Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roofby Alisa Solomon
In the half-century since its premiere, Fiddler on the Roof has become a supremely potent cultural landmark, beloved by audiences the world over. Now, in a history as captivating as its subject, award-winning drama critic Alisa Solomon traces how and why the story of Tevye the milkman, the creation of the great Yiddish writer Sholem-Aleichem, was reborn as/i>
In the half-century since its premiere, Fiddler on the Roof has become a supremely potent cultural landmark, beloved by audiences the world over. Now, in a history as captivating as its subject, award-winning drama critic Alisa Solomon traces how and why the story of Tevye the milkman, the creation of the great Yiddish writer Sholem-Aleichem, was reborn as blockbuster entertainment and a cultural touchstone, not only for Jews and not only in America.
It is first a story of the theater, as Solomon follows Tevye from his humble appearance on the New York Yiddish stage, through his adoption by leftist dramatists as a symbol of oppression, to his Broadway debut and his starring role in a major Hollywood picture. And it is a cultural story, of a show that spoke to the deepest conflicts and desires the world over: the fraying of tradition, generational tension, the loss of roots. Entertaining and original, Wonder of Wonders reveals the profound legacy of a show about tradition that itself became a tradition.
After Fiddler on the Roof opened on Broadway in 1964, it became the longest-running show of its day, winning Tony Awards in nine categories in 1965. NPR called it one of the “100 most important American musical works of all time,” and the American Film Institute named the movie version one of the “100 most inspiring films of all times.” Long after Sholem Aleichem wrote a story in 1894 featuring Tevye the milkman, the tale about Jewish identity, the conflict between generations, and the deep importance of community and family lives on in several hundred annual theatrical performances by local theaters, and the movie version spawned numerous kitschy keepsakes as well as a MAD magazine parody. In this flat study, drama critic Solomon traces in exhaustive and exhausting detail the life of Aleichem’s story from its earliest production to its time on Broadway and subsequent movie version, covering its production and reception abroad as well. She carefully describes Jerome Robbins’s direction and choreography, and his brilliant casting of Zero Mostel as Tevye, as well as Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick’s (lyrics) contribution of such songs as “Sabbath’s Prayer,” “Tevye’s Dream,” and “Sunrise, Sunset” to the world of popular music. Although Solomon’s telling lacks cohesion, she nevertheless captures the fascination and wonder that Fiddler on the Roof continues to exert over us. (Oct.)
More than a cultural history of the extraordinarily popular Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof, this wonderfully detailed and highly readable text also touches on Sholem Aleichem, the history of Yiddish theater, shtetl life, American politics, theater in the 1960s, and the roles of Jews in America in a post-World War II, post-McCarthy era. Theater critic Solomon's (dir., arts & culture concentration, MA program, Columbia Journalism Sch.; Re-Dressing the Canon: Essays on Theater and Gender) love for this iconic musical is evident throughout; she comments that "the greater sum that Fiddler's parts added up to went beyond the soul-stirring, radiant enchantment of even the best Broadway musicals." The book also details Fiddler's great success: within a decade of its 1964 opening, the musical had played in two dozen countries, and by the time of the release of the 1971 film, there had been 15 productions in Finland alone. Solomon sets the context for this landmark musical by examining New York City politics and race relations and the assimilation of the Jewish community in America at this time. A detailed, selective bibliography and notes will be an asset to scholars. VERDICT Although this work is thin on illustrations and pictures, the fascinating narrative more than compensates for the lack of visuals and is highly recommended for public libraries as well as for more specialized academic theater and Jewish history collections.—Herb Shapiro, Lifelong Learning Soc., Florida Atlantic Univ., Boca Raton
Raising the roof on one of the most successful and resonant works in the history of Broadway. Solomon (Arts and Culture/Columbia Univ. Graduate School of Journalism; Re-Dressing the Canon: Essays on Theatre and Gender, 1997, etc.) presents a comprehensive history of the long-running and much-revived Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof, the iconic production that broke box-office records, swept the Tony Awards, inspired a hit Hollywood movie, and, for many, defined and fixed the details of traditional Jewish life in the popular imagination. The author marshals impressive quantities of research to trace Fiddler's history, beginning with its origins in the writings of Sholem Aleichem, a prominent Yiddish writer whose late-19th-century stories about Tevye the dairyman, which portrayed shtetl life in a warmly realistic style, served as the source material for what would become the musical institution. The Tevye material was adapted over the ensuing decades with varying levels of success--Solomon scrupulously documents every permutation, which becomes a bit tiresome--eventually finding its way to Broadway in 1964 in the form of Fiddler on the Roof, shepherded by director and choreographer Jerome Robbins and starring comic force of nature Zero Mostel. The creation of the Broadway show provides the book's richest passages, as the anxious, insecure Robbins clashes with the obstreperous Mostel and a miraculous confluence of talents and personalities achieve the elusive alchemy of great theatrical art. The remainder of the narrative, which covers the show's adaptation into the successful film version and subsequent reimaginings--including a controversial staging at a black junior high in racially fraught late-1960s Brooklyn and an embattled Polish production in the early 2000s--serves as an illuminating but comparatively lackluster footnote. Solomon has done her homework; unfortunately, homework is what this worthy but dryly academic chronicle too often feels like. Everything a Fiddler fan could hope to learn but with little to entice general readers.
