Fiddler on the Roof
JOSEPH STEIN 1964
- AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
- PLOT SUMMARY
- HISTORICAL CONTEXT
- CRITICAL OVERVIEW
- FURTHER READING
Joseph Stein’s book for Fiddler on the Roof represents the author’s best known and most successful work in musical comedy. It was one of the last big successes in an era of great musicals on Broadway. Following its debut on September 22, 1964, at the Imperial Theatre, Fiddler ran for 3242 performances, achieving the longest run for a musical up to that time. This success was ironic considering the play’s producers’ initial fears that, due to the ethnically based story, the musical might not appeal to a broad audience.
Fiddler is based on short stories written by Sholom Aleichem, a Jewish writer who wrote primarily in Yiddish. Despite the producers’ reservations, a diverse audience embraced the musical, relating to its universal themes of family, love, dignity, and the importance of tradition. Many critics agreed. Theophilus Lewis, reviewing the original production in America, wrote, “Joseph Stein’s story has dramatic dignity, a continuous flow of humor, and episodes of pathos that never descend to the maudlin.” While most critics generally found the musical praiseworthy on many fronts—the performances especially the original Tevye, Zero Mostel; the acting; music; choreography; and direction. Several critics, however, found the production too “Broadway” while others felt it was too sentimental.
Stein won three prestigious awards for Fiddler on the Roof in 1965: The Antoinette “Tony” Perry Page 78 | Top of ArticleAward for best musical, the New York Drama Critics Award, and the Newspaper Guild Award. The B’nai B’rith society also bestowed their Music and Performing Award upon Stein for his “exceptional creative achievement” in 1965.
Joseph Stein was born on May 30, 1912, in New York City, the son of Charles and Emma (Rosenblum) Stein, Polish immigrants who emigrated to the United States. Growing up in the Bronx, Stein’s father read him the stories of Sholom Aleichem, a noted author of Jewish folk tales. Stein would remember these stories when he was called upon to develop the musical that became Fiddler on the Roof. Stein did not immediately turn to the theater, though. He attended City College, earning his B.S.S. in 1935, then his Master of Social Work from Columbia in 1937. Stein then spent six years employed as a psychiatric social worker, from 1939 until 1945.
In 1946, Stein began writing for radio. He wrote for such shows as the Henry Morgan Show and Kraft Music Hall. In 1948, he and writing partner Will Glickman began writing for the stage, contributing sketches to Broadway revues as well as whole plays and the books for musicals. Through 1958, every theatrical production Stein wrote was a collaboration with Glickman. In 1955, the duo had their biggest success with their first musical play, Plain and Fancy. Stein also wrote for television from 1950-62, primarily for variety shows such as Your Show of Shows and The Sid Caesar Show and specials for stars like Phil Silvers and Debbie Reynolds.
Adaptations of other people’s material proved to be the highpoint of Stein’s career. In 1959, he had his first solo success with an adaptation of Sean O’Casey’s Juno. An even bigger hit was Stein’s adaptation of Carl Reiner’s autobiography Enter Laughing in 1963. The apex of Stein’s stage career, however, was writing the book for the musical Fiddler on the Roof. Though backers were originally reluctant to produce the musical fearing it might have limited appeal, Fiddler went on to become a smash hit. Stein won three major awards for his effort, including the Antionette “Tony” Perry Award for best musical.
Stein continued to do well with adaptations. His next hit was the book for the 1968 musical Zorba, based on the novel Zorba the Greek. However, Stein’s career was not as successful after that point, hitting a low in 1986. Stein wrote the book for the musical Rags, which was a continuation of the story told in Fiddler on the Roof. Unlike the original, Rags failed to catch on immediately and was a box office failure in its original five-day Broadway run. The musical did have some success Off-Broadway and in regional productions; it received a Tony Award nomination in 1987.
Stein was married to Sadie Singer until her death in 1974. The couple had three sons, Daniel, Harry, and Joshua. Stein remarried in 1976 to Elisa Loti, a former actress and psychotherapist.
Act I, prologue
Fiddler on the Roof opens outside dairyman Tevye’s house in the village of Anatevka, Russia, in 1905. Tevye addresses the audience, telling them that tradition keeps balance in their lives. Everyone has a role in village life, both Jews, such as matchmakers and rabbis, and non-Jews, such as the Russian officials. As long as people stay in their place and do not bother each other, Tevye says everything will be all right.
Act I, scene 1
In the kitchen of Tevye’s house, his wife Golde and his daughters prepare for the Sabbath. Yente the village matchmaker comes to visit. She tells Golde that she has a husband for the eldest daughter, Tzeitel: Lazar Wolf, the butcher. Lazar is an older man, a widower. Golde is unsure about the match because Tevye wants his daughter to marry a learned man. Still, Golde agrees to arrange a meeting between her husband and Lazar.
Not knowing the details of their mother’s conversation, Tzeitel’s sisters tease her about Yente finding her a husband. It is implied that Tzietel is only interested in Motel, a young, impoverished tailor. Hodel, the next oldest, is interested in the Rabbi’s son. The sister’s sing the song “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” in which they hope to find the perfect man.
Act I, scene 2
Tevye arrives home just in time for Sabbath, the beginning of the Jewish holy day. His horse threw a shoe, and he had to make deliveries by foot. Tevye talks directly to God, saying that he wishes he was wealthy so he could better support his family. He sings the song “If I Were a Rich Man.”
