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Theater

Surprise--It's Tradition

As 'Fiddler on the Roof' nears the 40-year mark, its creators marvel at its Jewish story's universal appeal.

January 13, 2002|BARBARA ISENBERG

On Sept. 22, 1964, at New York's swank Rainbow Room, producer Harold Prince read aloud to his opening-night guests from one of "Fiddler on the Roof's" less than inspiring reviews. "I can't resist reading this to you," he told them, "because it's so irrelevant."

Nearly eight years and 3,300 performances later, "Fiddler" broke the record for longest-running musical, and Prince again pulled out those reviews.

He reprinted, then bound them in a gold-lined, commemorative program that he gave to everyone in the audience. Noting today that $1 invested in "Fiddler" in the '60s returned $35.62 by October 2001, Prince quips that "sometimes you do get the last laugh."

Apparently so. Winner of nine 1965 Tony awards, including best musical, "Fiddler" has introduced audiences around the world to Yiddish author Sholom Aleichem's milkman Tevye, his family, poverty and persecution in turn-of-the-century Russia. Now in the midst of a 44-city tour landing at Beverly Hills' Wilshire Theatre on Tuesday, "Fiddler" stars Theodore Bikel, who has played family patriarch Tevye 1,800 times in the last 34 years.

Wedding and bar mitzvah planners would be bereft without "Sunrise, Sunset" and "Tradition." New York's Music Theatre International, which licenses musicals in schools and community and professional theater, reports more than 650 productions in the U.S. and Canada alone in an average year.

On Broadway, where it's already had three revivals, "Fiddler" is still among the top 10 longest-running musicals. "You don't have to be a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe, a milkman and father with five daughters to relate to this story," says Jed Bernstein, president of the League of American Theatres and Producers, who played Tevye in his high school production. "A family struggling, a marriage that's successful for 35 years--these are things anybody can plug into and obviously have over and over again."

Joseph Stein, the show's librettist, recalls his concern and skepticism when he went to Japan for the show's first foreign production. "The Japanese producer asked me, 'Do they understand this show in America?'" Stein says, "And I replied, 'Why do you ask?' He said, 'Because it's so Japanese.'"

It's been 40 years since a friend sent composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick a copy of Aleichem's book, "Wandering Star," with the notion that it might make a good musical. Bock and Harnick, who had already written the score for the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Fiorello!" and would eventually write seven scores together before going their separate ways in 1970, read the book and were intrigued. They took it to Stein, with whom they'd first worked on the 1958 musical "The Body Beautiful."

"Wandering Star" revolved around a group of actors who toured Russia, says Stein, who didn't think it would make a good musical. But it reminded him of Aleichem's stories about Tevye, which he'd heard as a child and which he suggested Bock and Harnick also read. Written as monologues by Tevye about his daughters, the stories had already been proved stageworthy in plays adapted by Arnold Perl in the '50s.

Bock, Harnick and Stein all say that the more they talked about the material, the more excited they became. Equally important, they all drew on family experiences and memories. Harnick, whose parents were born in Eastern Europe, talks of a synagogue he attended as a boy in Chicago and "the gaunt elderly men in prayer shawls who were praying fervently, then rejoicing afterward with schnapps and cake."

Bock began to hear the music, he says, "as I read the stories and remembered the lullabies and little melodies my grandmother would sing to me.

"The environment, flavor, feeling, background and our own sensitivity to the people in the stories made it more and more accessible as a project. We started to write it as we would any other show, but adding those embers that kept burning underneath."

Although Prince did go on to direct Bock and Harnick's next show, "She Loves Me," he declined to direct "Fiddler." "It was foreign to me," he says now. "I didn't feel the connection I felt years later with [the musical] 'Parade' and German Jews in the South."

Prince suggested that they try Jerome Robbins. Not only did Robbins come from a Russian Jewish background, Prince says, but there was a second reason: "I said, 'For it to be universal, you need a choreographer-director' because I thought dance was an easier language to understand than words."

The original Broadway cast included such now-well-known actors as Austin Pendleton (as Motel, the tailor), Bea Arthur (as Yente, the matchmaker) and Zero Mostel as Tevye. Mostel had to finish a film, and rehearsals were postponed, a circumstance that gave director Robbins additional time to work on the show with the authors.

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