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The Schmooze

‘Tradition!’ Behind the Curtain of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’

With “Fiddler On the Roof** about-to-open in a new production at The Broadway Theatre, I met with behind-the-scenes writer Barbara Isenberg whose must-read book “Tradition” is at times akin to Page Six exposes of “Fiddler” history. With conversations starting in New York and ending in California, her positioning of “’Fiddler” is of coming of age in the ‘60’s amid great social upheaval—questioning of traditional American values, the Civil Rights movement, Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” the Cuban missile crisis and JFK’s assassination. “‘Fiddler’s strong family theme of tradition, repression, prejudice and diaspora continues to evoke common ground for its audiences wherever they are.”

“It took me three years to write the book. Jerome Robbins wasn’t alive… nor was [first Tevye] Mostel, but fortunately Robbins never met a piece of paper that he did not want to save… There are his fabulous notes about ‘Fiddler.’” How early in 1964 Robbins invited several people to hear the “Fiddler” score. Bock was at the piano and with Harnick, they sang what they had written so far—including their brand new opening number “Tradition!” which elicited tears from one of the actors present.

Chatting about Norman Jewison — whose iconic film “Fiddler” continues to thrill worldwide audiences — brought back the memory of the private book party in 2005 for Jewison’s book “This Terrible Business Has Been Good To Me” [which he inscribed “To Masha Mazel Tov! Stay Healthy & Strong”]. Guests included “Fiddler” lyricist Sheldon Harnick and his wife Margie.

“For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a Jew” Jewison told the bemused guests. “When I was six, I started going to the Kenilworth [Toronto] Synagogue… wore my yarmulke proudly, carried on being Jewish until [found out]… When [“Fiddler”] premiered in Jerusalem, “Golda Meir arrived in a Chevy Impala surrounded by bodyguards — teenage Sabra warriors. She sat with [film star Tevye] Topol during the first half and the second half with me. In the scene where they leave Anatevka, she reached over, squeezed my hand, brushed away a tear.” Isenberg said: “Jewison took more care because he wasn’t’ Jewish. He felt the responsibility.”

Re Isenberg’s mention of [theatrical lawyer extraordinaire] Floria Lasky, I told her I’d met Lasky — among others — at Marty Richards’ Red Ball and at the Broadway opening night party for [2005] “Fiddler.” Whenever she arrived, she was greeted like royalty!” Isenberg smiled: “She protected Robbins. Her name was on every note of Robbin’s paper — ‘cc: FL’”

Reflecting on “the boys” — as writers on musicals were then often addressed — Isenberg details their first ‘Fiddler’ meeting in March 1961 for a musical to be called ‘Tevye.’ Stein had sketched out a rough outline of the show, began negotiation with Crown Publishers for the rights. Stein worked at turning 19th century stories written in Yiddish into something relevant to an English-speaking 20th century audience.” Successful in 120 countries in different languages, at a 2004 “Fiddler” revival get-together with then “Fiddler” cast members, Harnick recalled: “Robbins—whose family name, like that of Sholem Aleichem — was Rabinowitz — had been taken by his parents to Poland at 6 — a vivid emotional memory.”

“Raising money for the [1964] production was a challenge and Hal Prince helped. Most theater parties are headed by women…[whose reaction was] ‘The first act ends with a pogrom! The second with exile!. This is a musical?” Bock exclaimed: “Over 100 countries have taken the show as their own!”

As a postscript, Isenberg told me: “When I give a talk, I suggest the video of [“Hamilton” star] Lin- Manuel Miranda who modeled his own wedding on “Fiddler.” It’s a new ‘L’ Chayim!’ to the ongoing story of “Fiddler On The Roof”!


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