The villagers come to Tevye’s house, demanding their dairy orders. One has a newspaper which says the Jews were all evicted from a nearby village. The men worry. A newcomer to the village, a young man named Perchik, tells them that they should know more about the outside world. After filling the villagers’ orders, Tevye invites Perchik to stay with them for Sabbath dinner. Perchik will teach Tevye’s daughters in exchange for the hospitality.
Act I, scene 3
Tevye and Perchik enter the house. The daughters greet their father enthusiastically. Motel arrives, and Golde invites him to stay for supper as well. While the daughters and guests wash up for the meal, Golde tells Tevye that Lazar Wolf wants to meet with him. Golde does not tell him why, and Tevye is convinced Lazar wants his new milk cow.
Tzeitel tells Motel that Yente had visited earlier. Tzeitel worries that a match has been made for her, but Motel assures her that he will be able to buy a sewing machine and impress her father enough to earn her hand in marriage. Tzeitel wants Motel to ask her father for permission immediately, but Motel is afraid. Still, Motel agrees to talk to him. Motel tries to bring up the subject, but the group gathers around the table to say Sabbath prayers, and he does not get a chance.
Act I, scene 4
Tevye meets Lazar at the Inn. Before Tevye comes, Lazar brags to everyone present that he will probably be married. When Tevye comes, the conversation is tense. Lazar assumes that Tevye knows what the meeting is about, but Tevye still believes the discussion regards his cow. When the truth comes out, Tevye is upset. He does not like Lazar, but he reasons that the butcher does have a steady income. Tevye agrees to the match. Lazar tells everyone around them. Even the Russians are happy for him.
Act I, scene 5
Outside of the Inn, the celebration continues. A Russian official, the constable, tells Tevye that their
district will have to undergo a “little unofficial demonstration” to impress an inspector who may come through. He tells Tevye as a courtesy to warn the others, because he wants no trouble between them.
Act I, scene 6
Outside Tevye’s house, Perchik is giving a lesson to three of Tevye’s daughters. Golde calls the girls away as they are needed to begin Tevye’s work because he is still in bed. Before Hodel goes, she and Perchik talk. Perchik tells her she is smart. He dances with her in defiance of a local custom. Tevye enters followed by his wife. When Tzeitel comes out with several of her sisters, her parents tell her about the match with Lazar. While her parents, especially Golde, are happy, Tzeitel is not. She confides to her father that she does not want to marry the butcher. Tevye says he will not force her to marry.
Motel runs in, breathless. Tevye tries to brush him off, but Motel insists on offering himself as a suitor for Tzeitel. Tevye calls him crazy. Motel tells him that he and Tzeitel pledged to marry over a year ago. Though Tevye is unsure about going against tradition—particularly breaking the agreement he made with Lazar—he agrees that the tailor should marry Tzeitel.
Act I, scene 7
In Tevye and Golde’s bedroom that night, Tevye tells his wife that he had a horrible dream: Lazar Wolf’s first wife, Fruma-Sarah, came to Tevye and insisted that Tzeitel should not marry Lazar. Later in the dream, Golde’s mother told the dairyman that Tzeitel should marry Motel. Golde is convinced then that Tzeitel should marry Motel.
Act I, scene 8
On a street in the village, people discuss the fact that Tzeitel is marrying Motel instead of Lazar. People come to Motel’s shop to congratulate him. When Chava, one of the sisters, is left in charge of the shop for a moment while Motel sees to his wedding hat, several Russians block her way inside. Another young Russian, Fyedka, insists that they stop teasing her. The Russians step aside and let her pass. Fyedka compliments her, telling her he has seen her reading and admires her thirst for knowledge; he gives Chava a book.
Act I, scenes 9-10
In Tevye’s yard, Motel and Tzeitel’s wedding takes place.
Inside the house, the wedding reception takes place. The couple is toasted and gifts are given. Lazar stands up to congratulate them, but when Tevye interrupts him, Lazar turns angry at the fact that their agreement was broken. They argue for a while, until Perchik points out that Tzeitel wanted to marry Motel. The radical suggestion that a person’s desires should take precedence over tradition disturbs the guests, especially Yente the matchmaker. Perchik continues to agitate the situation when he asks Hodel to dance. It is unheard for a man to dance with a girl at a wedding. Tevye then asks his wife to dance and soon the whole crowd is dancing with one another, save the bitter Yente and Lazar.
The reverie is interrupted by the Constable who says that the Russian officials must make their show of force that evening. Perchik tries to stop them but is clubbed down. Following the destruction, the Constable apologizes, and he and his men go to the next house. The guests begin cleaning up.
Act II, prologue
Tevye talks to heaven. It is two months later and Motel and Tzeitel are happily married, but Motel still does not have his sewing machine. Tevye asks God to send his new son-in-law a sewing machine.
Act II, scene 1
Outside of Tevye’s house, Hodel and Perchik enter. Hodel is upset because Perchik is leaving for Kiev in the hopes of changing the Russian policies that resulted in the raid during Tzeitel’s wedding reception. Perchik asks her to marry him and she agrees. Tevye comes in, and Perchik tells him what has been decided. Tevye says he will not give his permission. Hodel and Perchik explain that they are not asking for his permission, only his blessing. Tevye is upset but gives both his blessing and permission. He tells Golde of his decision, and she is angry at Tevye for not asking her feelings on the subject. They make up at the end of the scene, pledging their love to each other in the song “Do You Love Me?”
Act II, scene 2
In the village, Yente tells Tzeitel that she has seen Chava with Fyedka. She gives Tzeitel a letter for Hodel from Perchik. He has been arrested in Kiev. The village becomes alight with gossip about the subject. Yente blames the uproar on men and women dancing together.
Act II, scene 3
Outside of the railroad station, Hodel and Tevye wait for a train. Hodel is going to join Perchik in Siberia, where she will marry him. She wants to help him in his social activism. Tevye does not want her to go but blesses her journey just the same.
Act II, scene 4-5
It is several months later, and the villagers talk about Tzeitel and Motel’s new baby.
In Motel’s shop, there is a new sewing machine. The rabbi blesses it. Fyedka comes in, and everyone is silent. When he leaves, Chava follows him. Chava tells him that she is afraid to tell her family about their relationship. Tevye comes by, and he asks them to remain only distant friends. Chava tells him they still want to be married. Tevye gets angry and says no.
Act II, scene 6
Tevye pushes his cart on the road because his horse is sick. Golde finds him and tells him that Chava has left home with Fyedka. The couple were later married. Tevye says that Chava is dead to them now. He maintains this stance even when Chava arrives and pleads for her father’s acceptance.
Act II, scene 7
Inside the barn, Yente finds Golde. Yente has brought two teenage boys for the remaining daughters, but Golde thinks they are too young to be married. Many villagers come into the barn followed by Tevye. There are rumors in the village. The Constable comes and tells everyone that they must sell everything and leave the village in three days. Tevye is angry but realizes the futility of fighting.
Act II, scene 8
Outside of Tevye’s house, everyone is packing. The youngest daughters are going with their parents to live in America, while Tzeitel, Motel and their child will live in Poland until they have saved enough money to journey to America. Yente states that she is going to the Holy Land. Golde insists on cleaning the house before they leave. Chava comes and says goodbye. She and Fyedka are going to Cracow. Tevye gives her his blessing before she leaves, mending the rift between them. The play ends with the family leaving for their train.
Chava is the third oldest daughter of Tevye and Golde. She likes books and learning. She reluctantly falls in love with Fydeka, a Russian. When she marries him, her parents disown her. But when the Jews are forced out of the village, she visits her parents and they acknowledge her.
The Constable is a local Russian official. Though friendly with Tevye, he follows his orders to first pillage the Jews, then force them to leave the area all together.
Fydeka is a young Russian man who is attracted to Chava. Noting her interest in books, he gives her a book to begin their courtship. He eventually marries her, though their union results in Chava’s family disowning her. When the Russians force the Jews to leave the village, Fydeka tells Tevye and
Golde that he and Chava are going to Cracow because they do not want to live in a country that treats people this way.
Golde is Tevye’s wife and mother of his five daughters. They have been married for twenty-five years, and she is Tevye’s helpmate in life and work. She runs their home efficiently. Like Tevye, Golde wants to uphold tradition, while making sure her children are taken care of. She is the first to agree to the match between Lazar and Tzeitel and only follows her husband’s lead reluctantly when he tries to go against tradition. Still, she does not want to break off relations with her daughter Chava when she marries a Russian man. Her love of family outweighs tradition in the end.
Hodel is Tevye and Golde’s second oldest daughter. Though she is a traditionalist like her parents in the beginning, she falls in love with Perchik, the radical. She breaks tradition by telling her father she is marrying Perchik and only asking for his blessing. Hodel eventually moves to Siberia to marry Perchik.
Motel is the impoverished tailor who is secretly engaged to Tzeitel. Though he is afraid of Tevye, he asks him for Tzeitel’s hand in marriage when he learns about the match with Lazar. Motel believes that even an impoverished tailor deserves a little Page 82 | Top of Articlehappiness. He turns out to be a good husband for Tzeitel. Motel desperately wants a sewing machine and eventually gets it. At the end of the play, he and Tzeitel are moving to Warsaw so they can save money and eventually emigrate to the United States.
Perchik is a young man from Kiev with an education. Under an arrangement with Tevye, he gives lessons to the daughters in exchange for food. Perchik falls in love with Hodel and becomes engaged to her. Perchik is responsible for introducing the idea of breaking tradition into the village. He convinces Hodel to dance with him. He believes also that the villagers should have an awareness of what is going on in the outside world, especially how forces are working against Jews within Russia. Perchik is eventually arrested in Kiev and sent to Siberia, where Hodel goes to marry him.
Tevye is the main character in Fiddler on the Roof. He is an impoverished dairyman and community leader with a wife and five daughters. He has a loving relationship with his family. During the play, he struggles to support them and uphold traditions. He is not inflexible, however. He agrees to let Lazar Wolf marry his eldest daughter Tzeitel as Yente the matchmaker arranged, but when she wants to marry someone else, he lets her have her way. He disowns his daughter Chava when she marries a Russian, only acknowledging her at the end of the play.
Tevye is also generous, despite his stubbornness. When he realizes that Perchik is new in town, he invites the young man to eat Sabbath dinner with his family. He also arranges for Perchik to give his daughters lessons in exchange for food. Tevye is also the contact between the Jewish villagers and the local Russian constable. Their relationship is so friendly that the Constable warns Tevye when his men must raid the Jewish community. This relationship turns sour when the Constable has to tell Tevye that the Jews must leave the village. Tevye takes his family and moves the to the United States.
Tzeitel is Tevye and Golde’s eldest daughter; she is about twenty years old. She is in love with Motel, the impoverished tailor, and wants to marry him. They secretly pledged to marry about a year before the play begins. When Tevye tells her of the match that has been made between her and Lazar Wolf, she begs her father not to force her into the marriage. He eventually agrees, and she happily marries the man she loves. Eventually she has a son with him. When the Jews are forced out of the village, she goes to Warsaw with her husband while they save money to move to America.