“As rich and dense as a chocolate babka--so crammed with tasty layers that you have to pace yourself....As brilliant a piece of reporting as I've read this year.” The New York Times Book Review
“An intellectually serious, playful, and insightful account of popular art's power to shape memory and transmute history into universal myth, Wonder of Wonders is a soul-stirring joy to read....The richest, deepest, most far-ranging, and delightfully surprising book about a single work of theatrical art I've ever encountered.” Tony Kushner, author of Angels in America
“A riveting tale...A smart, thorough, and engaging history that puts Fiddler in the context of twentieth-century Jewishness, American theatre history, Broadway musicals, and transnational theatre productions, but is also a love letter to the miracle of co-creation and how popular culture first relays culture and later shapes it.” Theatre Journal
“Fascinating....Tasty and provocative.” Playbill
“Exuberant.” The Wall Street Journal
“Exemplary critical history.” The Washington Post
“Glorious...A thrilling, must-read book...In more than thirty years of reading, writing and thinking about theater as an actor, critic and fan, I've never read a book on the subject that taught or moved me as much – reflecting Solomon's ability to weave gobs of meticulous research into a compelling, beautifully written story.” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“I expected that this book would revive many treasured memories, which it certainly did. What I didn't expect to find was the fascinating history of Sholem-Aleichem's Tevye's Daughters or the riveting and unexpectedly moving account of Fiddler's fortunes after the end of the musical's Broadway run. I have always been proud of Fiddler, but never more so than after reading this astonishing book.” Sheldon Harnick, lyricist, Fiddler on the Roof
“Alisa Solomon was put on earth to write this exceptional and essential book. A world-class theater critic, a learned Yiddishist, a trenchant journalist, and just a plain wonderful writer, she has brought all her skills to bear in tracing the history of the Tevye stories that became Fiddler on the Roof. The Broadway musical, in her hands, becomes a Rosetta Stone for understanding the Jewish journey.” Samuel G. Freedman, author of Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry
“Wonder of Wonders is a wonder! Alisa Solomon explains in vivid detail how and why Fiddler on the Roof became iconic as both authentically Jewish and universally relevant. A fantastic storyteller, an astute cultural interpreter, and a superb critic, Solomon offers an elegantly crafted, moving, thoughtful, and entertaining account of Fiddler's journeys across time and place. This is the story of Fiddler for the ages.” Stacy Wolf, author of Changed for Good: A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical
“If you think you have seen Fiddler on the Roof, think again. The wonder of it all is the magic that transformed stories by Sholem-Aleichem into a near universal icon of enduring power. How that happened, the multifarious forms and meanings of Fiddler on the Roof, is the subject of Alisa Solomon's meticulously researched and beautifully written book.” Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, author of Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage
“Wonder of Wonders combines probing theater history with incisive cultural studies and a compelling narrative. From Sholem-Aleichem's Tevye stories to the triumphant Broadway musical, from politically charged productions in Brooklyn, Tel Aviv, and Kraków to the sanctification of Fiddler numbers in Jewish ritual, Alisa Solomon traces the transformation of Fiddler into a cultural phenomenon that has powerfully spoken for American Jews as well as so many others around the world.” Jeffrey Shandler, author of Shtetl: A Vernacular Intellectual History
Wonder of Wonders combines probing theater history with incisive cultural studies and a compelling narrative. From Sholem-Aleichem's Tevye stories to the triumphant Broadway musical, from politically charged productions in Brooklyn, Tel Aviv, and Kraków to the sanctification of Fiddler numbers in Jewish ritual, Alisa Solomon traces the transformation of Fiddler into a cultural phenomenon that has powerfully spoken for American Jews as well as so many others around the world.
