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Robbins was still tinkering with it as late as two weeks before “Fiddler” opened on Broadway on Sept. 22, 1964. At last, obsessed by something he’d seen done by a Brooklyn Hasid he’d nicknamed “Mr. Redbeard,” he called a dozen male dancers into the studio to learn to bounce, twist and sway in ever more difficult “whips and hooks” — all with bottles balanced atop their heads.
Robbins didn’t allow stage illusions, so each night’s performance of the flashen-tantz was to carry a real risk of injury from shattered glass. (Today’s Amazing Bottle Dancers, to put it delicately, leave a good bit less to chance.) By injecting an element of danger into the dance, Solomon writes, Robbins both countered the chilling post-Holocaust stereotype of “weak, effeminate male Jews” and converted Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding into a genuine showstopper.
On opening night, the show’s creators exchanged gifts: Stein bought Harnick a mezuza, and Robbins received a shofar and a white silk yarmulke. Clearly, working on “Fiddler” had changed the four men, deepening their Jewish identification, and it had affected Robbins the most. “Making ‘Fiddler,’” Solomon writes, “Robbins reclaimed that discarded part of himself and, in so doing, returned it, in a glittering package, to those audience members who also had left it behind.”
The gesture was received with breathless enthusiasm by many Jewish spectators of the initial Broadway run, some of whom even wrote in to describe how much Anatevka reminded them of other little Polish and Russian towns they’d known, or else to offer gentle historical “corrections” to details that didn’t quite match up to their memories.
In light of these early fan responses, it’s ironic that critics of “Fiddler” became similarly obsessed with historical accuracy, panning the show’s depiction of “the cutest shtetl we never had,” as Irving Howe famously put it. Solomon responds with an argument that’s as obvious as it is elegant. “No one looks for documentary realism in the New York City of ‘Guys and Dolls’ or ‘West Side Story,’” she writes.