Commentary Magazine

Up on the Roof

The history of the Broadway musical in the 20th century is also a not-so-secret history of the parallel project of Jewish assimilation in America. Nearly all the best-remembered golden-age musicals were written in whole or part by first- and second-generation Jewish immigrants, but scarcely any of them had explicitly Jewish subject matter—or, in most cases, recognizably Jewish characters. Their creators, most notably Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, preferred to write deracinated, determinedly optimistic fables of the American dream in action. When they had a recognizably Jewish stereotypical character—like the comic con-man itinerant peddler in Oklahoma!—they pretended he was an Arab named Ali Hakim.

Here and there Jewish-themed musicals were produced—a summer-camp show called Wish You Were Here, a Garment Center show called I Can Get It for You Wholesale, and an account of the founding of the state of Israel called Milk and Honey. But it would take until 1964 for Fiddler on the Roof to offer a full-length portrait of the Jewish experience on the musical stage. Fiddler was the last of the “classic” musicals, and it became one of Broadway’s most enduring success stories. The original production, which starred Zero Mostel and was directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, won nine Tony Awards and ran for 3,242 performances, a record that would not be broken until Grease surpassed it in 1979. The movie version was the most financially successful film of 1971, and its enduring popularity has much to do with the fact that the show has been continually produced around the world for the past 40 years.

That said, many prominent Jews of the day looked askance at Fiddler, regarding it as a gross vulgarization of the much admired stories by Sholom Aleichem on which the show is based. Within months of its opening, the critic and Yiddishist Irving Howe pilloried it in Commentary:

Anatevka in Fiddler on the Roof is the cutest shtetl we’ve never had. Irresistible bait for the nostalgia-smitten audience, this charming little shtetl…bursts with quaintness and local color, and the condescension that usually goes along.

Howe’s fiercely negative response had no effect on its continuing popularity. Indeed, Fiddler has long since supplanted Sholom Aleichem’s stories. Tevye, the poor Russian milkman who talks ceaselessly to God and longs above all things to marry off his nubile daughters, is now known not from the page but from the stage.

But the tale of how Tevye became the star of a Broadway show is very well told in Alisa Solomon’s Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ (Metropolitan Books, 448 pages). Solomon, a theater critic who teaches journalism at Columbia, has packed much into Wonder of Wonders, which is rather too soberly written for a book about theater but is still thoroughly readable. It features a concise introduction to Sholom Aleichem and the posthumous stage life of his writings; a backstage account of the making of Fiddler; and a reception history that explores, among other things, the quasi-sacralization of the show by secular baby-boom Jews for whom it was (in the words of Peter Marks, the drama critic of the Washington Post) “about the closest we ever came to spiritual sustenance.”

What is missing from Wonder of Wonders, however, is a purely aesthetic consideration of Fiddler, a critical appraisal of its value as a work of popular art. This omission is problematic, in part because the intellectual critique of Fiddler on the Roof was and is as much aesthetic as ideological.

For all the immense popularity of his short stories and novels in the Jewish communities of Europe and America, Sholom Aleichem longed for the celebrity—and profitability—of a second career as a playwright. He was so determined to succeed on the stage that he moved to New York in 1906 in order to write for that city’s then thriving Yiddish theater. But he failed dismally, and it was not until three years after his death in 1916 that Tevye der milkhiker (usually translated as “Tevye the Dairyman”), his stage adaptation of the seven Tevye stories he regarded as “the crown of my creation,” was successfully produced in New York and, later, throughout the Yiddish-speaking world.

Even then, though, his work was known only to readers and playgoers who spoke Yiddish. It was the Holocaust, which took place concurrently with the belated appearance in English of Aleichem’s stories, that first made a larger Jewish audience curious about the lost world of their forebears. The Old Country (1946), the first English-language volume of his stories, was enthusiastically reviewed and spent three months on the New York Times bestseller list. Next came Tevye’s Daughters (1949), which contained all of the Tevye stories and was received with similar warmth.

The publication of Tevye’s Daughters was significant for another, more far-reaching reason: Irving Elman, a now forgotten playwright and screenwriter, wrote an unproduced play based on the Tevye stories that was optioned in 1949 by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Their interest, however, was short-lived, and no other producer would touch Elman’s script, which was deemed “too Jewish.” Tevye finally returned to the stage in the form of a 1953 play called The World of Sholom Aleichem—one of the first off-Broadway shows to draw a general audience. A sequel based on the Tevye stories failed, however, and it was assumed for years afterward that the appeal of Jewish-themed plays and musicals was strictly limited, not least because of the desire of American Jews to integrate themselves into the mainstream of modern life.

By 1960, the year in which the songwriting team of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick and the playwright Joseph Stein first discussed the possibility of turning the Tevye stories into a musical, Sholom Aleichem’s books had gone out of print. Even so, the three men easily saw the dramatic potential of the stories, as did Jerome Robbins, then Broadway’s most admired musical-comedy director, who agreed three years later to collaborate with them.

Not only were the creators of Fiddler on the Roof all fully assimilated Jews, but Robbins was deeply uncomfortable with his Jewishness. “I didn’t want to be a Jew,” he confessed in notes for a never written memoir. “I wanted to be safe, protected, assimilated, hidden in among the boys, the majority.” To that end, he changed his name from Rabinowitz and became a classical ballet choreographer, doing so, according to Solomon, as “a means of distancing himself from his heritage.” Even so, he remained preoccupied in his work with the problem of prejudice—West Side Story, for instance, is at bottom a parable of the destructive power of bigotry—and when he decided to come publicly to grips with his Jewish heritage in Fiddler, he took care to place that preoccupation at center stage.

While Robbins functioned as an editor, not a writer, he played a central role in the shaping of Fiddler on the Roof. In addition to endeavoring to make the show as authentic-looking as possible, he was determined to prevent his colleagues from (as he put it) “making all the Jews & all the people understanding, philosophic & hearts of gold, wry of expression & compassionate to the point of nausea.” At the same time, he was no less determined to universalize the story of Tevye and his daughters, partly by encouraging Boris Aronson to model his fantasy-tinged shtetl sets on the paintings of Marc Chagall and partly by turning Tevye’s religious convictions into an all-purpose belief in “tradition” that is challenged by his more adventurous children.

Robbins’s collaborators were amenable to this approach. They had already decided to end the show by having Tevye and his family immigrate to America, and they also concluded that it would not be theatrically effective to have Tevye permanently disown his daughter Chava when she marries a Gentile. In the first draft of Fiddler, Chava leaves Fyedka, her Ukrainian husband, and returns to her family when they are expelled from Russia. In the final version, Tevye is portrayed as a bigot who converts to the gospel of tolerance and gives the couple his grudging blessing, thereby providing Fiddler on the Roof with a doubly happy ending, one that confers its own implicit “blessing” on the path of assimilation that nearly all of the show’s Jewish audience members would have chosen in their own lives.

It was generally assumed in 1964 that Fiddler would fail precisely because of its Jewish subject matter, not least with Jews themselves. At one preview performance attended by members of a Jewish group, Stein heard a person in the lobby asking, “Well, we like it, but will they like it?” But like it they did, perhaps because Fiddler gave America (in Solomon’s apt phrase) “the Jews it could, and wanted to, love.”

This homogenized aspect of Fiddler outraged Irving Howe, and his contempt was understandable—up to a point. But the Fiddler of Howe’s dreams, one that fully embraced what he described elsewhere as “the ferocious undercurrent in Sholom Aleichem’s humor…not nearly so comforting or soft as later generations of Jews have liked to suppose,” could only have satisfied a highbrow critic, not a mass audience.

What Robbins and his collaborators chose to do was turn the Tevye stories into an audience-friendly Broadway musical, and they did so with skill and imagination. Stein’s book is all but actor-proof, while the score is exceptionally consistent in quality. As for Robbins’s superlative choreography, to whose virtues Howe was utterly blind, it has proved so durable that it has been used in every major revival of the show. For all its sentimentality, Fiddler represented an artistically serious attempt by Robbins to translate the provincial customs of the shtetl into the idealized language of the stage.

It should be noted, too, that Fiddler is, as Solomon correctly points out, a “transitional work,” at once the last of the classic musical comedies and a signpost leading directly to Stephen Sondheim’s reconception of the Broadway musical as a work of heightened theatrical purpose and intensity. The first act, after all, ends with a brutal pogrom, the second with the forced emigration of the villagers of Anatevka, neither of which is the stuff traditional musicals were made of. Today, when much of Europe is once again blighted by a sickening recrudescence of anti-Semitism, such tough-minded departures from musical-comedy orthodoxy cannot but be reconsidered in the lurid light of current events.

But the Jewish intellectual critique of Fiddler has another, even more compelling aspect, one that Alisa Solomon mentions in passing in Wonder of Wonders but chooses not to engage fully: Ruth R. Wisse’s later description of Fiddler as a “liberalized” distortion of the Tevye stories.

One of the main themes of Solomon’s book is that the experience of seeing Fiddler has always been understood by many of its secular Jewish viewers as a substitute of sorts for religious observance. A viewer who went to the show on the first night of Passover went so far as to send a letter to Harold Prince, the producer, that is quoted by Solomon: “I felt more uplifted being in the audience of Fiddler than I would have had I passed that time in Temple….I want to thank you for restoring my faith in musical theater.”

The use of the word faith in this context is illuminating, since it also implies a faith in a denatured “Jewishness” in which nothing is at stake save sentiment. It is precisely that bland sentiment that was indicted by Wisse in her harsh discussion of Fiddler in The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey Through Language and Culture (2000). For her, Fiddler is

perfectly attuned to the liberal ethos of America and the integrationist theme that was then at its height….It must have felt perfectly innocent to change a Jewish classic into a liberal classic, making the team of Chava and Fyedka, rather than Tevye, the moral anchors of the play. But if a Jewish work can only enter American culture by forfeiting its moral authority and its commitment to group survival, one has to wonder about the bargain that destroys the Jews with its applause.

One need not agree fully with Wisse to recognize that the decision of Bock, Harnick, Robbins, and Stein to make their Tevye accept and bless Chava’s marriage to a Gentile diminishes the power of Sholom Aleichem’s original conception. What results is in essence yet another uplifting parable of assimilation in which the tragic core of the Tevye stories is replaced with all-American optimism: Yes, Jews can move to America, intermarry, cease to be observant in any meaningful manner…and still be Jewish!

But Fiddler on the Roof is more than a piece of assimilationist propaganda. It is also a work of popular art, one that is entirely successful on its own Americanized terms. Wisse is correct to imply that the show would not have been a hit had its makers preserved the tragic stature of its source material, or dared to hint that the assimilation of the Jews must necessarily lead to the transformation of Judaism itself. That could only have worked if they had turned Fiddler on the Roof into an opera—one without a happy ending. One must judge Fiddler both for what it is and for what it is not. It is a Broadway musical, and, as such, it is a masterpiece of its kind.

About the Author

Terry Teachout, Commentary’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, is the author of Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, just out from Gotham Books.

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.