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The Playwrights: Fiddler on the Roof

By Stephanie Chidester

 

Perhaps nothing about writing is harder to explain than the strange chemical reaction of collaboration that can somehow take two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen, all of them in a gaseous state, and mysteriously transform them into a molecule of water. So, Gilbert and Sullivan, who, on the whole, disliked each other, transcended themselves and their individual talents when they worked together.

Lindsay and Crouse were never happier than when they were insulting each other in their good-humored progress to yet another hit. Lerner and Loewe came from different countries and were educated in different ways, but each gave the other just the right additional elements, a combination that neither of them ever found with anyone else. Here then, are the personal (or chemical) elements that made up Fiddler on the Roof—a literary source, a writing team, and one extra talent as a kind of catalyst.

Sholem Aleichem

Much of Fiddler on the Roof’s charm has its origin in the Tevye stories of Sholem Aleichem. Born Solomon J. Rabinowitz, this author of sometimes satirical stories adopted the nom de plume of Sholem Aleichem—which means “peace be with you” in Hebrew. This pseudonym freed Rabinowitz from the constraint he felt in addressing controversial topics and in publishing his stories in Yiddish, a language not in favor among the literati of that time (World Authors, 1900-1950, eds. Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew Kimmens [New York: H.W. Wilson, 1996]).

From his birth in 1859 until 1883, Rabinowitz lived in small Ukranian towns, where he found a wealth of material for the fiction he would later write. While in his early twenties, Rabinowitz became a rabbi, and he began his writing career shortly thereafter, using the lives of the common folk as his subject matter and their language as his literary vehicle. “Sholem Aleichem never abandoned his commitment to critical realism. Throughout his career, he stuck to observable reality and drew, wherever possible, on firsthand experience” (David G. Roskies, “Sholem Aleichem: Mythologist of the Mundane,” AJS Review, 13.1/2 (1988): 31).

Joseph Stein

Joseph Stein’s early working years would not have led anyone to predict fame and fortune in the entertainment business; raised in the Bronx, he initially pursued a career as a social worker. However, his career path detoured abruptly after a friend introduced him to Zero Mostel in 1942. In an interview with journalist David Cote, Stein related the consequences of that meeting: “Zero was on a radio show. . . . He would do a five-minute monologue, but he had run out of material. I suggested something I thought was amusing. He liked it and said: ‘Why don’t you write it down?’ I got paid 15 bucks” (“Now That He’s a Rich Man,” The Times [London], May 14, 2007: 16). With his gift for comedy, Stein soon followed that meager beginning with a successful television writing career, working with Sid Caesar, Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, among many others (Pat Blaufuss, “Joseph Stein: By the Skin of His Teeth,” Hartford Courant, April 8, 2007: G1)

Six years after that first meeting with Zero Mostel, Stein got his first taste of Broadway with Lend an Ear, as a member of the writing team for that revue. Thus began a successful career in musical theatre. Stein contributed to many shows as a book-writer—including Mr. Wonderful, The Body Beautiful, Zorba, and, of course, Fiddler on the Roof—and when he wasn’t working on his own shows, he was in great demand as a “show doctor, called in to salvage bad scripts” (Cote, 16). Stein continues to write for the musical theatre, even at the age of ninety-five, with a recent musical adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth.

In Fiddler on the Roof, Joseph Stein took Aleichem’s Tevye stories—monologues in the original—and brought them beautifully to life on the stage. Though he smoothed away many of the hard, realistic edges of Aleichem’s tales, Stein fleshed out the characters and scenes with warmth and with an exquisite sense of comedic timing. The adaptation is surprisingly universal. Stein explains, “Tradition is just a prism through which we see our lives’ experiences. . . . When ‘Fiddler’ opened in Japan, the producer asked me if they understand the show in America. I said: ‘Yes, why do you ask?’ And he said: ‘Because it’s so Japanese’. We had no idea it had such universality’” (Cote, 16).

Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock

Unlike Joseph Stein, Sheldon Harnick knew early on where his talents lay. At twenty-five, he already had promising credits on his resume, including “songs composed for USO shows while in the Army, undergraduate musicals while a student at Northwestern, and work as a professional violinist for Chicago dance orchestras” (Thomas Hischak, Word Crazy: Broadway Lyricists from Cohan to Sondheim [New York: Praeger, 1991], 137).

Harnick was initially confident that he could fill the roles of lyricist and composer both. But despite a few minor successes in New York, a mentor advised Harnick to leave the music to someone else (Hishak, 138). Harnick was introduced to composer Jerry Bock not long thereafter, and as collaborators they found success that neither artist achieved working independently or with other partners.

Bock also showed early promise as both a writer and musician. “When Bock enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, he was fully prepared to pursue a career in journalism; on impulse, however, he auditioned for and was accepted by the university’s music school” (Stanley Green, The World of Musical Comedy [New York: A.S. Barnes and Company, 1968], 362). During his university years, he composed a musical which was performed professionally, which instilled in Bock a determination to forge a career in musical theater (Green, 362).

Harnick and Bock had their first great success with the musical Fiorello! which not only ran for nearly 800 performances, but also won the Pulitzer Prize (Hishak, 138). Fiddler on the Roof exceeded that earlier success with a run of 3,242 performances, a record for longest-running Broadway musical at that time (Cote, 16). And while this show was not honored by a Pulitzer Prize, it did win a Tony Award in 1965 for best musical, and Bock and Harnick were awarded the Tony Award for best composer and lyricist.

Together, Harnick and Bock brought a special magic to the shows on which they worked. Harnick had a gift for portraying “humor and dignity in the ordinariness of human behavior” and finding “excitement in the ordinary” (Hischak 137, 144), and Bock, at his best, “was able to capture a convincing sound world for the subject at hand” (The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Volume 3, Second Edition, Ed. Stanley Sadie [London: Macmillan Publishers Limited, 2001]: 767).

Stein, Harnick, and Bock were each at their best in the composition of Fiddler on the Roof, remaining true to the spirit of Sholem Aleichem’s original. In music and word, they created a quiet yet powerful magic that spans cultures and enthralls audiences around the world.


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