December 13, 2018

‘Fiddler’ makes the world richer

On a visit to Budapest earlier this year, my wife and I asked the concierge at our hotel for a restaurant where we could find authentic Hungarian fare.  As we took our seats in the bustling little place he recommended, I was encouraged to see a house band tucked away in the corner, and our meal was accompanied by what I assumed to be traditional Hungarian and Roma tunes.  About halfway through the meal, however, the musicians took a short break and then returned to start their second set with “If I Were a Rich Man.”

How a hit song from a Broadway musical entered the global pop culture is one of the wonder of wonders that is explored and explained with both charm and authority by theater critic, journalist and scholar Alisa Solomon in her wholly winning book, “Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof” (Metropolitan Books, $30).

Solomon tells the whole story of “Fiddler” from beginning to end, starting with the story by Sholem Aleichem in which Tevye first appeared in 1894, and showing us in suspenseful detail how  “Fiddler on the Roof,” created by Jerry Bock (music), Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) and Joseph Stein (book), reached the Broadway stage in 1964. In that sense, “Wonder of Wonders” is a rich and lively slice of theater history.

For example, Solomon points out that, even as late as the 1950s, “Broadway’s musical makers, though most were Jewish, were not yet putting overt Jewish characters front and center.” To be sure, Jewish audiences were afforded the opportunity to attend “Yinglish revues,” such as “Bagels and Yox” and “Borschtcapades,” but the Yiddishkayt of a character like Nathan Detroit in “Guys and Dolls” was encoded in a single line of the song he sings: “I’m just a no-goodnik. All right already. It’s true. So nu?”

No detail is overlooked. She reveals that the Sholem Aleichem family received a 4.8 percent royalty, but an enterprising producer who had tied up the theatrical rights to the stories demanded a royalty nearly twice as large. “From underwear to overcoats, [costume designer Patricia] Zipprodt used natural fibers that would have been available in 1905 for the 165 costumes she made.  But the makers of the musical were unwilling to make the show too authentic; by choosing the name for the character of Yenta the matchmaker, Solomon points out, “[Joseph] Stein made one of his book’s few concessions to the Yiddish language, which the authors had vowed to avoid.”

Solomon reminds us that “Fiddler” was not universally admired when it opened on Broadway. Irving Howe complained that the producers “discard[ed] the richness of texture that is Sholem Aleichem’s greatest achievement,” and Robert Brustein accused them of “falsifying the world of Sholem Aleichem, not to mention the character of the East European Jew.” But she also insists that director Jerome Robbins deserves to be remembered and praised for “labor[ing] mightily to burn away the schmaltz that for two decades had encased the world of the shtetl like amber.”

Robbins is also credited for the crucial casting decision that put Zero Mostel into the role of Tevye. “There would have to be some madness in his Method,” as Solomon playfully puts it. Among the actors in contention were Danny Kaye, Rod Steiger, Red Buttons and Eli Wallach. But there was much off-stage drama before Mostel accepted the role. Much of the tension was provoked by the fact that Robbins had named the wife of Jack Gilford — Mostel’s co-star in “A Funny Thing Happened to Me on the Way to the Forum” — before the House Unamerican Activities Committee. “But it wasn’t just political bad blood that caused Mostel to call Robbins ‘that sonofabitch’ in place of his name,” Solomon explains. “Mostel was an unstoppable force, Robbins an immovable object.”

The author, of course, is fully aware that “Fiddler” is much more than a record-breaking Broadway hit and a celebrated Hollywood movie. She points out how “Fiddler,” like the earlier incarnations of Tevye on the Yiddish stage, has come to serve as a “Jewish signifier” for both Jews and non-Jews: “ ‘Now I know I haven’t been the best Jew,’ ” Homer tells a rabbi from whom he is trying to borrow money in an episode of “The Simpsons,” “ ‘but I have rented “Fiddler on the Roof,” and I intend to watch it.’ ” But she also shows how “Fiddler” came to be embraced and celebrated far beyond the Jewish world, which is yet another wonder of wonders. 

“[Tevye] belongs nowhere,” Solomon concludes. “Which is to say, everywhere.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch will be discussing and signing copies of his new book at Shaarey Zedek synagogue in Valley Village on Oct. 27; at American Jewish University on Oct. 30; at University Synagogue in Irvine on Nov. 1; at Stephen S. Wise Temple on Nov. 14; and at Sinai Temple on Nov. 21.