Alisa Solomon was put on earth to write this exceptional and essential book. A world-class theater critic, a learned Yiddishist, a trenchant journalist, and just a plain wonderful writer, she has brought all her skills to bear in tracing the history of the Tevye stories that became Fiddler on the Roof. The Broadway musical, in her hands, becomes a Rosetta Stone for understanding the Jewish journey.
Wonder of Wonders is a wonder! Alisa Solomon explains in vivid detail how and why Fiddler on the Roof became iconic as both authentically Jewish and universally relevant. A fantastic storyteller, an astute cultural interpreter, and a superb critic, Solomon offers an elegantly crafted, moving, thoughtful, and entertaining account of Fiddler's journeys across time and place. This is the story of Fiddler for the ages.
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Read an Excerpt
A Little Bit of This, A Little Bit of That
Glenn Beck was welling up as he neared the conclusion of his Restoring Courage rally in Jerusalem in August 2011. The conservative, conspiracy-mongering talk show host choked back tears as he bade his audience farewell. As he left the stage, exit music swelled: “Sabbath Prayer” from Fiddler on the Roof.
A few weeks later, Occupy Judaism was planning an outdoor radical Yom Kippur service as an extension of the demonstrations taking place in Lower Manhattan that fall. To get the word out, one of the organizers made a poster that adapted one of the Occupy Wall Street logos. He took the original image—a ballerina balancing on the back of the bronze Charging Bull statue that lurches in a park in New York’s financial district—and Photoshopped the dancer out. In her place, he substituted the silhouette of a tottering violinist: another invocation of Fiddler on the Roof.
There could hardly be more clashing sensibilities than those of Glenn Beck and Occupy activists—Beck condemned the movement as “worse than Robespierre”—yet both staked a claim to the Broadway musical about the affable dairyman Tevye and his three marriageable daughters living in the Jewish Pale of Settlement in 1905. Beck’s use of the song from the show was naive and even kitschy, while Occupy’s appropriation of the image winked with postmodern irony, but both operated from the assumption that Fiddler bears talismanic power to endow an event or object with a warm glow of Jewish authenticity.
The show—created by Jerry Bock (music), Sheldon Harnick (lyrics), Joseph Stein (book), and Jerome Robbins (direction and choreography)—was an instant blockbuster success when it opened in 1964, smashing all box office records in its day. The initial production played 3,242 performances—the longest-running show on Broadway for years. It won Tony Awards in nine categories in 1965. National Public Radio featured Fiddler as one of the “100 most important American musical works of the 20th century.” The American Film Institute named Norman Jewison’s movie version among the “100 most inspiring films of all time.” There have been four Broadway revivals, countless national tours, and probably more local productions than the licensing agency can count—more than it even knows about. Some two hundred schools across the country put it on each year. The show has survived censorious dictators, bad productions, and highbrow scolds.
As the first work of American popular culture to recall life in a shtetl—the Eastern European market towns with large Jewish populations—Fiddler felt tender, elegiac, even holy. It arrived just ahead of (and helped to instigate) the American roots movement. It was added to multicultural curricula and studied by students across the country in Jewish history units, as if Fiddler were an artifact unearthed from a destroyed world rather than a big-story musical assembled by showbiz professionals.
Beyond its continuing vibrant life in the theater, Fiddler, like no other musical before or since, has seeped into the culture more widely, functioning in sometimes contradictory ways—which makes sense, since the show’s essential gesture is dialectical: it looks backward and forward, favors both community and individual needs, honors the particular and the universal, struggles between stasis and change, bewails and celebrates. Tevye seems to be constantly caught in these opposing forces and, before our eyes, weighs the arguments of every dilemma—on the one hand, on the other hand . . .
Fiddler has served as a Jewish signifier: “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.” And Tevye or the Fiddler can often be found sharing a rooftop with Santa Claus on interfaith winter holiday cards.