Lazar is the local butcher and is relatively well off. A widower with no children, he asks Yente to make a match between him and Tzeitel. Though he gets Tevye to agree to the marriage, he is eventually stunned to learn that Tevye goes back on the agreement. He starts an argument over the matter at Tzeitel’s wedding to Motel.
Yente is the village’s matchmaker. She is a childless widow and meddles in everyone’s business. She arranges the match between Lazar Wolf and Tzeitel and is appalled when Tevye allows her arrangement to fall apart. During the wedding scene, she demonstrates her loyalty to tradition by being one of only two people not to dance. At the end of the play, Yente tells Golde that she is moving to the Holy Land.
Custom and Tradition
Tradition is central to Fiddler on the Roof. All of the Jewish villagers look to tradition as a guide in their lives. Tradition dictates that a matchmaker aid in the arranging of marriages, not that couples decide for themselves who and when they will to marry. Custom dictates that only men dance at weddings, not that men ask women to dance. Tradition also regulates dress, food consumption, and who can interact with whom—especially in regard to Jewish/Russian relations. While Tevye upholds these traditions to the best of his ability, the times are changing and the old way of doing things comes under repeated questioning.
Perchik is the most vocal advocate of change, arguing that people must adapt to survive in the Page 83 | Top of Articleevolving world. Yet tradition dictates an ignorance of the outside world. Perchik tries to break through this ignorance to prepare people for the worst: harassment and expulsion by the Russians.
For his part, Tevye has a soft heart for his daughters, and he ultimately makes choices that will ensure their happiness. His efforts to please his children serves as a major engine for change in the play: He will go against the tradition of arranged marriages and allow two of his daughters to select their own husbands. While he initially chaffs at Chava’s choice of a Russian mate, Tevye eventually softens his stance against that union as well. By placing the needs of his family above the requirements of custom and tradition, by submitting to change and a new way of doing things, Tevye prepares his brood for the numerous changes that will confront them in the coming years.
Change and Transformation
Perchik and Tevye inevitably and sometimes unwittingly change local traditions in Fiddler on the Roof. When Tevye’s eldest daughter, Tzeitel, tells him she does not want to marry Lazar, that she loves Motel, Tevye agrees to let her marry the poor tailor. He does this despite the fact that a match has been made by Yente and that he has made an agreement with Lazar. This goes entirely against the village’s standard practice of young women marrying the men their fathers have selected for them. But to preserve a semblance of tradition, Tevye has to convince his wife Golde that Tzeitel’s marrying Lazar would be wrong. He accomplishes this via a fictional dream that he relates to Golde.
Once this first change has taken place, the challenges to tradition continue, transforming Tevye’s family. While Tzeitel and Motel ask Tevye’s permission to marry, Hodel and Perchik only ask for his blessing. Tevye is not happy with this change in custom but agrees to it because it will make his daughter happy.
Perchik is the first to ask a woman to dance at a wedding. When he does this, most everyone follows his lead, breaking a long-standing tradition. Perchik also wants the villagers to realize that the world is changing and that the Russian czar is attacking Jewish settlements. Perchik is proven correct by the end of the play, when the local Russian officials inform the Jews that they must vacate the village in three days. This is the biggest change, for most
everyone assumed they would live their entire lives in Anatevka.
Family and Religion
In Fiddler on the Roof, the centers of life are family and religion. Everything Tevye does serves one or the other, often both. Tevye works as a dairyman, and he sometimes has to pull the cart himself when his horse loses a shoe or is ill. He works hard to support his wife and five daughters. Many of his personal dilemmas surround the fact that he cannot afford five dowries—let alone one. He does not know how he will marry all of his daughters off. Each of the girls, though they may defy tradition, want their father’s approval. Such paternal respect is important to them. When Tevye is uncertain or feels dragged down by his weighty decisions, he looks to his God. Tevye talks directly to his deity, asking for answers to his dilemmas. The
Jewish religion also serves the village at large for it is the basis of many of its traditions.
Fiddler on the Roof is a musical comedy that takes place in 1905 in the small Russian village of Anatevka. The action of the play occurs largely in and around the home of Tevye. The kitchen, Tevye’s bedroom, the front yard, and the barn are the primary locations, in addition to some brief settings in the village, including an inn, Model’s tailor shop, the train station, streets, and roads. Tevye’s house emphasizes his importance as the primary character as well as the centrality of the family and its traditions in the play.
In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye has two kinds of monologues: those in which he prays, talking directly to God, and those in which he directly addresses the audience. Both kinds of monologues allow Tevye to express his religious beliefs, doubts, worries, and fears. He talks about his failing horse and the problem of supplying a dowry for his five daughters. When he talks to God, especially, the importance of religion and tradition are emphasized. When he talks directly to the audience, it is usually to comment on the action of the play. The use of monologue underlines that Fiddler on the Roof is told from Tevye’s point of view and that he is the musical’s primary character.
Tevye’s monologues also serve to advance the story, especially at the beginning of Act II. In this monologue, Tevye updates the audience about what has taken place since the end of Act I.
