Gianni Ferrari/Getty Images
Fiddler On The Roof's larger-than-life star.
Zero Mostel, Fiddler On The Roof's larger-than-life star. Gianni Ferrari/Getty Images
On September 22nd, 1964, the musical "Fiddler on the Roof" opened on Broadway with Zero Mostel was the star. Joseph Stein's storybook about the people of the village of Anatevka in czarist Russia in 1905, based on the writings of Sholom Aleichem, proved truly historic in the hands of producer Harold Prince and director Jerome Robbins. And, with Sheldon Harnick's lyrics and Jerry Bock's score, the show became among the most important and enjoyable works in Broadway history
"Fiddler on the Roof" went on to have one of the longest runs in the history of the Great White Way, and its music and characters endure more than 35 years later in high school productions and dinner theaters across the country and on stages around the world. Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick told us the story behind the words and the music they wrote together for "Fiddler on the Roof," much of which was guided by the hand of Jerome Robbins.
"Robbins as director was aware that once you go into rehearsal, you get on a toboggan slide," Harnick recalls. "You go into rehearsal, and the next day you open in New York. There's just so little time so that what he wanted was six months of preproduction meetings because he wanted to try and head off any problems, anything that he could solve ahead of time."
Jerome Robbins is legendary for his directorial success, and, as Bock explains, that derives from his search for depth in his material.
"Perhaps the most intriguing question that we were ever asked, not having been asked this before in all our professional career—the first question he asked was, `All right, what is the piece about?'" Bock continues. "We were dumbfounded because previously, on other shows, everybody assumed that everybody knew what the piece was about, and that's how we wrote it. But he was searching for something deeper. I think our first answer was, `Well, it's quite obvious. It's about a father with a family and he's off to marry three daughters,' etc., etc. And that wasn't good enough. And we hung out again and again and again trying to respond to that question, conference after conference after conference. And at one point, one of us took a guess and said, `Well, I guess it's about the dissolution of this community's life, the breakup of tradition,' and that seemed to capture his imagination, because he ended up with this wonderful vision of a circle at the beginning being splintered at the end. He said, `Now you must contribute to that meaning with every song, with every scene, so that it builds and becomes clear that the underlying principle of this show is that's what it's about.' "
"The opening, by the way," Mr. Bock says, "came in bits, fits and stages. We didn't come one day and say, `Jerry, here's the opening.' It was pieced together. We found puzzle pieces that Robbins began to organize and, in his way, celebrate it until it became this mélange of meeting the characters, of seeing the circle, of singing the family and, you know, he did a miracle with that opening number. 'What A Life' was the name of it — it was to a horse."
But, as Mr. Harnick explains, the composers employed traditional Jewish styles and stories to keep the story authentic.
"I was very conscious of a phrase that kept recurring in the Sholom Aleichem stories. `Ah, if only I were a rich man. Ah, if only I had money,' you know. And this song—I don't remember exactly why, but it seemed to be the right music for that.
And, for a larger-than-life lead who could be true to the original text, the songwriters chose Zero Mostel, because of his ability to channel the depth, realness, wryness, and emotion of the text, while clearly translating Jewish traditions. For many who might not have understood Yiddish, Harnick explains, even translating L'chayim was important.
"Well, there was a reason for that. During the writing of the show, I went to see the cabaret performer Lenny Bruce. I'd heard a lot about him, and I'd heard a lot about how he was being faulted for using so much profanity and obscenity in his act, so I went to see him. And the obscenities were all part of characters that he created, and since they were in character, they didn't bother me. What did bother me was that throughout the evening, like a cheap comic, he would throw in Yiddish phrases, and they would get scattered laughter throughout the room, and I thought, `That is cheap. ' So we made a conscious decision in doing this show that we would use a few Hebrew or Jewish or Yiddish words for salt and pepper, but that if any of them created laughter, they would come out of the show. And we always used them in a context where we thought the audience has got to understand what they mean. So when I wrote, `To life, to life, L'chayim, L'chayim, L'chayim, to life,' I thought, `Well, they'll know that one.'"
But the greatest testimony to Fiddler is its longevity. It remains one of the most performed and most treasured works of theater to come out of the period, and exceeds these composers wildest expectations.
"What I could never imagine is that 36 years later, I'd be going to a public school where my granddaughter attends and see a production of "Fiddler" in Manhattan," Bock concludes. "That was beyond belief, in addition to which to—I've been fortunate enough to see it in various countries in so many different ways—theaters that were dime-sized, orchestras under the stage, and yet, coming through and reaching the people by the performance and by the show. Those were things that were unimaginable.