L’Chaim! It’s time to wish we were a rich man and head to Imperial Russia and join the Fiddler on the Roof. This classic 1964 musical is the performance chosen for this week’s Encore. This show gave us Tevye, the basis of a Gwen Stefani song, and the genius of Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics. Let’s break down this iconic piece of musical theater and the influence it has had on the American musical theatre.
Episode 3: Fiddler on the Roof
Book: Joseph Stein
Music & Lyrics: Jerry Bock & Sheldon Harnick, respectively
Based on: Tevye and His Daughters by Sholem Aleichem
Broadway Premiere: September 22, 1964 at the Imperial Theatre
But, like, any Tony Awards?: 10 Nominations, won 9, including Best Musical
Best Song, as decided by me alone: “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” obvi!
The stories, by Sholem Aleichem, were written between 1894 and 1914 in Yiddish. They followed life for a Jewish village in rural Imperial Russia. The stories were turned into a Yiddish play in 1919, a film in the 1930s, and a musical with the same name as the book in the 1950s.
The show was produced by Harold Prince and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, two of the most influential theatrical voices in history. Jerome Robbins had previously worked on West Side Story as choreographer and director to great acclaim (soon to be a 20th Century Fox film), while Hal Prince had already produced an abundance of hits, like She Loves Me, Damn Yankees, and The Pajama Game.
The show had some controversy around its inception, with some saying it wasn’t Jewish enough and others arguing it was too Jewish to succeed. In the end, the show took the right balance, changing key parts of the original stories to create a more hopeful, but still devastating, portrayal of this community in Imperial Russia.
The show’s success if palpable to this day. The show premiered in September of 1964 to great acclaim and critical success. The show picked up 9 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Director, and Leading Actor and Actress awards. In 1967, the show transferred to the Majestic Theatre, and in 1970, it moved again to the Broadway Theatre. The show ran for 3,242 performances, closing in 1972. Famous performers during the show’s initial run including future Disney legends Bea Arthur and Bette Midler.
The film adaptation was also quite successful, released in 1971 starring the original Tevye from Broadway, Zero Mostel, and was nominated for eight Academy Awards, picking up three.
The show has had 5 subsequent revivals, the most recent running for over a year from 2015-2016 at the Broadway Theatre. It is currently touring the country (and has a great cast album, if I do say so myself!)
Not a lot of Disney connections this week, other than the aforementioned ones. However, Fiddler really helped show the power of dramatic storytelling through song. Without Fiddler, who knows if we would’ve received Disney shows like Aida or The Hunchback of Notre Dame. We are forever indebted Bock and Harnick!