Dance is used in Fiddler on the Roof to underscore the themes of the play. Perchik, especially, uses dance to challenge tradition. In Act I, scene 6, Perchik makes Hodel dance with him when no one is around, though women are not supposed to dance with men. Though Hodel has been obedient before, this act—and Perchik’s infectious free spirit—leads her to question traditions. During Tzeitel’s wedding, Perchik asks Hodel to dance again. She agrees, which leads to all the guests save two (Lazar and Yente) breaking the tradition.
Dance is also used in other ways in Fiddler. When Tevye agrees that Tzeitel will marry Lazar, he dances for joy. The whole inn joins him in this dance, including some Russians. Dance primarily serves as a symbol of freedom and happiness in the play.
The title of the musical is derived from its most obvious symbol: the fiddler on the roof. The fiddler, as Tevye tells the audience, represents the fragile balance of life in the village. Tevye says “every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck.” The fiddler appears at key moments in the play: the prologue to Act I; Act I, scene 4, when Tevye agrees to the match between Tzeitel and Lazar; when Tevye is warned about the forthcoming pogrom (assault on the Jews’ property); the wedding scene, where tradition is broken and the pogrom takes place; and at the very end of the play when the family leaves for America. Then, the fiddler climbs on to Tevye’s wagon, indicating that challenges will confront them where ever they go.
The 1960s was one of the most prosperous decades in the history of the United States. Between 1960 and 1965, low unemployment and low inflation dominated. The average worker’s salary increased by one-fifth. People had more money and more things to spend it on. Still, there was some labor unrest, such as a short strike by the United Auto Workers (UAW) against General Motors in 1964. Despite such incidents, America’s economic strength contributed to its position as a world leader. This position was sometimes difficult and lead to longterm problems. America renewed its commitment to prevent the communist insurgency in the small Asian country of Vietnam in 1964 by committing the first significant troop dispatches to aid the South in their battle against the Vietcong in the North. The U.S. also continued its stance in the thirty-year-long Cold War, a power stalemate with the Soviet Union that pitted the implied threat of each country’s nuclear arsenal against the other (the term “Cold War” originated from the fact that while war-like conditions existed between the two countries, the fear of nuclear devastation prevented any actual fighting or significant escalation of hostilities).
For many Americans, the world was becoming a much smaller place; improved and increasingly affordable modes of transportation made travel easier both within the North American continent and abroad. Where people could not travel, television expanded knowledge of the world at large, offering a vicarious means of global expedition. Television also opened people’s eyes to the burgeoning social problems in America. This increased awareness of inequalities and injustice within their own borders motivated many people to become actively involved in the correction of such problems: activists took stands throughout the decade on such issues as civil rights, poverty, and war.
Though courts had affirmed many of the tenets of American civil rights in the 1950s, it was in the 1960s that activists fought, both passively and aggressively, for their implementation in a meaningful way; fights for equality in the workplace, in public institutions such as schools, and in other public places became widespread. In 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which banned racial discrimination in public places and employment. President Johnson also lead a national war on poverty. To that end, he signed the Equal Opportunity Act of 1964 which funded youth programs, community-based anti-poverty measures, small business loans, and the creation of the Jobs Corps.
Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, women began demanding equal rights, especially as more women entered the workplace. The feminist movement also found inspiration in such books as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. One reason the women’s movement gained power was the introduction of the birth control pill in the early- 1960s. This medication sparked the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s, enabling women (and men) to pursue sexual relationships without the risk of pregnancy.
Other social groups challenged traditional roles. Young people “revolted” in the 1960s, not just by participating in the rights movements. They protested against their parents and society’s values, especially the middle- and upper-class fixation with
material wealth. When the United States became more deeply involved in Vietnam, college campuses were the frequent settings for powerful antiwar demonstrations. Some young men refused to fight in a war in which they did not believe and which they felt posed no threat to the American way of life.
Despite such momentous changes in society, Broadway theater, especially the musicals of the early- 1960s, targeted an older, more conservative audience. Musicals were nostalgic for the great examples of the form from the past. The year 1964 had three such productions: Fiddler on the Roof, Hello, Dolly!, and Funny Girl. Movies were the exact opposite, with many independent filmmakers finding an outlet for their counter-culture agendas in film. The 1960s marked a significant turning point in western cinema, with many films rising to challenge the status quo; 1964 was the year that director Stanley Kubrick’s landmark antiwar satire Dr. Strangelove debuted.
When Fiddler on the Roof had its first out-of-town try-out in Detroit, Michigan, there was debate over Page 87 | Top of Articlewhether the show would ever have the mass appeal to make it to Broadway. A reviewer from Variety predicted it would only have a slim chance to be successful. Still, good word of mouth spread through its next stop in Washington, D.C. By the time Fiddler reached Broadway, it was a blockbuster hit from the first night, September 22, 1964. Fiddler on the Roof was the hit of the season and played on Broadway until July 2, 1972.
Still critics were unsure about the sustained appeal of such an ethnically specific play. Theophilus Lewis in America wrote, “Not that extravagant praise of Fiddler involves more than a remote risk.” Nonetheless critics praised the source material, Sholom Aleichem’s stories. Howard Taubman in the New York Times asked, “Who would have guessed that the stories of Sholom Aleichem would be suitable for the musical stage?” The reviewer in Time magazine said, “Paradoxically, Fiddler’s conscientious good taste may have robbed it of the richer seasoning of the Sholem Aleichem tale it comes from. Fiddler does not swell with Aleichem’s yeasty joy, pain and mystery of living.”
Some critics thought that Fiddler would save Broadway. Taubman wrote: “It has been prophesied that the Broadway musical theater would take up the mantle of meaningfulness worn so carelessly by the American drama in recent years. Fiddler on the Roof does its bit to make on this prophesy.”
