The Hit

Zero Mostel (center) dances the role of Tevye along with other cast members in "Fiddler on the Roof."
Zero Mostel (center), the original Tevye, leads the cast in the opening “Prologue,” with its famous exclamation: “tradition!” Mostel’s performance has been called one of the greatest in the history of American musical theatre. Photo courtesy of Photofest, Inc.

If you were part of Teens Behind the Scenes in previous seasons, you may have caught a touring production of one of the most beloved shows in American musical history: Fiddler on the Roof. Few musicals have enjoyed such enduring appeal. In fact, the tour that passed through in November of 2019 was spawned by its sixth Broadway production. What you may not know, however, is that Fiddler did not begin on Broadway. Like most musicals, it went through a rigorous development process, which included a Broadway tryout at, you guessed it, The National Theatre.

In the Beginning

Fiddler on the Roof is adapted from the stories of Sholem-Aleichem, one of the most celebrated writers in the history of the Yiddish language.  The tales center on Tevye, a poor milkman living in the Pale Settlement, a stretch of barren land where Russian Jews were consigned to live in the latter parts of the 19th century.  Tevye lives in the small village of Anatevka with his wife Golde and their five daughters Tzeitel, Hodel, Chava, Shprintze, and Bielke.  The musical weaves together several of Sholem-Aleichem’s stories to create a tale about family, faith, resilience, and – as the prologue famously proclaims – “tradition!”  Much of the action revolves around Tevye’s three oldest daughters and their romantic entanglements, some of which test the strength of this fiercely Jewish family.  Throughout, Tevye endeavors to be a strong father in the traditional mold and an observant Jew.  This is especially hard under the Russian Empire, which heavily restricts the liberties of the Jewish population.  As he illustrates at the beginning of the show, being a Jew in Anatevka is like being a fiddler on the roof: trying to scratch out a decent tune without breaking your neck.  Eventually, the fiddling must stop when the Empire orders the Jews to leave the Pale Settlement, forcing some to seek out better lives in America and others to wander aimlessly through the barren wasteland.


Fiddler on the Roof was assembled by an impressive team with enormous Broadway credentials.  Lyricist Sheldon Harnick and composer Jerry Bock, fresh from their Pulitzer Prize-winning work on Fiorello!, set about composing the musical’s signature tunes, while Joseph Stein gave shape to the story by writing the book.  Inspired by Jewish culture from Eastern Europe and their own Jewish heritage, they set about creating a piece that honored Sholem-Aleichem’s stories while translating them into the language of the American Broadway musical.  Harnick and Bock, in particular, can be credited with producing some of the theatre’s most memorable tunes, including “If I Were a Rich Man,” “Matchmaker,” “Miracle of Miracles,” and “Sunrise, Sunset.”

Of course, a musical is more than just songs and a story.  Under the auspices of legendary producer Harold Prince, an elite creative team was assembled with Jerome Robbins, the great director-choreographer already famous for his groundbreaking work on West Side Story, taking charge.  As is the case with all musicals, the creative team went through a series of drafts before incorporating actors, designers, and technicians in an effort to bring it to its feet.  Crucial to that process was the great Zero Mostel, the original Tevye, whose skill and notoriety gave the show invaluable credibility, not to mention creative impetus.  Despite frequently clashing with Robbins, Mostel laid the groundwork for Tevye and inspired the rest of the cast to elevate their game.  Robbins, meanwhile, was applying his signature touch to the show’s choreography while pushing the writers to chop and change the numbers in order to make a thrilling, but also cohesive, musical experience.  Like the writers, he was also inspired by his Jewish heritage and the opportunity to tell a distinctively Jewish story on the biggest stage imaginable.  With expectations high, a winding path was charted toward Broadway.

Finding Greatness at the National

Eventually, after extensive rehearsals in New York, the Fiddler team scheduled a tryout in Detroit, where the first audiences in the country got a taste of what was to come.  Despite a notable negative review in Variety, the Detroit audiences gave the show a warm welcome.  However, there was still work to be done, especially if the show was to meet the exacting standards of Robbins and Prince.  Thus, their next stop at The National Theatre in Washington, D.C. provided another opportunity to take it to the next level. 

