Books: Tradition! How That Fiddler Got On the Roof

By Ellis Nassour

Tradition!: The Highly Improbable, Ultimately Triumphant Broadway-to-Hollywood Story of Fiddler on the Roof, the World’s Most Beloved Musical (St. Martin/Griffin; Trade paper; 240 pages; SRP $16) by Barbara Isenberg.

L’Chaim! To life! And what a life Fiddler on the Roof has had. Since its 1964 Broadway debut, more than a half-century of suns have risen and set on the musical by Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics). (The book, by Joseph Stein, is based on Czarist Russian stories by Sholem Aleichem.) It’s become one the most beloved musicals of all time, with its enduring score winning the hearts of millions the world over.

Fiddler is as sure-fire a draw today as it was back then. It’s a favorite of regional theatres—even high schools. Every Broadway revival has been a box office blockbuster. There’ve been six—including the recently-opened and acclaimed production by Tony and Drama Desk Awards winner Bartlett Sher (The King and I; South Pacific) starring Danny Burstein and Jessica Hecht—four West End productions and U.K. tours, in addition to thousands of multi-language stagings.

Ms. Isenberg takes readers beyond the stage by providing interviews with the stars of the original production (which had 3,242 performances from 1964-1972) and the film adaptation starring Israel’s Topol as well as with celebrated producer/director Hal Prince, Sheldon Harnick, the late Joseph Stein, and other Fiddler stage stars including Alfred Molina, Randy Graff, and, get this, Leonard Nimoy.

There are memorable tales featuring the original star Zero Mostel, who was beloved by audiences and loathed by many contemporaries for his stage antics (ad-libbing, scene-stealing). However, he was held in high esteem for his stinging 1950s testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and rebukes of “Commie hunter” Senator Joseph McCarthy. Mostel was one of the rare actors who emerged from the stigma of blacklisting.

Off Broadway, Mostel became the acclaimed star—even compared to Laurence Olivier—of Ulysses in Nighttown, the much-accoladed play based on the novel Ulysses. He went on to win Tony Awards on Broadway in 1961 for Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, and 1962’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum by Stephen Sondheim, Burt Shevelove, and Larry Gelbart. Success followed onscreen in Mel Brook’s The Producers, with Mostel winning a Best Actor Golden Globe.

Mostel was an inspired choice for Fiddler’s Teve (as was actress and prima ballerina Maria Karnilova as Golde), but the path to the stage wasn’t easy. In A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the actor had terrible clashes with the equally egocentric director/choreographer Jerome Robbins (West Side Story; American Ballet Theatre), whom he despised because his testimony before the HUAC had ruined the careers of many actors. Mostel ridiculed him in front of the cast and in public, and gave him the silent treatment. Yet, somehow a hit emerged.

Though raised as an Orthodox Jew, Mostel wasn’t keen on playing Teve when Stein first approached him. His name on a marquee meant ticket sales, and he had other options. However, as the score grew, especially with traditional Yiddish references, Mostel mellowed. With Robbins hired as choreographer/director, the actor wouldn’t commit. Danny Thomas, Alan King, Rod Steiger, Tom Bosley, and Walter Matthau were among those considered. But Robbins felt that none were as larger-than-life as Mostel. He even wrote to Mostel, stating “Don’t let me do this show without you.”

Tensions were not as evident this time, but Mostel lectured Robbins on Jewish traditions and Yiddish sayings. The director did his homework. Ultimately, the show was nominated for 10 Tonys, and won nine, including Best Musical. Mostel’s win was his third. In 1972, Fiddler on the Roof became the longest running show in Broadway history, an honor held for eight years.

Tradition! contains 10 pages of black and white photos, along with 21 pages of source notes.

Ellis Nassour is an international arts journalist. He’s the author of  Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline.

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