Wonder of Wonders
By Alisa Solomon
Metropolitan Books, 448 pages, $32
Those searching for razzle-dazzle bar mitzvah entertainment need look no further than the Amazing Bottle Dancers, a group of athletic young men who’ll burst into your special event, hoist the guest of honor up onto a chair, perform the suspenseful “bottle dance” from the wedding scene in “Fiddler on the Roof,” and then, for a grand finale, lead the whole crowd in a rollicking 45-minute hora.
These enterprising dancers, with their pasted-on peyes and beards, are easy targets for “Fiddler” detractors of all types — from those who lament that whole generations seem to have gleaned everything they know about Jewish religious practice from show tunes like “Sabbath Prayer” and “Tradition,” to Yiddishists who view the musical’s plot as a bastardization of Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye stories.
Theater critic Alisa Solomon can’t resist her own subtle dig at the entertainers she describes as “fake Hasidim for hire” in “Wonder of Wonders,” her exhaustive new cultural history of the show.
But lambasting “Fiddler”-themed kitsch is otherwise of little interest to Solomon, who wisely avoids assigning credit or blame for the musical’s cultural spin-offs to its creators, who no more could have anticipated ceramic Tevye music boxes and Anatevka-shaped mezuza covers than they could have predicted that figures as diverse as Glenn Beck and Occupy Wall Street protestors would one day borrow from the show to advance their agendas.
“Wonder of Wonders” offers a particularly thoughtful analysis of how “Fiddler” — a midcentury showbiz creation — has achieved something like folklore status in the American imagination, and grapples, as any history of this musical must, with fundamental questions about Jewish identity.
Yet Solomon is right to describe her account as first and foremost a “story about theater, the making of it and the meanings that come from the messy and marvelous collaborations that are its essence.” If the Amazing Bottle Dancers’ routine gets under her skin, it’s because she views it as a betrayal not of Sholem Aleichem but of Jerome Robbins, the director and choreographer who sweated and fretted over the original “bottle dance” — and who emerges as the hero of her tale.