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The seeds for “Fiddler” were planted years before Robbins was born in 1918. Solomon dutifully devotes the first chapters of “Wonder of Wonders” to a lively and thorough enumeration of early attempts to adapt Sholem Aleichem’s works for the American stage, beginning with the moment in 1906 when the author himself arrived in New York with the dream of striking gold in the thriving Yiddish theaters of the Lower East Side.
But Sholem Aleichem would die before finding any real theatrical success, and as late as 1953, when an English-language adaptation of Sholem Aleichem’s stories opened off Broadway (featuring, at the height of the Red Scare, a cast made up entirely of blacklisted actors), Eleanor Roosevelt would still find it necessary to exhort readers of her newspaper column, “Don’t think because it’s about Jews you won’t like it.”
If you open the book (as I did) already humming the sentimental strains of “Sunrise, Sunset,” you might find yourself longing to skip past the intricate backstory to the part where Solomon starts talking about the more immediate origins of the musical.
Enter, then, librettist Joseph Stein, composer Jerry Bock, and lyricist Sheldon Harnick, a trio of Broadway veterans who by 1960 were looking for a follow-up to “Fiorello!,” their Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning 1959 hit. Armed with a single copy of an out of print English translation of Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye stories, they began to sketch out a musical about characters that, as Stein put it, “just happened to be Jewish.”
This is essentially how the three men (and just about everyone else writing for Broadway at the time) viewed themselves; having largely left religious observance and Yiddish behind, they “responded to the identity with the quintessential Jewish gesture: a shrug,” Solomon writes. And yet that distance didn’t stop them from engaging deeply with the stories’ themes and historical implications. One of their proposed names for the work was “Where Poppa Came From.”
Once they had a script, they needed a producer (or two). Hal Prince said he’d consider backing the show only if Jerome Robbins, who’d changed the American musical forever with the vernacular movement and operatic tragedy of 1957’s “West Side Story,” would direct. That might have seemed like a long shot since Robbins repeatedly stated that he “didn’t want to be a Jew,” and at one point wrote that he learned ballet to escape the “wondrous and monstrous” dance steps he feared he’d find by “dig[ging] down to [his] Jew self.”