The show has operated as a barometer of Jewish political status: In 1974, Augusto Pinochet banned Fiddler in Chile as a “Marxist inspired” work containing “disruptive elements harmful to the nation.” Thirty-five years later, in 2009 in Venezuela, Hugo Chavez defunded the orchestra for a theater presenting Fiddler because it wasn’t Marxist enough. Fiddler has been a powerful intertextual work, commenting from within in Joseph Cedar’s movie Footnote (a family torn by generational conflict goes to see a performance), David Bezmozgis’s novel The Free World (a Soviet émigré family with a Stalinist patriarch sees the movie while stuck in Rome, waiting for visas), and Nadia Kalman’s novel The Cosmopolitans (Fiddler as a structuring device), to name just a few cases.
Fiddler has become ritual: kids at summer camps sing “Sabbath Prayer” on Friday evening as they light candles in place of the Hebrew blessing, and for decades weddings didn’t feel complete without a rendition of “Sunrise, Sunset.”
And more. The show is a global touchstone for an astonishing range of concerns: Jewish identity, American immigrant narratives, generational conflict, communal cohesion, ethnic authenticity, and interracial bridge building, among them. It also solidified the origin story of American Jews as flight from persecution in Eastern European shtetls—never mind the actual origins of those from urban centers or from Sephardic and Middle Eastern backgrounds.
How could a commercial entertainment do all this? The answer lies in large part in where Fiddler came from and how it was made. Wonder of Wonders sets out to tell that tale: to look at what prepared the way for the musical historically, culturally, and aesthetically, how it turned into a show with such abiding power, and where it has been a catalyst for cultural shifts. It is a story about ethnic assertion and cultural adaptation and about the exigencies and outsize personalities of showbiz. Tracing the surprising, enduring, shape-shifting utility of the beloved musical, Wonder of Wonders explores how a work of popular culture can glow with a radiant afterlife, illuminating for different audiences the pressing issues of their times.
Specifically, it is a story about theater, the making of it and the meanings that come from the messy and marvelous collaborations that are its essence—interactions among artists, between artists and audiences, between a show and the world.
The story begins at the source: Sholem-Aleichem, the great Yiddish writer who created Tevye in a short story in 1894 and, over the next two decades, occasionally put a new chapter about his tragicomic hero into the world. Best beloved as a story writer, Sholem-Aleichem also created novels and plays and he was eager to break into New York’s Yiddish theater scene.
His first major foray into the theater, with his first full-length play, was a smash. Called Tsezeyt un tseshpreyt (Scattered and Dispersed), the play, which dealt with intergenerational conflict, triumphed at the Elysium Theater in Warsaw in the spring of 1905. It was performed in Polish (because of the Russian Empire’s standing, if erratically enforced, ban on performances in Yiddish) and the house was packed. At the urging and expense of the producer and translator, Mark Arenshteyn, Sholem-Aleichem traveled from his home in Kiev to Warsaw to see for himself.
“What shall I write you about yesterday’s triumph?” Sholem-Aleichem asked his daughter in a letter the day after he saw the show. In ecstatic detail, he described how the audience “literally covered me with flowers” after the first act and how after every act that followed they called him to the stage repeatedly. In the fourth act, he reported, “the public simply went crazy, applauding every phrase that had any connection to the play’s theme. At the end, hats started flying in the air and some kind of wild, elemental force tried to gobble me up. For a moment I thought the theater might cave in.”
He wondered, with a little false modesty, as to the cause: was it the popularity of the folk writer, the Jewish public’s yearning for a Yiddish theater, or simply the mob’s lack of restraint? In any case, Sholem-Aleichem evaded the “thousand-headed mass that awaited its prey” at the theater’s exit only because a police officer hid him away in a locked loge for half an hour and then slipped him out a back door. “My God! What would happen if it were possible to play in Yiddish?”
With more prescience than he could have guessed, Sholem-Aleichem concluded, “My fate and your future (I mean that of my successors) are tightly bound up with the Jewish theater. Write it down in your calendar.”
She would have done well to mark a date more than half a century later that would not only forever tie Sholem-Aleichem’s fate to the theater but also shape the future of remembered Jewish history: September 22, 1964, the opening night of Fiddler on the Roof.
Copyright © 2013 by Alisa Solomon
Meet the Author
Alisa Solomon teaches at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, where she directs the Arts & Culture concentration in the MA program. A theater critic and general reporter for The Village Voice from 1983 to 2004, she has also contributed to The New York Times, The Nation, Tablet, The Forward, and other publications. Her first book, Re-Dressing the Canon: Essays on Theater and Gender, won the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism. She lives in New York City.
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I loved it.
Fascinating, culturally referenced story of how the Broadway blockbuster came to be.