Fiddler received many rave reviews for its content. Henry Hewes in the Saturday Review of Literature wrote, “Joseph Stein and his collaborators have . . . arrived at a remarkably effective mixture that thoroughly entertains without ever losing a sense of connection with the more painful realities that underlie its humor, its beauty, and its ritual celebrations.” Taubman argued that the play “catches the essence of a moment in history with sentiment and radiance. Compounded of the familiar materials of the musical theater—popular song, vivid dance movement, comedy and emotion—it combines and transcends them to arrive at an integrated achievement of uncommon quality.”
Many of the critics who liked the play expected more from it, however. These critics believed the musical bowed too much to the cliches of Broadway. Taubman was one such critic. He wrote, “if I find fault with a gesture that is Broadway rather than the world of Sholom Aleichem, if I deplore a conventional scene, it is because Fiddler on the Roof is so fine that it deserves counsels towards perfection.” In another review, Taubman said, “I wish it had the imagination and courage to turn away from all compromise with what are regarded as the Broadway necessities.”
Several critics were not as impressed by Fiddler on the Roof. The critic from the Nation found the musical less satisfying than the source material, writing “I found it too endearing—worthy of the affection the enthusiastics had manifested. Yet thinking of it in its detail, the text lacked the full savor of the sources.” Yet the critic went on to say that he changed his mind over time. Wilfred Sheed, writing in the Commonweal, was more harsh. He wrote, “some of the attempts to establish an atmosphere of Yiddish quaintness in Fiddler are pushy and overexposed and fair game for straight criticism. There is too much formula here; the village of Anatevka unburdens itself of more wry resignation in a half an hour that you’d expect to hear in a year.”
Still, Sheed, like many other critics, singled out the performance of Zero Mostel, the original production’s Tevye, for praise. Theophilus Lewis in America believed that “In human values, Tevye is a magnificent character, and Zero Mostel’s portrayal is a memorable one.” Taubman agreed, saying “Zero Mostel’s Tevye is so penetrating and heartwarming that you all but forget that it is a performance.” Mostel’s Tevye has come to be regarded as the ultimate interpretation of the role.
In this essay, Petrusso discusses the breakdown of tradition in Fiddler on the Roof.
In Fiddler on the Roof, tradition is an important theme, defining the lifestyle of Jews living in Anatevka, Russia, in 1905. As the dairyman Tevye says to the audience in the prologue to Act I, “Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.” Such traditions define every facet of
Jewish life, including how young girls find husbands. But traditions that have not changed for many years are challenged in Fiddler on the Roof Tevye, especially, is forced to accept change—as well as force change himself. Most of these changes are related to marrying off his daughters but not all. Tradition is challenged in Fiddler on the Roof, primarily through Tevye and his daughters.
Though Tevye claims to embrace tradition in the prologue to the first act, he regularly cuts corners. He invites change into his house in the form of Perchik, a former student from Kiev who is an outsider in the village. In Act I, scene two, the other villagers are suspicious of Perchik’s warnings about the changes taking place in the world at large. While they think that Tevye’s inability to make his deliveries is “bigger news than the plague in Odessa.” Perchik tells them: “You should know what’s going on in the outside world.” Despite the villagers distrust, Tevye invites Perchik in for Sabbath supper. Further, Tevye hires him to teach his daughters, though a villager calls the thought of educating girls “radical.”
There are conservative forces in Tevye’s household. Golde, Tevye’s wife, does not believe in women’s education. When she catches Chava with a book in the first scene of Act I, she says “You were reading again? Why does a girl have to read? Will it get her a better husband?” Later, in Act I, scene six, Golde interrupts her daughters’ lessons with Perchik to have them help finish their father’s work when he oversleeps.
While Tevye is a poor man who cannot afford dowries for his daughters, he wants learned men for their husbands. He agrees to Lazar’s match, mostly because Lazar is a good man and relatively wealthy. However, when Tevye tells Tzeitel about the match in Act I, scene six, she begs him not make her marry Lazar. She tells her father, “Papa, I will be unhappy with him. All my life will be unhappy. I’ll dig ditches, I’ll haul rocks.” This argument does not phase him, but when she says “Is that [an agreement] more important than I am, Papa? Papa, don’t force me. I’ll be unhappy all my days.” His daughter’s impassioned plea reaches his heart, and he agrees to dissolve his agreement with Lazar. Tevye’s fondness for his daughters forces his second abandonment of tradition.
Tevye’s daughters serve as some of the greatest agents of change in Stein’s play. When Tzeitel believes that a match might have been made for her in Act I, scene three, she tells the man she really loves, Motel, that he must ask her father for her hand. Motel is afraid of Tevye and apprehensive because he is a poor tailor. He says that he does not feel adequate enough to ask for her hand—at least Page 89 | Top of Articlenot until he gets his new sewing machine. Though Motel does not work up enough courage in this scene, he is forced to do so in Act I, scene six, when Tevye tells Tzeitel about the match with Lazar.
