By Peter Filichia
If you’re reading this on Tuesday, September 23, it’s the fiftieth anniversary of the day in 1964 that Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, Jerome Robbins, Harold Prince and dozens of others opened the six different newspapers that New York then had and read the critics’ reviews of their new show Fiddler on the Roof.
The tally was two raves, four approvals and nothing approaching a negative notice.
John Chapman of the News not only called Fiddler “one of the great works of the American theater” but also “a work of art.” He went on to state that Sheldon Harnick’s “lyrics (are) as important to the narrative as they are entertaining” and deemed Jerry Bock’s music worthy of “a jubilant celebration.” Norman Nadel of the World Telegram & Sun wrote that one song, “To Life,” “make(s) it impossible to keep from dancing in the aisles.”
Agreed: Bock did provide a marvelous, toe-tapping melody. But let’s not overlook one of Harnick’s best-ever lyrics, when Tevye and butcher Lazar Wolf are celebrating the betrothal of Tevye’s daughter Tzeitel. Sings Tevye, “Here’s to the father I tried to be!” Responds Lazar, “Here’s to my bride-to-be!”
Of course we must give tribute to the runner-up as Harnick’s best lyric: when three of Tevye’s daughters sing how eager they are to be married off by a “Matchmaker,” they soon come to realize that “playing with matches a girl can get burned.”
John McClain of the Journal American predicted that “The Fiddler will be up on that roof for many a moon.” Indeed, for 2,838 moons shone on 3,242 performances, lasting until July 1, 1972. At the time, that was enough to make Fiddler on the Roof Broadway’s all-time long-run champ. Nine Tony Awards — including Best Musical — certainly helped the cause.
While both Richard Watts, Jr. of the Post and Howard Taubman of the Times approved of the show, they especially raved about star Zero Mostel. The former cited his “brilliantly resourceful and intelligent performance” as the latter proclaimed that he was “one of the most glorious creations in the history of musical theater.” At Tony time, voters agreed, naming Mostel Best Actor in a Musical.
Yes, Walter Kerr of the Herald Tribune called Fiddler “a very near-miss.” But that was about as bad as the reviews got, and Kerr’s tempered enthusiasm certainly didn’t keep the show from immediately reaching sellout status and staying there for two solid years. As Barbara Isenberg points out in her excellent new book Tradition! – named, of course, for the show’s dynamic and memorable opening number – in the subsequent half-century, Fiddler on the Roof has rarely been away from the nation’s stages – or the country’s record, tape and CD players and now iTunes and Spotify. Its original cast album was released in October, 1964 and stayed on the best-seller charts for 206 weeks.
That’s nearly four years, chum. Since then, no other original cast album in the history of the Billboard charts has ever come close; even Hair, which stayed for an impressive 151 weeks, was more than a year shy of Fiddler’s accomplishment. One week, in fact, Fiddler reached Number 7, meaning that only a mere six long-playing records of all types were able to outsell it during that seven-day period.
Since then, Fiddler has been released on 4-track tape, 8-track tape, cassette, CD, iTunes and Spotify. One reason could be that the biggest hit show and biggest cast album of the 1960s also yielded the decade’s most enduring song: “Sunrise, Sunset.” It became a standard although it never had a big hit record by an artist who’d be forever associated with it, such as 1964’s “Hello, Dolly!” by Louis Armstrong, Barbra Streisand’s “People” and Steve Lawrence’s “A Room without Windows.” But since 1965, have you ever been to a wedding, bar-mitzvah, bat-mitzvah or Sweet 16 party where it hasn’t been sung or played? What parent can’t relate to that universal truth “Is this the little girl I carried? Is this the little boy at play? I don’t remember growing older; when did they?”
In 2003, RCA Victor released Fiddler on the Roof’s “Broadway Deluxe Collector’s Edition” CD with two important original cast cuts that didn’t make the less roomy 33 1/3 rpm record thirty-nine years earlier.