Some of the changes made in Washington were only temporary, though they did prove vital to the long-term success of the show.  Case in point: Mostel taking ill in the middle of a Wednesday matinee.  Despite attempting to continue, Mostel was eventually replaced by understudy Paul Lipson, who made it through his first performance with the help of stage management and his fellow actors.  Lipson enjoyed several more turns in the role before Mostel came back, and he excelled throughout, demonstrating to the creative team that Fiddler was still an excellent show despite the unique contributions of its lead.  Lipson would go on to lead several tours and productions of Fiddler, and eventually amassed over two thousand performances in the role by the time he died in 1996.

Zero Mostel pulls a cart on a rehearsal stage marked with lines.  Jerome Robbins stands observing him and the rest of the cast.
Jerome Robbins (onstage, far left) directs Zero Mostel (holding cart). Robbins was a forceful director and Mostel an eternal clown who made fun of him behind his back. Nevertheless, they produced inspiring work together. Photo by Sam Falk for the New York Times.

While some changes in personnel were temporary, changes in the material proved both permanent and crucial.  The show’s stint at The National saw the addition of one of its most celebrated songs, “Miracle of Miracles.”  The song was given to Austin Pendleton, in the role of the tailor Motel, after he lost “Now I Have Everything” to Bert Convy in the role of Perchik.  Having fallen out with Robbins, Pendleton was reluctant to apply himself until Prince intervened and urged him to seize this new opportunity.  A rejuvenated Pendleton took to “Miracle of Miracles” and nailed his first performance of the number, thrilling Robbins and securing its place in the show.  Unfortunately, other personal favorites did not survive.  In Mostel’s case, that favorite was “When Messiah Comes,” a darkly comic number that came after the community’s eviction from Anatevka.  In addition to being tonally inconsistent with the story, the number may have suffered from being “too Jewish.”  According to Alisa Solomon, author of Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof, because the song pointed up the difference between Jews and Christians as to whether or not the Messiah had come, it clashed with “the desire among midcentury Jewish spectators to blend in as a distinct but well-fitting member of the American mosaic.”  In other words, even though the predominately Jewish creative team wanted to celebrate Jewish culture and pay deference to dark moments in Jewish history, they also did not want to draw negative attention to their outsider status.

Despite this, the creators never lost sight of what was best for the show, even if it meant going against what had worked for them in the past.  This was especially challenging for Robbins, who went into the engagement at The National intent on creating an Act II showstopper that matched some of the signature numbers in Act I.  In fact, it was at The National that Robbins completed one of those Act I highlights: the legendary bottle dance, inspired by his experiences at an Orthodox Jewish wedding.  Certain that Act II would have to rise to that same level, as was expected in most musicals, Robbins worked his cast and creative team hard to turn “Anatevka” into a rousing number featuring all of the villagers singing proudly of their meager life while accompanying themselves on household wares and tools.  After perfecting the number through secret rehearsals, Robbins presented it in its entirety to Prince.  Amazingly, the great producer urged Robbins to drop it, even after all that work.  As Prince understood, and as Robbins and company came to see, the stately, haunting elegy that was the current “Anatevka” was far more suitable, having already moved audiences in Washington, D.C.  Besides, Fiddler on the Roof was already flouting musical theatre conventions by ignoring the usual overture, chorus, and simple romantic plotline.  What the team had created was not only great already, it was unique.

Four men in orthodox Jewish dress hold hands and dance with bottle balanced atop their heads.
“The Bottle Dance,” inspired by an actual dance Jerome Robbins witness at an Orthodox Jewish wedding, is one of the musical’s signature moments, and it was completed during the musical’s stay at The National Theatre. This photograph is taken from the touring production that came back through The National in the fall of 2019. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Audiences at The National certainly agreed.  Even in the relatively dead August period, with many government workers on vacation, the show was a hit.  A young Frank Rich, later to become one of the American theatre’s most influential critics, was bowled over and called Mostel’s turn as Tevye the finest in the history of musical theatre.  With a successful turn at The National under its belt, the show moved back to New York for final retooling and its long-awaited Broadway debut on September 22, 1964.  There it enjoyed a then-record run of 3,242 performances and won a host of Tony Awards, including prizes for Robbins, Bock, Harnick, Stein, Prince, and Mostel.

