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.