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Fiddler remains fit at 50

Worldwide stagings of Fiddler on the Roof attest to its cultural power. So what is the source of 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, 2013), it is the show’s balance between the universal and the particular, as it evokes the yearning for tradition in a changing world.

Solomon was among the six participants — including Fiddler lyricist Sheldon Harnick and the play’s original Tzeitel — taking part in a panel discussion at Fiddler at 50, a Nov. 14-15 symposium at Princeton University. Presented at the James M. Stewart ’32 Theater by the Lewis Center for the Arts and the Program in American Studies at Princeton, the event celebrated the upcoming 50th anniversary of the play’s Broadway opening on Sept. 22, 1964.

Solomon, a professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, said the show — which was still going strong at its 900th Broadway performance in November 1966 — “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 asked “Why?” and received the response, “Because it’s so Japanese!”

While its appeal is universal, for Jews Fiddler called 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 symposium, which probed the play’s roots, its creative development, and its cultural resonances at home and abroad.

Solomon suggested that the key to the show’s abiding power is that it is “focused on tradition rather than Torah or law.” The idea of tradition, she added, 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 Eastern European Jewish past and an idyllic idea of the shtetl, said Solomon, the show “served a need of American Jews, who 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 show’s “Sabbath Prayer,” panelist 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 abandoning the Sabbath, American Jews had missed something special, but it was not too late to stage its resurrection,” Joselit said.

At the same time, however, this “prayer” is not from the liturgy but was totally fabricated by the creative team, and phrases like “keep them from the stranger’s way” and “defend them” were included purposefully, said Joselit, to integrate into the body of the play “concerns about exogamy, change, and the need to preserve the Jews.”

The play opened at a time in the United States when the counterculture was growing, feminism was coming to the fore, and the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was increasing. 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 alluded to the arrival in Anatevka of Perchik, who will eventually marry Hodel, but early on mocks Tevye and his friends. When they ask where he is from, Perchik responds that he is from the university in Kiev. A townsman asks, “Is that where they teach you to speak to your elders like this?” Solomon observed that, given the developing gap between parents and children in the mid-1960s, the play’s audiences “know why that was a joke in ’64.”

Politics also affected the actors themselves during the first Broadway performances of Fiddler. Panelist 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 experiences with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Robbins had been a cooperative witness, eventually “naming names” to the congressional committee that investigated allegations of communist activity in the United States during the early years of the Cold War, whereas Mostel had refused to testify and had been blacklisted.

“Zero hated [Robbins] but agreed to work with him because he respected him as a director, and he didn’t hide his feelings,” Merlin said. “Jerry felt very guilty and humiliated. There was a lot of tension during rehearsals because of that.”

Harnick had a different perspective. He recalled that on the first day of rehearsal, 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.” Harnick said that after that incident, Mostel kept his feelings to himself.

Students introduced and interviewed the event speakers; the others included Jeremy Dauber, author of The World of Sholom Aleichem and a professor of Yiddish language, literature, and culture at Columbia University, and director John Doyle, who put on Fiddler in the tiny Watermill Theatre in England. The symposium was organized by Princeton professors Jill Dolan and Stacy Wolf and was funded by the Lapidus Fund in American Jewish Studies in Princeton’s Program in American Studies.

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