What Makes It a Classic?

“Soon I’ll be a stranger in a strange new place,
Searching for an old familiar face
From Anatevka.
I belong in Anatevka,
Tumble-down, work-a-day Anatevka.
Dear little village, little town of mine.”

The Company of Fiddler on the Roof singing “Anatevka”

Fiddler on the Roof possesses many qualities that distinguish the great musicals.  For starters, the score itself has spawned countless classics.  Just say the word “matchmaker” and someone within earshot is bound to start singing the first few bars of Harnick and Bock’s chorus.  Many of the story’s major themes, such as tradition, family, and the fight for self-determination, resonate with many audiences, too.  Even the iconic fiddler on the roof silhouette has circulated the world over.  Certainly, much of what makes Fiddler great is what makes any musical great: quality material, dedicated artists, and vivid imagery that makes it instantly recognizable.

While all of this is true, it is worth considering what a musical like Fiddler on the Roof represents.  For while many of its themes are broadly resonant, it is very much a celebration of a particular group with a particularly rich, complex, and often tragic legacy.  People like Tevye and his family really were expelled from Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe in the latter parts of the 19th century.  This led to a surge of immigration to the United States, where many Jews made new homes in cities all along the East Coast.  In addition to establishing a new life in America, the Yiddish-speaking peoples of Europe brought with them their own language, traditions, and arts.  In fact, Yiddish theatre, already a significant presence in Eastern Europe, flourished on American soil.  In short, Fiddler on the Roof may have been set in a faraway land, but the people it depicted were very much becoming part of the American fabric.

Poster for the Yiddish-language production staged at the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene and presented with English supertitles.

Of course, becoming part of the American fabric is never a straightforward process.  Even though the United States eventually came to harbor many Jews who fled persecution by the Russian Empire and later Nazi Germany, integrating into America’s predominately Christian and Anglo-centric society presented its fair share of challenges.  Striking a balance between assimilating into the dominant culture and keeping hold of one’s traditions is a struggle for many who do not fit the typical American mold, even in a country that appears to celebrate diversity.  Fortunately, works such as Fiddler on the Roof can provide hope for change.  Though written in English and presented very much in the style of Broadway, the musical did introduce a Jewish cultural lens to the commercial American theatre in a way no other work had before. In 2018, its story came full circle when a much-celebrated production of a Yiddish-language version opened at the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene in New York. The production eventually went on to tour around the world, demonstrating that even a classic can find new life by returning to its roots.

From the Archives

One of the pre-show highlights of any trip to the theatre is flipping through the program. The most widely used programming platform comes courtesy of Playbill, which has been in print since 1884. In addition to getting all the details on the production, readers get a sample of what is going on in the theatre world via exclusive interviews and features. There is also plenty of advertising – and, in some cases, plenty of advertising for alcoholic drinks styled as the ideal accompaniment for a night at the theatre. Below you’ll find selections from the original Playbill for Fiddler on the Roof‘s run at The National Theatre in 1964. Check out the bios for major players Zero Mostel and Jerome Robbins, as well as supporting player Beatrice Arthur, who went on to great success on television with roles in All in the Family, Maude, and The Golden Girls. Note, too, that the many ads for alcohol do not include that important warning: drink responsibly. This Playbill is held in The National Theatre Archives.


Bibliography

Berkowitz, Joel. Introduction. Yiddish Theatre: New Approaches. Portland, OR: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2008.

Jeffrey Richards Associates. Fiddler on the Roof: Educational Guide.

Paulson, Michael. “A Word With: Sheldon Harnick and Harold Prince Looking Back to the Early Stages of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’.” NYTimes.com. The New York Times, May 28, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/29/theater/looking-back-to-the-early-stages-of-fiddler-on-the-roof.html

Solomon, Alisa. Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2013.

“Yiddish Theatre.” Brittanica.com. Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed November 29, 2019, https://www.britannica.com/art/cycle-literature.


Not all musicals go on to success. To learn more about a show that didn’t make it, check out the next page: The Miss: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.