Erik Stein as Tevye in
the Pacific Conseryatory
Fiddler on the Roof, approaching its 50th
anniversary, proves its staying power.
orldwide performances of
Fiddler on the Roof attest to
its cultural power as it evokes
the yearning for tradition in a changing
world. What is behind its staying power?
According to Alisa Solomon, author of
the new book Wonder of Wonders: A
Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof
(Metropolitan Books), it is the show's
balance between the universal and the
During a recent symposium at Princeton
University celebrating the upcoming
50th anniversary of the play's Broadway
opening on Sept. 22, 1964 (it made its
stage debut in tryouts on July 27, 1964, at
Detroit's Fisher Theatre), Solomon, a pro-
fessor at the Graduate School of Journalism
at Columbia University, said the show
"quickly belonged to everyone:'
She shared an anecdote about a Tokyo
rehearsal, where a local producer asked
Joseph Stein, who wrote the play, whether
Americans really understood Fiddler. A
very surprised Stein quickly asked, "Why?"
and received the response, "Because it's so
While its appeal is universal, for Jews
Fiddler calls forth the Old Country.
"To this day, it is taught as a document
of shtetl life and thus came to stand for
Jewishness itself" Solomon said at the
Princeton symposium, which probed
the play's roots, its creative development
and its cultural resonances at home and
Solomon suggested that the key to the
show's abiding power, in a way its authors
couldn't have guessed, is that it is "focused
on tradition rather than Torah or law:'
The idea of tradition, she adds, is dear
to any culture in the modern world. "It is a
way of embracing a legacy without having
to adopt its strictures:' she said.
By successfully representing the idea
of the East European Jewish past and an
idyllic idea of the shtetl, said Solomon, the
show "served a need of American Jews,
who both needed to honor, recognize,
claim and embrace a heritage and life that
was no more, and at the same time needed
to distinguish themselves from that:'
In pondering the implications of her
own profound response to the music of the
"Sabbath Prayer" song in the show, Jenna
Weissman Joselit, professor and program
director of Judaic studies and professor of
history at George Washington University,
noted that in the New World, "the Sabbath
experience was more in the breach than
in observance:' The power of "Sabbath
Prayer; she said, is that it "directly
assuaged the concern of the American
Jewish community — its future.
"It raised the possibility that in aban-
doning the Sabbath, American Jews had
missed something special, but it was not
too late to stage its resurrection:' Joselit
But at the same time, this "prayer" is not
from the liturgy but was totally fabricated
by the creative team, and language like
"keep them from the stranger's way" and
"defend them" was included purposefully,
"It was designed to encapsulate condi-
tions at the time of play:' she said. "The
language was designed to integrate the
self into the body of the play and concerns
about exogamy (intermarriage), change
and the need to preserve the Jews:'
The play came to be at a moment in the
U.S. when the counterculture was growing,
feminism was coming to the fore and the
U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was
Solomon noted that its audiences saw
the developing generation gap through the
eyes of both Tevye and his daughters. "Part
of the genius of the show is to have both
perspectives," she said.
To illustrate this, Solomon alludes to the
arrival in Anatevka of Perchik, who will
eventually marry Tevye's daughter Hodel,
but early on mocks Tevye and his friends.
When they ask where he is from,
Perchik responds that he is from the uni-
versity in Kiev. A townsman then asks, "Is
that where they teach you to speak to your
elders like this?"
Solomon observed that, given the devel-
oping gap between parents and children in
the early 1960s, the play's audiences "know
why that was a joke in '64:'
Politics also affected the actors them-
selves during the first Broadway perfor-
mances of Fiddler.
Joanna Merlin, who originated the role
of Tzeitel, the eldest of Tevye's daughters,
related the tension that remained between
Zero Mostel, who played Tevye, and the
show's director-choreographer, Jerome
Robbins, because of their different expe-
riences with the House Un-American
Robbins had been a cooperative wit-
ness, eventually "naming names" to the
congressional committee that investigated
allegations of Communist activity in the
U.S. during the early years of the Cold War,
whereas Mostel had been blacklisted.
Merlin was blunt about the two men's
"Zero hated him but agreed to work
with him because he respected him as a
director, and he didn't hide his feelings:'
she said. "Jerry felt very guilty and humili-
ated. There was a lot of tension during
rehearsals because of that:'
Sheldon Harnick, the lyricist for Fiddler
on the Roof, had a different perspective. He
recalled that on the first day of rehearsal,
which is kind of a meet-and-greet among
participants, the cast wondered what
would happen when the two men met.
Mostel arrived first. When Robbins
walked in, said Harnick, "Zero said, 'Hi
there, Blabbermouth: Luckily, everyone
in the cast and Robbins laughed:' His
perspective was that after that incident,
Mostel kept his feelings to himself and
worked very hard.
According to Solomon, a "political" use
of Fiddler has been in Eastern Europe,
where the play has been used as a way to
delve into the history of a locale's Jews. Its
performances are accompanied by book-
lets that detail what happened to the area's
Jews during World War II.
In the end, the legacy of Fiddler on the
Roof may be its ability to reach both back-
ward and forward. Joanna Merlin's favorite
moment was the farewell scene.
"It was very reminiscent for me of my
grandmother leaving; she said, noting
that the final scene was a prelude to an
"I was kind of experiencing what they
were looking forward to when they were
leaving each other, in addition to having
to say goodbye to each other, as they were
all going to different parts of the world:'
Merlin added. "It was very close and per-
sonal for me:'
George Washington University's Joselit
touched on Merlin's sentiments, but in a
"What the play is about, despite
moments of wrenching loss, is possibility;
(just like Tevye and
Fiddler on the Roof.
The Bloomfield Players board: Udi
Kapen, president; Larry Miller, vice
president; Donna Raphael, treasurer;
and Debby Portney, secretary.
he hit musical Fiddler on the
Roof and the Bloomfield Players
theater group share something
in common. Each marks a milestone
anniversary in 2014.
It will be 50 years for the show and 25
years for the stage company.
A joint celebration will take place as
the play with multiple Tony Awards is
presented by the community troupe
Jan. 16-19 at the Bloomfield Hills High
School (formerly Lahser High School).
"This is the third time we're doing
Fiddler:' says Larry Miller, a dentist who
serves as board vice president of the
theater company and is reprising the
role of Lazar Wolf, a character he por-
trayed some 20 years ago.
Miller, who has initiated theater pro-
grams at Temple Israel, reports that the
production has a cast of 45, and about
half of the participants are Jewish.
"For the past three years, a lot of
board members and people in the com-
munity asked when we were going to do
L'Chaim! on page 34
January 9 • 2014