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In the fall of 1960, a friend sent lyricist Sheldon Harnick a copy of Sholem Aleichem's 1909 novel Wandering Stars, with the notion it might make a good musical. Harnick read the book, agreed, and sent it along to his longtime collaborator, composer Jerry Bock. The two men had written the scores for Pulitzer Prize–winner Fiorello! and the musical Tenderloin and were looking for a new project.
Bock was also intrigued by Wandering Stars, the sprawling tale of a traveling Yiddish theater company. So the two men took the idea to playwright Joseph Stein, with whom they'd first worked on the 1958 musical The Body Beautiful.
"I loved it," Harnick recalled. "I thought, Ooh, this is a musical, and when I gave it to Jerry, he said, ‘Ooh, this is a musical.' So we gave it to Joe who said, ‘Ooh, this is not a musical.' He said it was just too big a canvas; it would be too hard to reduce it to the stage and have it still be effective."
Body Beautiful, a musical about prizefighting, hadn't worked out, but Stein did like the idea of working with Bock and Harnick again. Since he, too, was ready for his next project, Stein came up with another idea. Wandering Stars reminded him of Aleichem's stories of Tevye the milkman, which his Poland-born father had read to him in Yiddish when he was a boy and which he thought had better odds as a musical.
Aleichem's Tevye stories pivot around the worries and wisdom of dairyman Tevye in a poor Russian village, or shtetl, where he is blessed with a skeptical wife and many daughters to marry off. In the closing years of Tzarist Russia, amid pogroms and poverty, the irrepressible, Bible-quoting Tevye deals with the untraditional courtships of his "modern" children and simultaneously confronts the political and social changes that threaten his beliefs, community, and traditions.
An incredibly popular writer first in his native Russia, then around the world, Aleichem wrote about three hundred short stories, five novels, and several plays. Born Solomon Rabinowitz, the writer used the pen name Sholem Aleichem, which translates as "peace be with you," and was revered as, among other things, "the Jewish Mark Twain." When Aleichem came to New York, Mark Twain reportedly said to him, "I wanted to meet you because I understand that I am the American Sholem Aleichem."
Few writers were as celebrated in their time as Aleichem, whose funeral in 1916 attracted more than a hundred thousand mourners and included a processional that ran through three New York boroughs. But forty-five years later, Stein had trouble finding English translations of Aleichem's short stories, which he finally came upon in O'Malley's Bookstore and passed along to his collaborators.
Bock, Harnick, and Stein all said that the more they read the Tevye stories and talked about the material, the more excited they became. "The writing struck a resonant tone with us, and we decided to have a go at it," Bock said. "I'm not being modest. We had no idea what would happen to this project. We would do this show, and if it works out, we'd do another. What was special about it was our personal connection to the material.
"I began to hear the music as I read the stories and remembered the lullabies and little melodies my grandmother would sing to me. It was almost as if I recognized and knew these people spiritually. For all of us, the people in the stories brought back early memories of our own families, and we felt confident about plunging into the material."
The "boys," as writers on musicals were often addressed, discussed their project fairly casually at first, then had their first formal meeting in March 1961 to discuss what was then called Tevye. And as they did, Bock took notes, writing down dates and progress in a small, black notebook he called "Tevye diary (beginnings)." By mid-July, he wrote, they had all read the Tevye stories and met a few times. Stein had sketched out a rough outline of the show, and they had begun negotiating with Crown Publishers for the rights.
Proceeding without a producer, they invested not just their time but also their money in getting those rights. "Everything else that we had done had been an assignment or a commission from a producer," said Harnick. "This one we decided to do."
Given their Broadway credits, they all felt it was a calculated risk. "We weren't novices," Stein said. "At that time, all of us were fairly well known in the theater."
Stein, for instance, was still employed as a social worker in 1942 when he met actor Zero Mostel, who gave him his first writing assignment—for fifteen dollars a week. Soon a prominent comedy writer, Stein was an alumnus of Sid Caesar's fabled Your Show of Shows, which also nurtured such talents as Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Imogene Coca, Larry Gelbart, Woody Allen, Mel Tolkin, and others. His first Broadway musical, the 1955 Plain and Fancy, about the Amish of Pennsylvania, was very successful, and there were several more before and after Tevye.
Bock, also a Caesar alum, had worked with Stein on the Sammy Davis Jr. vehicle Mr. Wonderful. Before they were introduced by their mutual friend, the actor Jack Cassidy, Bock and Harnick had also independently written assorted songs for Broadway and off-Broadway revues. The two men were brought together to form a songwriting team in 1957 by the music publisher Tommy Valando, and Body Beautiful was their first joint show. Body Beautiful ran just six weeks on Broadway—Harnick quips it would have run seven but there was a blizzard—but its score impressed the producer Harold Prince and led indirectly to their award-winning Fiorello! assignment a short time later.
In his outline for Tevye, Stein worked at turning nineteenth-century stories, written in Yiddish, into something relevant to an English-speaking, twentieth-century theatrical audience. The playwright worried that what might be "amusing" to Aleichem's audience "would be bewildering to ours; what was moving in Yiddish could become oversentimental, even melodramatic." His task: "to remain true to the spirit, the feeling of Sholem Aleichem and … tell the story of Tevye, his family, and his community in terms which would have meaning for today."
The shtetls of Aleichem's stories also reflected their time and place. Russian Jews had long struggled for survival, anti-Semitism was rampant, and pogroms were becoming more common. The situation worsened with the 1881 assassination of Alexander II, and between 1881 and 1914, almost three million Jews left Russia, most of them headed for the United States.
