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Musical of the Month

Musical of the Month: Fiddler on the Roof

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Zero Mostel in Fiddler on the Roof.
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In the following blog post, Columbia University's Alisa Solomon examines three typescripts of Fiddler on the Roof  that can be studied at the Library for the Performing Arts.  Solomon's excellent book, Wonder of Wonders:  A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof, is available to borrow both as an ebook and in print from New York Public Library.

“Move! March you foolish animal!” If that had been the first line of the musical by Joe Stein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick that opened on September 22, 1964, we probably wouldn’t be celebrating the 50th anniversary of Fiddler on the Roof this month nor looking forward to a new Broadway revival in 2015, along with countless regional, school, and community productions around the world continuing for many more years to come. 

But that was, indeed, the start of Stein’s first stab at adapting Sholem-Aleichem’s Yiddish short stories about Tevye the Dairyman for the Broadway stage: a folksy monologue in which Tevye tells the audience about his life, his family, and his “stubborn animal.” Reading through this draft would be a heartening exercise for any aspiring playwright—or writer of any kind—as one can see a master of the form struggling to find dramatic action and a thematic center in this initial pass. Thanks to the NYPL’s holdings—papers of these three authors along with those of producer Hal Prince, designers Boris Aronson and Patricia Zipprodt, star Zero Mostel, and the voluminous archive of director/choreographer Jerome—one can trace the development of the show from a variety of standpoints. I spent a couple of happy years camped out in Special Collections doing just that. The three scripts digitized here show the primary shifts in the show’s contours as it made its three-year journey to the stage. 

The source material—nine stories Sholem-Aleichem wrote between 1894 and 1915—presented some tough challenges. Which of romances of the five daughters should Bock, Harnick, and Stein focus on? (They chose three, leaving aside the one about Shprintze, who drowns herself when her rich suitor is torn away from her by his family, and the one about Bielke, who marries the boor her father encouraged and was miserable.) How could they capture the tragic upheaval in Tevye’s world and still satisfy the upbeat demands of the Broadway musical form? (A key solution was bringing Tevye and his family to America at the end of the show, instead of leaving him wandering, widowed, bereft, and confused, as Sholem-Aleichem did.) Trickiest of all, how would Stein translate the layered irony in the original prose—the drama that lies in the way Tevye recounts his experiences rather than in those experiences themselves?

Bock, Harnick, and Stein had taken up the project out of a desire to work together. They’d enjoyed their collaboration on The Body Beautiful, even though the 1958 boxing musical about an upper-class gentleman with a fierce uppercut, had run only some seven weeks. A year later, the music-and-lyrics duo was riding high on the enormous success of Fiorello!. They were ready to develop their own show rather than be hired on by a producer with a property already in hand, as they’d done up to that point. A friend had sent Harnick a copy of Sholem-Aleichem’s picaresque novel, Wandering Stars, which follows the paths of two young lovers, separated when they run away from their shtetl to pursue the stage, one becoming a heartthrob star of the Yiddish theater, the other a diva in European opera houses, eventually coming to America. Stein saw right away that its dozens of characters, double plot line, and numerous locations made it too unwieldy to adapt into a musical. But reading it reminded him of the Sholem-Aleichem stories his Yiddish-speaking father had loved to read. The team turned to Tevye.

They met through the summer of 1961 to draw up an outline and to share ideas from their background reading. A gem of a find in Bock’s papers—a palm-sized calendar book with the dates printed in French—notes in the composer’s looped ballpoint scrawl that on August 15, “Joe is starting book.” Just a couple of months later, Stein delivered the October 17, 1961 draft, titled “The Old Country”—the same name as the volume of Sholem-Aleichem stories translated by Frances and Julius Butwin that the trio had been working from. The script is full of surprises: material later discarded, like the wedding of Hodel and Perchik, and a lengthy scene featuring “a letter from America” (around which Bock and Harnick wrote a song). It also presents first takes on some core elements that resolutely stayed in: Yente’s nattering news of a match for Tzeitel, the book-lending courtship between Fyedka and Chava (here called Leah), the first-act curtain-closing pogrom.

On October 27, Bock notes: “I brought to Joe a written critique of the book thus far as felt by Shel & I plus a newly organized outline for the show—He will digest it and meet with us . . .”

That critique bit hard. Bock and Harnick complained of the draft’s “pure, unadulterated exposition” and decried how it missed organic comic opportunities that grew out of the action and, instead, gave one-liners to the daughters that “don’t begin to reveal them as people.” 

Stein went back to his typewriter. Two-and-a-half months later, he handed over a new draft, now called “Tevye,” that was both more tender and more robust. And now it had an Act Two.

Meanwhile, Bock and Harnick were writing the score. By January 1962, they had already generated what would become some of the iconic tunes of the Broadway stage: “To Life,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” and “Sabbath Prayer,” among others. And for every one of those songs that lasted, they wrote at least two more that were jettisoned along the way. In this draft, the most significant was the new opening number, “We’ve Never Missed a Sabbath Yet,” in which Golde and her daughters race to finish their chores before sundown.  The concept and even some of the lyrics reflect the research the authors had been doing: it alludes to Sabbath preparation descriptions in the (problematic) 1952 ethnography of the shtetl, Life is with People. And Stein’s script bears marks of Maurice Samuel’s strange 1943 literary hodgepodge, The World of Sholem Aleichem.

The new draft now had a long scene, drawn directly from the Sholem-Aleichem stories, in which Tevye searches for Chava at the home of the local priest, and then melts down in the forest, wondering (in song) why God created both Gentiles and Jews. (This episode stayed in the show through performances in the first try-out city, Detroit; in the lengthy, expressionistic extravaganza, which included a forest ballet, Zero Mostel, as Tevye, wrung himself out before the audience’s eyes.) The January script also added the simple, emotional scene in which Tevye sits at the train station with Hodel as she is about to depart for Siberia. (I get choked up just reading it.)

By now, Bock, Harnick and Stein were searching hard for a producer and, as followers of Fiddler lore well know, many the team approached turned the project down, concerned it was was “too Jewish.” Most significant was the initial reaction of Hal Prince, who wrote to Bock after reading the script, saying he found it “so languid.” He urged the authors to ask Jerry Robbins to direct. Robbins, he insisted, could find the metaphor that would raise “Tevye” from “an ethnic folk tale” to “larger things.”

It took a while, but Robbins eventually signed on—and as a result, so did Prince. 

The performance script—the last document linked here—shows the brilliant result of the collaboration, though not the grueling labor through which it was achieved: frequent script meetings in the winter and spring of 1964, demanding rehearsals in New York and exhausting tryouts in Detroit and Washington, DC that summer, where tempers flared, scenes condensed, songs came and went, actors broke down and rose up. By the triumphant opening in September, the show Robbins insisted was “not a ‘musical’” in any conventional sense and “must not be thought of as ‘Bway,’” featured an opening number that set up a profound dramatic theme that would shape the unfolding action of the show, “Tradition.” And the marquee at the Imperial Theater bore an indelible title, Fiddler on the Roof.

Sounds crazy, no?

A note on the text(s):

All of the archival images below are made available through the kind permission of the rights holders for research use only. You may not repost or otherwise publish the images below without permission from the rights holders. If you are interested in staging a production of Fiddler on the Roof, please contact Music Theatre International.

Draft 1961: Jerry Bock Collection  JPB 02-10 Box 21: Folder 1

Draft 1962: Jerry Bock Collection  JPB 02-10 Box 21: Folder 1

Opening Night Libretto: Zero and Kate Mostel Papers: 1915-1986   *T-MSS-1993-007 Box 11: Folder 4

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