Half a century of sunrises and sunsets have passed since Fiddler on the Roof opened. It’s still playing to full houses somewhere, and theater journalist Isenberg (Conversations with Frank Gehry, 2009, etc.) expounds happily on why it remains such a satisfactory hit for all audiences.
Who would expect a big Broadway musical about poor shtetl Jews to become such a big hit? Yet Fiddler, based on stories set in Czarist Russia by the popular Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, broke box office records. As Isenberg writes, many talented professionals contributed to its success. Playwright Joseph Stein kept writing and revising the book. Where producer Harold Prince found investors isn’t revealed, but the author notes how the show got its name, which reminded theatergoers that there would be music. Lyricist Sheldon Harnick and composer Jerry Bock wrote dozens of tunes and lyrics, but less than a third made it to opening night. The author also examines the casting process: For the lead role of Tevye, would they cast Rod Steiger? Walter Matthau? The star, of course, was a mad comic genius, the egocentric Zero Mostel, who loathed the difficult directorial genius, equally egocentric Jerome Robbins. The director didn’t like being Jewish and had to research appropriate customs. Despite indifferent opening reviews, Fiddler was an evergreen blockbuster, tugging on heartstrings across the world over thousands of road shows, community theaters and high schools. The popular 1971 film, under the guidance of Norman Jewison (not Jewish), starring Israeli actor Chaim Topol, with Isaac Stern fiddling, carried Fiddler’s reputation still further. For many of a certain age, the musical’s score is ingrained, part of the DNA.
Isenberg’s readable, straightforward history—less a critical analysis than Alisa Solomon’s Wonder of Wonders (2013), which covers the same territory—is, with just an expedient hint of schmaltz, a loving tribute to a cultural phenomenon.
Noted jazz and pop record producer Thiele offers a chatty autobiography. Aided by record-business colleague Golden, Thiele traces his career from his start as a ``pubescent, novice jazz record producer'' in the 1940s through the '50s, when he headed Coral, Dot, and Roulette Records, and the '60s, when he worked for ABC and ran the famous Impulse! jazz label. At Coral, Thiele championed the work of ``hillbilly'' singer Buddy Holly, although the only sessions he produced with Holly were marred by saccharine strings. The producer specialized in more mainstream popsters like the irrepressibly perky Teresa Brewer (who later became his fourth wife) and the bubble-machine muzak-meister Lawrence Welk. At Dot, Thiele was instrumental in recording Jack Kerouac's famous beat- generation ramblings to jazz accompaniment (recordings that Dot's president found ``pornographic''), while also overseeing a steady stream of pop hits. He then moved to the Mafia-controlled Roulette label, where he observed the ``silk-suited, pinky-ringed'' entourage who frequented the label's offices. Incredibly, however, Thiele remembers the famously hard-nosed Morris Levy, who ran the label and was eventually convicted of extortion, as ``one of the kindest, most warm-hearted, and classiest music men I have ever known.'' At ABC/Impulse!, Thiele oversaw the classic recordings of John Coltrane, although he is the first to admit that Coltrane essentially produced his own sessions. Like many producers of the day, Thiele participated in the ownership of publishing rights to some of the songs he recorded; he makes no apology for this practice, which he calls ``entirely appropriate and without any ethical conflicts.'' A pleasant, if not exactly riveting, memoir that will be of most interest to those with a thirst for cocktail-hour stories of the record biz. (25 halftones, not seen)
Privately published by Strunk of Cornell in 1918 and revised by his student E. B. White in 1959, that "little book" is back again with more White updatings.
Stricter than, say, Bergen Evans or W3 ("disinterested" means impartial — period), Strunk is in the last analysis (whoops — "A bankrupt expression") a unique guide (which means "without like or equal").