'Fiddler on the Roof': Looking back after 50 years

+ -
Luther Adler: The first of eight actors who Luther Adler: The first of eight actors who succeeded Zero Mostel during "Fiddler on the Roof's" original 7-1/2 year Broadway run. Producer Harold Prince says Adler, a serious dramatic actor, was chosen for having a diametrically contrasting style from Mostel's flamboyance. Photo Credit: National Yiddish Theater/Folksbiene

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Linda Winer Newsday theater critic and arts columnist Linda Winer.

Winer is chief theater critic and arts columnist for Newsday, which she joined in 1987.

Kids from the casts of "Matilda," "Kinky Boots" and other shows are, as we speak, learning to sing "Sunrise, Sunset" in Yiddish. So are more than a dozen students from city schools.

As Tevye, philosopher milkman of Anatevka has said about related cosmic imponderables, "Sounds crazy, no?"

Actually, it sounds lovely. It has been 50 years since "Fiddler on the Roof," the unlikely Broadway smash about pogroms in a Russian shtetl in 1905, began its improbable journey into a worldwide phenomenon of countless replications and cast albums in far-flung languages.

The 50th anniversary will be celebrated June 9 at Town Hall, as will the 90th birthday of the show's lyricist, Sheldon Harnick, and the centennial of the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene, believed to be the longest continuously producing Yiddish theater company in the world and beneficiary of the gala.

Along with Broadway tots singing "I don't remember growing older" in a strange and ancient tongue, the evening -- called "Raising the Roof" -- will include more than 40 veterans from "Fiddler" productions. Original producer Harold Prince and Harvey Fierstein (Tevye, 2005) are among the honorary co-chairs. Joshua Bell, violin virtuoso, will fiddle, I suspect on a roof. Austin Pendleton (poor Motel, the tailor, 1964) and Topol (Tevye in the 1971 film and on Broadway, 1991) will be there. Bel Kaufman, the 103-year-old granddaughter of Sholom Aleichem, author of the stories upon which the musical stands, is expected, too.

The precise among us will now point out that "Fiddler" opened in September, 1964, not June. Those same people are likely to notice that the 50th anniversary "Fiddler" revival, directed by Bartlett Sher, will not open until fall, 2015. On the other hand, as Tevye himself has been known to debate with the heavens, traditions must often be flexible.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Imagine, if you can, the birth of this musical. After decades of assimilating Jews writing American musicals for non-Jews, here was one of the great book musicals of the golden age, based on Yiddish stories, adapted by Joseph Stein as a combination of the sacred and the delightfully everyday, the profound and the blatantly show-biz. Jerry Bock's music, with its stirring suggestions of ancient modalities, and Harnick's lyrics -- "Tradition," "If I Were a Rich Man," the hushed "Anatevka" -- have lingered in the cultural psyche with the inevitability of myth.

"Brave?," Harnick laughs at the idea that the creative team had set out to do something courageous. "We didn't think we were doing anything important. We had this beautiful material, a good story that would make a good show and run a year."

I asked him in a recent phone interview about where he found the depth, the rich melancholy and wisdom to write lyrics that make all kinds of people cry at weddings. "I remembered the older men in the synagogue in Chicago," he said. "In retrospect, they looked like Holocaust survivors -- gaunt, very passionate in their prayers.... But I had no idea I was doing anything important."

According to legend, one of the producers who originally turned the show down explained to its creators that he loved the show, "but what will we do when we run out of Hadassah benefits?" Stein, who died in 2010, once said that he, Bock and Harnick had to develop the project independently because "we couldn't conceive of going to a producer and saying, 'We have this idea of a show about a lot of Jews in Russia. You know, they have a pogrom and get thrown out of their village.'"

But Prince, who eventually did produce it, will have none of the lore. "Nothing was hard," he told me in a recent interview. "To be absolutely honest with you, the guys asked me to direct it. I said, 'I can't. I'm Jewish but I am German-Jewish. I don't know the whole shtetl community'" of Russian and Eastern European Jews.

Coming soon: Newsday's Entertainment newsletter, for the latest on celebs, TV, more.

"But you really want Jerry Robbins to direct," Prince continued. "You want a show that's universal, that takes it away from a narrow audience. It's a terrific show because it's universal, not just for Jewish audiences, and that's what Jerry Robbins contributed."

He gave me an example. "Every time we had a meeting, the guys and me, Jerry kept asking, 'What is this show about?' We'd all say it's about 'Tevye who wants to marry off his five daughters.'" Jerry would say, 'That can't be what it's about,' and would leave the room.

"Finally Sheldon exploded, 'Jerry, for God's sake, it is about tradition!' And Jerry said, 'That's what it's about. He didn't know that, but he knew he was trying to get his hands around something universal. And it was true. There is no place that doesn't have tradition, no place where people didn't leave saying, 'Oh, that is about us.'"

Harnick and Prince have different memories about the casting of Zero Mostel, the first Tevye, the one still most closely identified with the role. But they agree, vehemently, that Mostel was impossibly difficult. He never changed a word, but he improvised routines all the time and was far from irreplaceable. "Other actors never knew where he would be on the stage," Harnick remembered, still annoyed.

"The night Zero left the show, I said, 'I'm sorry to see you go.' He said, 'No, you're not. You're sorry to see the grosses fall.' When they didn't fall, he was heartbroken."

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Prince recalls: "Nobody was more brilliant or more creative than Zero, but he got bored quickly. I insisted we break with him. The Shuberts thought we had killed the goose that laid the golden egg by losing Zero. But I thought, 'Now we can have our show back.' It had been the Zero Mostel musical, but he got us going."

They replaced him briefly with Luther Adler, a serious dramatic actor with experience in the Yiddish theater and a specialist in Clifford Odets at The Group Theatre. "He was a huge star, but not remotely in the Zero mode," Prince said. "He played it and he was wonderful and we knew then that it was possible to interpret the role in any number of ways." Thus followed what became a Tevye industry -- many different actors in the almost eight-year run. And more to come, all over the world.

While all this was first happening on Broadway, a young man named Zalmen Mlotek was listening to the cast album at home in the Bronx. "It was phenomenal to hear this music with a Broadway sensibility," he told me in a recent phone interview. "It was so powerful for all of us.

"As a son of a Holocaust survivor, with a mother who came here the generation before, it was so poignant to hear this incredible score."

Mlotek studied conducting at Juilliard and became a specialist in Yiddish music, klezmer and theater. He is now artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene. It was his idea to inaugurate the company's yearlong centennial celebrations with this "Fiddler" tribute.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

"Sholom Aleichem wrote for the Yiddish theater, as did hundreds of writers," he continued. "What better way for us to honor this jewel in musical literature that appeals to the widest humanity? This talks about the world and, for us, is a little piece of family." He is the one teaching "Sunrise, Sunset" to the kids in Yiddish. Who knows? This might just become its own tradition.

You also may be interested in: