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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  Book Reviews

 
WONDER OF WONDERS: A CULTURAL HISTORY OF FIDDLER ON THE ROOF

THE ROOTS OF TRADITION
By MATT WINDMAN

  Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof, by Alisa Solomon; Metropolitan Books, 433 pages, $32.

Even if it chronicled only the artistic development of the 1964 Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof, Alisa Solomon’s Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof would make a fine addition to the handful of books that focus only on a single musical, some of which include Ted Chapin’s Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical Follies, Todd Decker’s Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical, Scott Miller’s Let the Sunshine In: The Genius of Hair and Keith Garebian’s The Making of Cabaret. These often turn out to be more insightful than the countless surveys of musical theater history, which are often broad and superficial.  

Solomon’s all-encompassing, extremely well-researched book goes above and beyond the making of the musical itself to explore the life and works of Yiddish short story writer Sholem Aleichem, the initial dramatic adaptations of his stories, the musical’s long afterlife following its initial Broadway run and, most significantly, what Fiddler means and stands for to both Jews and non-Jews.

In terms of musical theater, Fiddler represents both the end of the Rodgers and Hammerstein era of neatly integrated musicals and the start of the experimental concept musicals spearheaded by Harold Prince, artfully combining a culturally specific milieu with universal themes. But to American Jews, Fiddler has become a precious cultural and religious artifact paying tribute to their Eastern European ancestors and the shtetl culture. For non-Jews in Middle America, Fiddler may be their only exposure to traditional Judaism or Jews period.

Having grown up in a Jewish household in the 1990s, I can certainly attest to the pervasive influence and presence of Fiddler. Attending Hebrew School in the 1990s, songs from Fiddler such as “Sabbath Prayer” and “L’Chaim! (To Life!)” were taught with the same frequency as Hebrew prayers, and usually with more success. As a senior in high school, I directed children in one of the first productions of Music Theatre International’s Fiddler on the Roof, Jr. Tevye was a figure to look up, for his humanity and, in the words of librettist Joseph Stein, his “constant to devotion to God.” His refusal to condone his daughter Chava’s interfaith marriage was a stern warning to us as we hit puberty and started dating. As if to prove its effect over my life, at my wedding, I insisted that “Sunrise, Sunset” be played during the ceremony.

On a recent visit to a synagogue, I thought to myself how Fiddler makes me feel more connected to Judaism than a High Holiday service. According to Solomon, Hal Prince, responding to criticism over the fact that the original Broadway production would offer performances during the High Holidays, claimed that Fiddler was doing more good for the perception of Jews than the rabbis were. While remaining objective on the whole, it is clear that Solomon is someone who grew up, like many of us, listening to the cast album, watching the film and seeing local theater companies performing the show.

Solomon explores Jerome Robbins’ conflicted feelings towards his Jewish heritage, recalling how he spent time as a child at his grandfather’s shtetl in Poland and later tried to revisit it, only to find that it had been wiped off the face of post-Holocaust Europe, and was embarrassed by what he felt was the weak, emasculated presence of the Jewish male. While attending Orthodox weddings in Brooklyn, a form of research for Fiddler, he was amazed by the physical prowess and jubilant spirit of the men on the dance floor, thus inspiring the wild dancing of the wedding sequence at the end of Act One.

Many of the facts surrounding the production process of Fiddler are well-known, such as Robbins insistently asking the authors what the show was about, which led to them writing the opening number “Tradition,” and Zero Mostel’s unending hatred and deriding of Robbins for testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee. There is also the anecdote of the Japanese director who remarked how Fiddler was “so Japanese.” Yet Solomon goes beyond the familiar to extensively explore the show’s growth in meticulous detail using written documentation and interviews. She also recalls how Fiddler was not welcomed with open arms in the beginning, especially by devotees of Sholem Aleichem opposed the idea of turning his Tevye stories into a mainstream, commercialized musical.

Solomon goes into great detail as to a middle school production performed in Brownsville, Brooklyn by African-American students in the 1960s, which became a lightning rod for controversy, and a recent staging in Poland. Strangely, she devotes little space to the 2004 Broadway revival with Alfred Molina. She is surprisingly reverential towards Norman Jewison’s film version and admiring of its realism. You also get the sense that she prefers Topol’s Tevye over Mostel’s, although she acknowledges how Topol turned into a prima donna during later revivals.

But these are minor quibbles. Solomon’s book does exactly what it should: take the reader deep into the world of the musical and leave the reader with a greater appreciation for it and eager to see a new production of it. Speaking of which, isn’t it time for a major new production, one that can make up for David Leveaux’s disappointing revival from a decade ago? Seeing as next year marks the show’s 50th anniversary, I wouldn’t be surprised if one turns up.  

 


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