Tevye does not abandon tradition without an argument, however. When Motel offers himself as a prospective husband for Tzeitel, Tevye says “Either you’re completely out of your mind or you’re crazy. Arranging a match for yourself. What are you, everything? The bridegroom, the matchmaker, the guests all rolled into one?” When Tevye finds out that Motel and Tzeitel gave a pledge to each other over a year ago, he is outraged. In a reprise of the song “Tradition,” Tevye sings incredulously “They gave each other a pledge / Unheard of, absurd /Where do you think you are? / In Moscow? / In Paris? / This isn’t the way it’s done / Not here, not now / Some things I will not, I cannot, allow.” Despite these misgivings, Tevye sees that his daughter is happy with the poor tailor and eventually relents. In fact, Tevye goes as far as to deceive his wife in Act I, scene seven, describing a horrific dream so that this wedding can occur.
Tevye’s second daughter Hodel starts out as the family’s biggest keeper of tradition next to her father. Early on, when Tzeitel worries that Yente has brought a match to her mother, Hodel says, “Well, somebody has to arrange the matches. Young people can’t decide these things for themselves.” Hodel likes the rabbi’s son. She is even the first to be suspicious when Perchik says he is a “good teacher.” She replies, “I heard once, the rabbi who must praise himself has a congregation of one.”
But Hodel is the first daughter to really break tradition, under Perchik’s influence. In Act I, scene six, she is left alone with him for a moment. Hodel perceives she has been insulted by Perchik and immediately turns to tradition for support. She tells him, “We have an old custom here. A boy acts respectfully to a girl. But, of course, that is too traditional for an advanced thinker like you.” Perchik protests several lines later, stating that “our ways are changing all over but here. Here men and women must keep apart. Men study. Women in the kitchen. Boys and girls must not touch, should not even look at each other.” Perchik goes on to tell her that in the city, men and women, girls and boys can dance together. He grabs her hand and starts to dance with her. Though startled, Hodel dances along.
Later, during Tzeitel’s wedding, Hodel and Perchik are public agents of change. At the reception
in Act I, scene ten, Perchik goes over to the women’s side and asks Hodel to dance. While some villagers call this act a “sin,” Tevye defends the young man’s brash act. After Perchik and Hodel dance, Tevye joins in and makes Golde dance with him. Soon the rest of the village joins in, save Lazar and Yente. Both of them have suffered the most because of these breaks with tradition.
Finally, when Perchik must leave in Act II, scene one, he asks Hodel to marry him. She agrees, though it will be a hard life for her. Tevye enters and they tell him of their engagement. This break with tradition is again hard for him to understand. He believes they are asking for his permission and tells them no. Perchik tells him, “We are not asking for your permission, only for your blessing. We are going to get married.” Tevye has another crisis of conscious, but he asks himself “did Adam and Eve have a matchmaker? Yes, they did. Then it seems these two have the same matchmaker.” Again, when Tevye sees that one of his daughters is happy, he gives in and breaks with tradition. He allows Hodel to travel to Siberia, where she will marry Perchik. There is no wedding for him to attend, though she promises to keep one tradition and marry under a “chupa” or canopy.
Of all of Tevye’s daughters, however, Chava makes the biggest break with tradition. She crosses a line that even Tevye cannot allow. In Act I, scene eight, Chava minds Motel’s tailor shop for a moment. During that time, a young Russian man named Fyedka begins to talk to her. He tells her, “I’ve often noticed you at the bookseller’s. Not many girls in this village like to read.” He goes on to offer a book to her. Chava is uncomfortable with him because he is not Jewish. She does not want to take the book, but she finds herself doing so. When Motel returns, she lies to him, saying that the book is her’s. By Act II, scene two, the villagers, like Yente,
have noticed that the Russian and Chava have been spending time together.
In Act II, scene five, things come to a head. Chava tells Fyedka that she is afraid to tell anyone about their relationship. When Tevye comes by, Fyedka wants to talk to him, but Chava says that she is the one who must confront her father. She argues, “The world is changing, Papa.” He replies, “No. Some things do not change for us. Some things will never change.” Chava then informs her father that she and Fyedka want to be married. He says that he will not allow it and grows angry. By the next scene, Chava has secretly married Fyedka and begs her father to accept the union. He cannot. Tevye asks, “Accept them? How can I accept them. Can I deny everything I believe in? On the other hand, can I deny my own child? On the other hand, how can I turn my back on my faith, my people? If I try to bend that far, I will break.” Chava leaves with her husband, disowned. Tevye says that she is dead to him.
In the final scene of the musical, Chava comes with her husband to say goodbye following the Jews’ expulsion from the village. Though Golde and Tzeitel warmly greet her, Tevye still cannot accept what she has done. Fyedka and Chava tell them that are leaving the village, too, because they do not want to be a part of this injustice. Just before the couple leaves Tevye tells Chava in a quiet way “God be with you,” acknowledging her and the changes in tradition that inevitably have come to his family.
Tevye and his daughters force an evolution in society’s transitions which predict greater changes for their village and their country. The community of Anatevka is literally breaking down at the end of Fiddler on the Roof just like the traditions that fell through the course of the play. A way of life is disintegrating, making way for new traditions and mores. Stein implies that people like Tevye contribute to such a process. By being innovators, the agents of change, those involved gain the strength of character to face an uncertain future.
Source: A. Petrusso, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.
Thomas M. Disch
Reviewing a 1991 revival production of Fiddler on the Roof, Disch finds that Stein’s play still has the power to charm an audience. The critic summarized: Page 91 | Top of Article“As of right now this is the best musical on Broadway.”
