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'Fiddler's' Leading Man : Starlight Conductor, in on Show's Birth, Revives a Friendship

September 01, 1988|EILEEN SONDAK

SAN DIEGO — Over the last 24 years, countless conductors in 22 countries have struck up the band for "Fiddler on the Roof." But only one, Starlight's Milton Greene, was in on the birth of this internationally acclaimed American masterpiece.

"It was the biggest thrill of my life," said Greene in a pre-performance interview at the Starlight Bowl. "I wanted to work with two living legends--Richard Rodgers and Jerome Robbins--and I did both. I was the music director for Richard Rodgers when he wrote his own lyrics for 'No Strings.' But getting to do the original Broadway production of 'Fiddler on the Roof,' with Jerome Robbins as the director and

choreographer, was definitely the highlight."

Greene was music director and vocal arranger for "Fiddler" back in the early '60s, when the show was using the working title "Tevye." Besides his duties in the pit, he passed judgment on auditioning cast members, arranged the songs and rehearsed the singers. Even before the show found its name--borrowed from a Marc Chagall painting--and well before producer Harold Prince was ready to take the show on the road for pre-Broadway tryouts, Greene knew he had a hit on his hands.

"I was very sure of it," he said. "The music was good. The book was good. And we had Jerry Robbins. Ironically, I almost lost that show because of Robbins, even though Jerry Bock, the composer, was committed to me."

It took rave reviews from show-biz greats Richard Rodgers, Adolf Green and Betty Comden to convince the doubting Robbins that Greene was the man for the job.

"Jerry Robbins didn't know me then. I wasn't as big as he was, and he wanted someone else to be his music director. But Jerry Bock said to me, 'Who do you know that can recommend you to Robbins?' and, once Robbins read the letters, he was satisfied."

With Robbins' blessing, it was pretty smooth sailing for Greene from then on. But backstage life among the "Fiddler" family was far from harmonious as the show began to take shape. The acrimony never subsided, in spite of the musical's meteoric success on the Great White Way. A personality clash between the show's star, Zero Mostel, and Robbins could be heard up and down Broadway.

"Zero Mostel and Jerry Robbins hated each other," Greene said. "No one was happy in that show, and Zero was the catalyst. He was a bit crazy and very hostile, and we had a lot of factionalism in the company. People either sided with Zero or with Jerry."

Greene, like almost everybody involved with the production, was intimidated by Robbins, whose slave-driving manner and emotional outbursts are well known in the business. But his disappointment with Mostel's scene-stealing shticks and vicious pranks still plagues him today.

"Zero could have been the best Tevye of all, but he was more interested in getting laughs at anybody's expense, so he cheapened the show," Greene said. "And, since he was a big star, Jerry tolerated him. Bea Arthur, our Yentl, was fearful of Zero because he would squeeze her arm so tight when he held her, it would turn black and blue. No one could do a thing to control Zero."

Audiences were apparently oblivious to the behind-the-scenes discord as "Fiddler on the Roof" went on to become one of the most celebrated musicals in history. Even a newspaper strike in Chicago, when the show came to town for pre-Broadway tryouts, couldn't put a damper on this sure-fire moneymaker.

" 'Fiddler's' appeal is universal," said Greene. "When we opened in Chicago, the houses were empty because there were no reviews. But the news spread even without the papers. Just by word of mouth, we soon started to sell out. And, when we got to New York, the critics loved it, and the show was set."

"Fiddler on the Roof" is a bittersweet tale about Jewish life in Russian villages at the turn of the century, when ancient traditions clashed with contemporary realities and life was as precarious as a fiddler on a roof. So how does Greene explain the scenario's international appeal?

"A Japanese star came to New York to learn the show when it was being produced in Japan," Greene said, "and he told me, 'This is not a Jewish show, it's too Japanese.' We found out it's everybody's show."

The seamless blend of spellbinding story, excellent songs and brilliant dancing didn't hurt the show's appeal, either.

"Fiddler" returns tonight to San Diego for a two-week run at the Starlight Bowl. And, for the first time since Greene worked with the original company, the maestro will be in the pit to conduct.

"I'm feeling a little deja vu, " he said. "I played over 2,000 performances of 'Fiddler,' and I made the cast album of the show, but I haven't done it since because I was always working on new shows. It's only since I've been here at Starlight for four years that I do any revivals."

The familiar score may sound a little different to purists, but Greene chalks that up to evolution and economics.

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