Book Review: Tradition! The Story of Fiddler on the Roof

TraditionTradition: the highly improbably, ultimately triumphant Broadway-to-Hollywood story of Fiddler on the Roof, the world’s most beloved musical

 

The iconic musical Fiddler on the Roof opened on Broadway on September 22, 1964.  It starred Zero Mostel as Tevye, a poor milkman, and Marie Karnilova as his wife Golde, who struggle to arrange marriages for their eldest three daughters at a time when life in their little Russian town of Anatevka is becoming more and more dangerous – the Tzar is instigating pogroms against the Jews and those pogroms are coming inexorably closer to Anatevka.

Other actors in the original production were Bea Arthur (Maude, The Golden Girls) as Yente the Matchmaker, Austin Pendleton (The Muppet Movie, Finding Nemo) as Motel the tailor, and Bert Convy as the young revolutionist, Perchik.

Over the course of the original production’s almost-nine-year and 3,000+ performances run, a young Bette Midler would make her Broadway debut as Tzeitel, and Adrienne Barbeau (most famous as Carol in Maude) would play Hodel.)

Fiddler was written by Joseph Stein, with music by Jerry Bock and lyrics Sheldon Harnick. It was very much a collaborative effort with Jerome Robbins – the director and choreographer.

After multiple book changes, additions and deletions during tryouts in Detroit and Washington DC, Fiddler was a hit as soon as it hit Broadway. Productions would be translated and produced all over the world, including Japan and Israel, although it would be a long time before it was played in Russia. A movie starring Topol would be released in 1971.

Image from Playbill.com. Fair use.

Image from Playbill.com. Fair use.

In preparation for the 50th anniversary of the Broadway debut of Fiddler, journalist Barbara Isenberg, interviewed dozens of actors and production people from the show’s many productions, as well as the 1971 movie, and compiled it all into this book, Tradition!

The title of the book is rather deceiving. It does not deal solely with the adaption of Fiddler from Broadway-to-Hollywood, as the title implies.

Instead, it gives a history of the production, from its beginnings as an adaption of the stories of Sholem Aleichem’s stories featuring Tevye the Milkman, to its metamorphosis under the creative energy of Jerome Robbins, to the difficulties with the incessant ad-libbings of Zero Mostel, to the many actors who replaced him.

The transition from musical to movie, with the many high-profile actors campaigning to play Tevye such as Mostel, Danny Kaye, and even Frank Sinatra, is dealt with in Part Three.

Part Four covers the world-wide theatrical productions, with lots of interesting nuggets of information.

Tradition! is not the first book to tell the story of the creation of the Fiddler musical.  The very first book published was The Making of a Musical: Fiddler on the Roof, published in 1971 and written by Richard Altman and Meryn Kaufman.

The first sections of Tradition! cover some of the same ground as The Making of a Musical, but it’s not easy to get that book unless you look for it on eBay or Amazon.com, whereas Tradition! is very likely at your local library. It’s an excellent introduction to the musical.

The story behind the making of Fiddler on the Roof is fascinating and Isenberg tells it well – the fact that Bocck and Harnick wrote over 60 songs for the production, of which only 16 were used, the constant reiterations of the story and the development and additions of it over the course of the tryouts in Detroit and Washington, DC, and the Draconian measures with which director and choreographer Jerome Robbins brought it together. In these days of #MeToo, his behavior might raise some eyebrows – in particular his treatment of Bea Arthur, but one must wonder if his domineering behavior was just a necessary part of his creative process – and apparently his behavior toward everyone was as a martinet.

There are interesting stories of Topol, of course. He was only 30 years old in 1967, and without much knowledge of English, when he was asked to audition for the West End production of Fiddler on the Roof. He learned the score by listening to the Zero Mostel cast album. When he arrived in London from Tel Aviv to audition for the role, he impressed the producers with his knowledge of the songs and was given the role. He then had to learn his part phonetically. And of course, wear a lot of makeup.

Another book that came out in 2014 in honor of its 50th anniversary was Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof, by Alisa Solomon.

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There were quite a few celebrations for the 50th anniversary, as well, as reported in this article in the New York Daily News: Classical Musical Fiddler on the Roof Celebrates its 50th Anniversary.  These celebratory events took place after the book was released, of course, and so mention of them does not occur in Tradition!

Table of Contents, Tradition:

Part One: Beginnings

  1. The Boys
  2. Forging Tradition
  3. Mostel and Company
  4. The Fourth Author
  5. Rehearsals

Part Two: Broadway

  1. On the Road
  2. Opening on Broadway
  3. Conquering Broadway
  4. London Calling

Part Three: The Movie

  1. Enter Hollywood
  2. Casting the Movie
  3. Making Music
  4. Shooting the Movie
  5. Opening the Movie

Part Four: The Phenomenon

  1. All Those Tevyes
  2. Something Different
  3. Traveling America
  4. Fiddler Goes Abroad
  5. The Phenomenon

Epilogue

  1. Closing the Circle

Acknowledgments
Notes
Selected Bibliography
Index

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