev to participate in revolution and promises to send for Hodel, but gets arrested and sent to Siberia. Hodel prevails upon Tevye for permission to join him.

Chava, the third daughter, makes a greater break from tradition than Tevye can bear. She falls in love with a Russian Christian. When he orders her to break off the engagement, the two elope and she converts. Tevye disowns her and considers her dead.

But shortly afterward, Russian authorities give all the Jews three days notice to pack up and move somewhere else. As Tevye prepares to take what’s left of the family to America, Chava and her husband come to make peace.

Tevya turns his back on her, but then asks Tzeitel to wish them well. The stage empties to the sound of the fiddler—on the roof.

Sources:
L’Chaim: 50 facts about Fiddler on the Roof on the musical’s 50th anniversary / Broadway.com
1965 Tony Awards / Infoplease
“Wonder of Wonders” and “The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem” reviewed / Jenna Weissman Joselit (New Republic)
Classic musical Fiddler on the Roof celebrates its 50th anniversary / Justin Rocky Silverman (New York Daily News)
Synopsis: Fiddler on the Roof / Utah Shakespeare Festival

Photo credits:
Fiddler on the Roof scene. Some rights reserved by deviantART
Fiddler on the Roof poster. Some rights reserved by dreamsjung


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