“The Wedding Dance” is the instrumental’s official name, but most people think of it as “Bottle Dance,” for that’s what director-choreographer Jerome Robbins recreated. Each male dancer who participated put on a hat, placed a bottle in its center, and inched his way in tandem with the others without dropping his cargo. Alisa Solomon in her magnificent 2013 book Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of “Fiddler on the Roof” noted that “Robbins permitted no tricks, no holes cut in the crowns and no Velcro. He wanted the audiences to feel the tension.” On record, we also feel the joy of Bock’s exuberant music.
The second new cut was “The Rumor,” in which one “fact” gets distorted by each townsperson who repeats it. Let’s not give away the song’s delicious last line, but suffice to say it’s drolly delivered by Beatrice Arthur, as the future Maude and Golden Girl was known before she removed the last five letters of her first name. Solomon reported that at one rehearsal the notoriously difficult Robbins was so cruel to Ms. Arthur that he reduced her to tears. Can you even imagine Bea Arthur crying?
There are some other bonuses among the tracks. One came to be during the scene in which the Jews are evicted from their longtime homes in Anatevka. A townsperson notes, “We’ve been waiting for the Messiah to come all our lives. Wouldn’t this be a good time for him to come?” When the show played its Detroit tryout, Tevye stepped forward and sang “When Messiah Comes.” The title may suggest a song as reverential in tone and tempo as “Sabbath Prayer,” but Harnick came up with an idea that is brilliant, charming and wry. The song begins, “When Messiah comes, he will say to us, ‘I apologize that I took so long. But I had a little trouble finding you. Over here a few, and over there a few. You were hard to reunite – but everything is going to be all right.’”
It’s a wondrous piece of material, as Harnick’s rendition for the 92nd Street Y’s famous Lyrics & Lyricists series in 1971 conclusively proves. The theatergoers gave Harnick laughs that were so large that he had to pause more than once and wait for them to finish. When we think of showstoppers, we usually picture an enormous production number or a dynamic solo. Nevertheless, we can learn from Harnick’s easy-going performance that a show can be stopped with a more modest song, too.
So if “When Messiah Comes” is so terrific, why didn’t it stay in the show?
Because it came at a time that was deadly serious for the Anatevkans. With everyone piling meager belonging on aged wagons, this was no time for comic relief. But as songs go on their own terms, this one is spectacular.
Harnick also sings another cutout: “How Much Richer Can One Man Be?” a song earmarked for Motel, the poor tailor who’s entitled to some happiness – meaning marrying Tzeitel. It was originally in the spot that’s now occupied by “Miracle of Miracles.”
And thereby hangs a tale. The next time you see Fiddler, note that after Motel celebrates the “Miracle of Miracles,” the lights will black out, and as the techies set up the bedroom for “Tevye’s Dream,” the orchestra will play “Now I Have Everything” to cover the scene change. Now usually in Golden Age musicals when one set makes way for another, the orchestra reprises the song the audience has just heard — so why will a band play a song that wouldn’t be heard until Act Two?
Because “Now I Have Everything” was the second song that Bock and Harnick wrote for Motel. Robbins suggested that the song be reassigned to Perchik, allowing him to rejoice in his betrothal to Hodel, Tevye’s second daughter. That happened as the tryout wended on, but no one bothered to change the scene-shift music.
Solomon tells an amusing story about the genesis of Motel’s third song “Miracle of Miracles.” When Harnick had to write something new for the character, off he went to his hotel room. Once he had the idea of miracles, he went to his nightstand and took out what Lorelei Lee called “that book by Mr. Gideon.” There he found Biblical stories about David and Goliath, Joshua and the Battle of Jericho and Moses’ parting of the Red Sea and incorporated them into his song.
Many of us believe that the Bible has done an astonishing amount of good for a substantial number of people for tens of centuries. But who knew that The Good Book would be A Good Help to A Great Musical?