A Broadway musical about a Jewish shtetl, a Russian pogrom and a poor milkman who talks to God? Sounds crazy, no?
"To us it was simply the next show to do," says Sheldon Harnick, who wrote the lyrics to the show that would become the beloved international classic "Fiddler on the Roof." "We were hoping that if we did our job right, it would run a year or two."
Instead, it ran nearly eight years for 3,242 performances, becoming in its day the longest running musical in Broadway history, spinning off countless productions around the globe, a 1971 hit film and four Broadway revival — with a fifth slated for fall of 2015 directed by Bartlett Sher starring Danny Burstein.
To celebrate the show's 50th anniversary this year, Goodspeed Opera House is producing the show, directed by Rob Ruggiero (Goodspeed's "The Most Happy Fella," "Carousel," "Show Boat") and starring Adam Heller. The show, now in previews, opens Wednesday, July 16.
Putting It Together
In an interview earlier this year from his Central Park West home that he shares with his wife, actress-photographer, Margery Gray, the 90-year-old Harnick talked about the show's beginnings, Broadway's Golden Age and his latest works he hopes to bring to the stage.
Harnick says in the early '60s his writing partner, composer Jerry Bock, and book writer Joseph Stein, considered a novel by Sholem Aleichem, "Wandering Star," as a possible source for a new musical. But it wasn't quite right.
"It's about a theater troupe but to capture the sprawling book it would have to had 40 minor characters on stage and it was just too big," says Harnick. But they loved Aleichem's writing and came across another book of his: a collection of stories, "Tevye and His Daughters."
It took several years to get the right producer (Harold Prince) and director-choreographer (Jerome Robbins). But who to play Tevye, the poor milkman from the 1907 Jewish village of Anatevka, under the rule of the Imperial Russian Tsar, during the eve of a revolution?
"We approached Danny Kaye but his wife turned us down saying he was too young to have marriage-age daughters," says Harnick. Popular singer-comedian Danny Thomas was mentioned as was Tom Bosley, who had the title role in the previous Bock-Harnick hit, "Fiorello!" "Jerry [Bock] and I wanted Howard Da Silva [who was also in 'Fiorello!'] but Jerry [Robbins] said Tevye was a figure who is larger than life and Howard is wonderful but he's life-sized and that's why we should go to Zero [Mostel]."
The show had its out-of-town tryout in Detroit during a newspaper strike but word of mouth spread and by the time it had its second tryout in Washington, D.C., there were lines at the box office. "That's when I started thinking, 'Well, maybe we have something special here,' but it was really Zero's performance that drew people in initially. Eventually, it became about the show."
There were many changes along the way, with many songs cut and added. (Tevye's first number, "What a Life," sung to his horse, was replaced with "If I Were a Rich Man.") During this period Robbins constantly asked his creative team the big-picture question: What is the show about? "There was an 'aha' moment after many meetings," says Harnick, "when one of us said, 'You know what it's about? It's about the changing of a way of life, as enlightenment from the West travels East, it's about tradition.' That excited Robbins and he said, 'That's what it's about — and now we have to tell the audience.' Robbins wanted a song about the change of tradition."
The opening song — "We Never Missed a Sabbath Yet" — was soon changed to the now iconic "Tradition," which introduces the characters of the village of Anatevka to the audience.
When it opened on Broadway, the reviews were mixed. "Water Kerr said, 'Too bad, near miss.' The New York Times said, 'Ah, but what a score if Leonard Bernstein had written it.' Another critic said, 'Why did they have to put a pogrom [a persecution of a minority group] in the story and spoil it?' We had one rave from John Chapman of the Daily News."
"After the show was a success, to my surprise people would say, 'Oh, you guys were so brave [because of the Jewish subject matter].' We never felt brave. We thought here are some gorgeous human, rich, funny stories and they should make a good musical.'"
The 50 years since its opening, has only confirmed to Harnick what the creators of the show set out to do. "When we started working on the show we all agreed that we wanted to emphasize the universal aspects of the show. It was a wise decision," he says, pointing to the global appeal of the show and from diverse audiences.
Learning From Failure
But the Golden Age of the Broadway Musical was winding down in the '60s as popular music and culture took a decidedly different turn.
When Harnick arrived in Manhattan from Chicago a decade earlier, he dreamed of writing lyrics for book musicals and becoming part of the bustling Broadway scene that was very much a part of American musical culture. He began honing his craft writing first for revues ("Boston Beguine' for Alice Ghostly in "New Faces of 1952" was his first break-out success), summer resorts in the Catskills where working fast and furious was the norm and industrials (in-house and expensive entertainments produced for industry and corporate gatherings) that could sustain talent with a good paycheck until the next hit show.
"It was seven or eight years before I had my first book musical," says Harnick. It was 1958's "The Body Beautiful' with Bock and it was a flop. But a young producer, Harold Prince, recognized the musical writing team's talent and hired them for his next show, "Fiorello!" which became a Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning hit the next year.
"Failure is much more important than success," says Harnick. "Failure makes you study what you did. When you're successful you may not know why it was successful. You just accept it."
He didn't have to wait long to do some studying. His next show, "Tenderloin," was struggling in its pre-Broadway run in New Haven. "We went to [director] George Abbot's hotel suite and he said, 'Gentleman, I had a concept for this show and it doesn't work. Anybody got any ideas?' And I thought, 'Don't look at me because up until that time, [as a lyric writer] I had never studied the book, except to try to see where the songs went. I sat there in the room thinking, "This must never happen again.' "
The next show was a loving collaborative effort, "She Loves Me," which is now considered a romantic classic, but was a failure in its day.
"We had endless discussions why it failed because we loved it, our cast loved it and we were never sure why it didn't work. My own theory was that it's caviar and there are too many people who don't care for caviar so we ran out of the theater-loving crowd pretty quickly. One of the reasons why it's become successful since then is because in summer stock, regional theater or community and school productions it never had long runs. The eventual success of that show has been the most gratifying thing — besides 'Fiddler' — that's ever happened to my career."
Despite its poor Broadway box office, a movie version at MGM was planned starring Julie Andrews — Dick Van Dyke's name is also mentioned in some reports — but a change in the film studio's leadership axed the project.
Post-'Fiddler' shows include "The Apple Tree" and :"The Rothschilds" with Bock, who ended the partnership after that show. Harnick says the split began when he took on the additional role of book writer for 'The Apple Tree' and deepened during 'The Rothschilds.' He says their reconciliation began in the '80s with the Goodspeed revivals of "The Apple Tree" and "She Loves Me." Bock died in 2010 at the age of 82, just 10 days after the death of "Fiddler" book writer Stein at the age of 98.
As for Harnick, he is having a wonderful 90th birthday year, he says.
Off-Broadway's York Theatre Company celebrated his career earlier this year in its Musicals in Mufti series with a revue of his songs "A World to Win," followed by new Harnick shows, including several for which he wrote the music: "Dragons," "Malpractice Makes Perfect" and "Smiling, The Boy Fell Dead," as well as a revival of the Broadway musical, "Tenderloin."
Last month, he also received the Goodspeed Award for lifetime achievement in the musical theater.
"Fiddler on the Roof'' is now in previews at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam and runs through Sept. 12. Opening night is July 16. Performances are Wednesdays at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2; and some 6:30 p.m. shows through July 27. There are additional matinees on Tuesdays, July 29, Aug. 12 and 26 at 2 p.m. Additional shows have been added on Sept. 9 and 10 at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Sept. 11 at 2 p.m.; and Sept. 12 at 2 and 8 p.m. Information: www.goodspeed.org and 860-873-8668.