Adapting that world for the stage was one challenge after another. "They were isolated tales only connected to each other by the central character of Tevye," Stein has said. "So, it was a matter of constructing a total storyline—deciding which tales to use, what aspects of them to use, which characters to use.… The stories were monologues, written as Tevye saying, ‘Let me tell you about what happened to my daughter. You won't believe it.'"
God is an offstage character in Aleichem's stories, and Stein made the most of that. "I don't talk to God, but I did feel the Tevye character would be clearer if he chatted with his best friend, who happened to be God," Stein said. "It's a friendship, like I have with my brother."
Stein was able to use many of the same characters who populated Aleichem's stories as well as several incidents. He honed in on Aleichem's three oldest daughters, Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava, and their suitors, with the two youngest daughters relegated to the background and two other daughters with sadder stories discarded entirely. As proven by William Shakespeare's King Lear, Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters, and, much later, Julian Fellowes's Downton Abbey, the three-sister setup works well.
The playwright found that little of Aleichem's dialogue was usable, and he also had to beef up his central character of Tevye as the "moving force" in the plot. To give the story more contemporary meaning, he accentuated what he characterized as the "hostility, violence, and injustice" of the time and the way the people of Anatevka harnessed their "internal strength, dignity, humor, and … unique talent for survival" to deal with it.
The book writers, or librettists, on musicals are often underappreciated, and Harnick felt Stein was among them. Said Harnick, "Some of the critics praised him, but others said he had such an easy job—all he had to do was to quote the stories. But there were very few lines that he could use. There were some. But I would say that ninety-five percent of the show, he had to invent. It was all Joe Stein."
While Stein worked on his outline, Bock and Harnick turned to the score. They began their work on September 11, 1961, which fell that year on Rosh Hashanah, the start of the most sacred of Jewish seasons. The score moved relatively quickly, and within eight weeks, they were already starting their fourth song.
Bock and Harnick had a distinctive way of writing musical scores, explained Bock's friend and lawyer, Richard Ticktin. To start their songs, each would go off to work on his own, then send the other some suggestions. Bock might send Harnick tapes with "snippets of musical moments" or Harnick might send Bock "some lyric moments" he'd written up. Then they would mold their songs together.
The first song they tackled was for Tevye's dream, a dream the patriarch creates to persuade his wife, Golde, to let their eldest daughter, Tzeitel, marry the poor tailor, Motel Kamzoil, rather than the rich butcher, Lazar Wolf. It was a song they felt would stay in the show for plot purposes no matter what changes Stein made to the book.
The dream song did remain in the show, but the next two—"I'll Work for Tomorrow Today" and "A Butcher's Soul"—did not. Then, in November, Harnick received a tape of music Bock felt had "that authentic, folk Russian feel." It was, the composer admitted, "unashamedly sentimental."
It was the music for "Sunrise, Sunset" and, remembered Harnick, "as I continued to listen to it, the words just crystallized automatically. Jerry lived in New Rochelle and when we finished, we called his wife, Patti, down to the basement, and we played it for her. At the end, I looked at her, and she was crying. Then, a while later, I was in Bethesda, Maryland, where my sister lived, and when I played it for her, she was crying. I thought, ‘We have something here.'"
Around that time, Bock invited Ticktin over to hear it as well. Again they went down to the upright piano in Bock's basement. "I was the only other person in the room and I was reduced to tears," Ticktin remembered. "I said to myself, This is an extraordinary moment. If the book and the direction turn out as well, this was going to be an enormous event."
Fueled by such reaction, Bock and Harnick turned out song after song, some used in the final show but most not, their lyrics all indexed and kept in a thick, three-hole binder at Harnick's home on New York's Upper West Side. Among them were "Sabbath Prayer," the celebratory "To Life" and something called "Poppa, Help Me," which Harnick recently said even he doesn't remember. Flipping pages, Harnick called out to a visitor long-forgotten titles: "‘Promise Me,' ‘The Story of Jacob,' ‘Baby Birds,' ‘Brand New World' … Now, here's an interesting title: ‘Why Jew, Why Gentile?'" He laughed heartily at that one.
To inform all those lyrics, Harnick read not just Aleichem but the Bible and books on Jewish, Russian, and European history. Very helpful was the interview-based 1952 book Life Is with People: The Culture of the Shtetl, which described such traditions as Sabbath meals and rituals, weddings, and prayers. In her foreword to the book, Margaret Mead introduced an "anthropological study of a culture which no longer exists," and that study was clearly useful to the Tevye team.
"When we read those accounts, it really filled in what was missing from Sholem Aleichem," said Harnick, whose parents were both born in Eastern Europe. "For me, the book brought back memories of the little synagogue I attended in Chicago, and I'd picture those gaunt elderly men in their shawls praying."
But their most useful source was clearly Aleichem. "It almost embarrasses me that when people read Sholem Aleichem, they see where I got the lyrics for ‘If I Were a Rich Man,'" Harnick told a packed audience at New York's Lincoln Center in 2011. "I'm very smart. I know where to take from."
Bock, however, has said he didn't really feel the need to research klezmer or even Russian music of that period. Instead, unexpectedly, "the music that I hadn't been able to write with all our shows was something that I had silently deposited in my creative mind, and the opportunity to now express myself with that kind of music just opened up a flood of possibilities for me.
"I felt if we had to write fifty more songs, they were still inside me," said Bock. "I felt I had tapped a source that would not run dry, and I think that came from having nourished it without being able to express it all my life."
The final play script of Fiddler on the Roof is dedicated "to our Fathers." As the show's producer Harold Prince said several years later, Fiddler was "clearly conceived" by Stein, Bock, and Harnick "as a kind of valentine to their grandparents." For Prince, their "celebration of what they came from is present throughout the creation of the musical."
Copyright © 2014 by Barbara Isenberg