Tracing Tevye’s Cultural Footprint
Wed, 11/13/2013
Culture Editor
In “Wonders of Wonders,” Alisa Solomon traces the history of “Fiddler on the Roof” and its path through various countries.
In “Wonders of Wonders,” Alisa Solomon traces the history of “Fiddler on the Roof” and its path through various countries.

In the spring of 1969, a group of black and Puerto Rican junior high school students staged “Fiddler on the Roof” in Brownsville, Brooklyn, as black-Jewish tension swirled around them amidst school and community board controversies and teacher strikes. Richard Piro, the drama teacher directing the production, believed that the show would give these kids a more sympathetic understanding of Jews. The principal would have preferred “Guys and Dolls.”

While many in the school and the community tried to stop the production, Piro and the students persevered, rehearsing in his Manhattan apartment during the teachers’ strike. Sheila, the young woman who played Chava, Tevye’s daughter who falls in love with a Ukrainian, felt her character deeply, as her own parents wouldn’t let her date, and her brothers kept an eye on her. Many of the students had witnessed evictions, and understood the sadness as families left Anatevka. Like many high school plays, the production became their own Anatevka, a small shelter of warmth and family, before they too must move on.

When someone tried to stop the show by alerting the producers that they didn’t have official permission, the show’s creative team granted special permission and in fact Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick and Joseph Stein, along with producer Hal Prince, traveled to Brownsville for opening night, as their own production was flourishing on Broadway. These kids belted out “Tradition” and “If I Were A Rich Man” from their souls.

Alisa Solomon tells the full story of this unusual staging in her impressive new book, “Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof” (Metropolitan Books), just published, as the 50th anniversary of the show’s Broadway debut approaches. She writes that the school show was a “defiant symbol of hope through the spreading flames.”

Solomon’s book is a work of cultural analysis, making connections between the arts and the political, historical and emotional pulse of the times. A former longtime theater critic and reporter for The Village Voice who now teaches at the Columbia University School of Journalism, she offers detailed reporting and original perspectives as she probes how the show has been embraced by Jewish and non-Jewish audiences for half a century.

The musical has its origins in an 1894 story by Sholom Aleichem, “Tevye Strikes It Rich,” first of a series of stories about Tevye’s daughters. The stories are written as a dialogue between Tevye and Sholom Aleichem, although they read like monologues, as told to a specific listener. The second story in the series was written five years later, in 1899, and in 1909, the seventh story was completed. There were earlier attempts to dramatize the work, including a production at the Yiddish Art Theater downtown, a film starring Maurice Schwartz shot in the potato fields of Long Island and radio plays produced on the “Eternal Light” show, sponsored by The Jewish Theological Seminary.

Solomon conducted more than 100 interviews, including one with lyricist Sheldon Harnick and librettist Joseph Stein, and she corresponded with composer Jerry Bock (Stein and Bock have since passed away). She was able to read the diaries and working notes of director/choreographer Jerry Robbins. She writes of the artists’ research, deliberations, and of songs they tossed out (she has heard them). On Simchat Torah, the team of Robbins, Bock, Harnick and Stein set out for chasidic Brooklyn to witness dancing and found nothing like the gentle circles doing folk dances they expected, but a blend of stomping, flying and dancing with abandon that left the floors shaking. For Robbins, the dancing came as a revelation.

The creative team brainstormed about titles for months, rejecting “A Village Story,” “To Life,” “Once There Was A Town,” “Three Brides and a Man” and “Where Poppa Came From,” before agreeing on “Fiddler on the Roof.”                                                 

In 1964, when “Fiddler on the Roof” opened on Broadway with Zero Mostel as Tevye, it became a blockbuster success, running for 3242 performances, then the longest-running show on Broadway. American rabbis were giving sermons about “Fiddler.” Since then, there have been four Broadway revivals, most recently in 2004 with Alfred Molina and then Harvey Fierstein playing Tevye. The 1971 film was also a huge success.

“Fiddler,” Solomon writes, “like no other musical before or since, has seeped into the culture more widely, functioning in sometime contradictory ways — which makes sense, since the show’s essential gesture is dialectical: it looks backward and forward, favors both community and individual needs, honors the particular and the universal…”

While Jews felt pride at seeing a robust show of Jewish content on Broadway, they were not the only ones to feel the sometimes-painful tug between tradition and modernity, between one generation and the next.

I first saw “Fiddler on the Roof” in 1966, with Herschel Bernardi playing Tevye. I learned to play the theme song in my piano lessons, listened to the album with my family, sang the songs on car trips, cried when “Sunrise, Sunset” was played at Bar Mitzvahs and weddings, and, as one of three sisters, felt the drama and pain of Tevye’s daughters separating. 

Many American Jews remember their first “Fiddler.”

That was my first question for Solomon in an interview last week. She grew up in the Chicago suburbs and saw a touring production when she was in junior high school. In her Columbia office, she found the program in a file (and admits she hadn’t saved it, but was given a copy while doing research). Luther Adler (the son of Yiddish theater impresario Jacob Adler), who starred on Broadway between Zero Mostel and Herschel Bernardi, played Tevye.

“I loved Hodel,” she says. “I felt a complete identification with that character,” referring to the sister who follows the revolutionary Perchik off to Siberia, where he is imprisoned. She has now seen “Fiddler” productions all over North America, in Israel and Poland. She visited Dynow, Poland, where an open-air presentation of the show began with a klezmer band in an open boxcar pulling into an abandoned train station. Solomon reports that a Polish producer told her that in working on “Fiddler” in 2007, she sometimes felt “like she [the director] was raising up ghosts. She was. Because her generation needs them to point the way.”

Writing the book pulled together many threads in Solomon’s life: her background of growing up in “a very Jewishly engaged family” (her mother was a Hebrew school principal until retiring), studying theater (and working on productions) in college and graduate school, and learning Yiddish as an adult, when she began reading Sholom Aleichem’s stories in their original language. She wrote a piece for The Voice in 2004 about the show’s Broadway revival, and that piece led to more research and the decision to write this book. 

“It’s a good story with great songs,” she says.

She regrets that she never got to see Zero Mostel play Tevye. And that she didn’t get to see the junior high school students perform in Brownsville (where, incidentally, Mostel was born). Years later, she tracked down some of the students, and these now middle-aged folks spoke of their love for their teacher and director Piro, who died last year, and told her that she show had been a pivotal moment in their lives.  

editor@jewishweek.org