Of Fiddler on the Roof little more need be said that it is as good as ever. The art of curatorship has rarely been exercised so scrupulously in the Broadway theater. The Chagallesque sets by Boris Aronson have been faithfully reproduced; ditto the Zipprodt costumes. The credits at the foot of the program are worth quoting in full for what they may portend for future revivals: “Original Production Directed & Choreographed by Jerome Robbins,” followed in letters half that size by “Choreography Reproduced by Sammy Dallas Bayes/Direction Reproduced by Ruth Mitchell.” The role of Tevye is reproduced by Topol, who, oddly, seems younger this time round than in the 1970 movie version, when he had to work at looking the age he’s now achieved naturally. So, if you loved Fiddler in 1964, you can love it again just the same; and if you missed it then, here’s your chance. Book (Joseph Stein), score (Jerry Bock) and lyrics (Sheldon Harnick) may never before have meshed with this kind of Rolls-Royce precision.
Has Time, then, played none of its usual ironic tricks on the text? Well, it does seem darker to me now, and the final curtain, with Tevye heading for the New World but leaving behind three daughters probably destined to be victims of the Holocaust, seems overtly tragic. In the movie version, by contrast, the final emphasis is that Tevye’s glass is half-full rather than half-empty: America awaits him, in Technicolor. And if Fiddler’s a tragedy, then may it not be a tragic flaw in Tevye’s character that he accedes to his daughters’ determination to marry for love rather than prudentially? It’s a question that makes the story a lot more interesting, though it must remain unanswerable. Everyone in the cast does a splendid job, but I won’t recite the honor roll. I’ll just give an unqualified recommendation. As of right now this is the best musical on Broadway.
Source: Thomas M. Disch, review of Fiddler on the Roof in the Nation, Vol. 252, no. 1, January 7/14, 1992, pp. 26-27.
While finding the show “endearing—worthy of affection,” Clurman ultimately finds Stein’s Fiddler on the Roof to be less than great theatre.
After seeing Fiddler on the Roof (based on some Yiddish short stories; book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick) numerous members of the audience confessed (or proclaimed) that they shed tears of compassion and gratitude; others have asserted that their hearts swelled in elation, while still others were convulsed with laughter. My own reception of the show was cool.
I too found it endearing—worthy of the affection the enthusiasts had manifested. Yet thinking of it in its detail, the text lacked the full savor of its sources; the music simply followed a pattern of suitable folk melodies without adding, or being equal, to them; Jerome Robbins’ choreography, though correct in its method, was not—except for two instances—as brilliant as I had expected it to be. Boris Aronson’s sets did not “overwhelm” me; even Zero Mostel’s performance, which cements the diverse elements and gives them a core and a shape, was open to objections. Then, too, were not those critics right, in the press and the public, who maintained there was a Broadway taint in the mixture?
Yet the longer I reflected, the greater grew my regard for the show! The steadier my effort to arrive at a true appraisal of my feelings, the more clearly I realized that the general audience reaction was justified. By a too meticulous weighing and sifting of each of the performance’s components one loses sight of the whole.
The production is actually discreet. For a popular ($350, 000) musical there is a certain modesty in its effect. The vast machinery of production—I do not refer to the physical aspects alone—which must perforce go into the making of an entertainment of this sort has by an exercise of taste been reduced to a degree of intimacy that is almost surprising.
The choreography, for example, does not attempt to electrify: though it is rather more muscular, broader and certainly less “cosy” than Jewish folk dancing tends to be, Robbins has on the whole successfully combined the homeliness of such dancing with Cossack energy. And though Aronson’s sets may remind one of Chagall, they do not really attempt to achieve Chagall-like results. (Chagall’s art is always more emphatically Russian or French than anything else. Whatever their subject, his paintings possess a certain opulent flamboyance that is hardly Jewish.) Aronson, faced with the need to
move his sets rapidly, as well as to give them the atmosphere of impoverishment required by the play’s environment without robbing them of a certain quiet charm, has made his contribution to the proceedings relatively unobtrusive—which a Chagall stage design never is. (There is also in Aronson’s pictorial scheme a nice contrast between the ramshackle drabness of the places in which the play’s characters are housed and the profuse yet delicate greenery of the natural surroundings.) Considering too the dizzying extravagance of Mostel’s histrionic quality, his performance is remarkably reserved.
None of this, however, goes to the heart of the show’s significance, which must be sought in its effect on the audience. That effect comes close, within the facile laughter, the snug appreciation of an anticipated showmanship, to something religious. To understand this one must turn to the play’s original material: stories by Sholom Aleichem. Sholom Aleichem (pen name for Sholom Robinowitz, born in Russia in 1859, died in New York in 1916) was the great folk artist of Yiddish literature—an altogether unique figure who might without exaggeration be compared to Gogol. The essence of Sholom Aleichem’s work is in a very special sense moral. It is the distillation of a humane sweetness from a context of sorrow. It represents the unforced emergence of a real joy and a true sanctification from the soil of life’s workaday worries and pleasures. Although this blessed acceptance of the most commonplace facts of living—generally uncomfortable and graceless, to say the least—appears casual and unconscious in Sholom Aleichem, it is based on what, in the first and indeed the best of the play’s numbers, is called “Tradition.”
This tradition, which might superficially be taken to comprise little more than a set of obsolete habits, customs and pietistic prescriptions, is in fact the embodiment of profound culture. A people is not cultured primarily through the acquisition or even the making of works of art; it is cultured when values rooted in biologically and spiritually sound human impulses, having been codified, become the apparently instinctive and inevitable mode of its daily and hourly conduct. Sholom Aleichem’s characters are a concentrate of man’s belief in living which does not exclude his inevitable bewilderment and questioning of life’s hardship and brutal confusion.
In the stories this is expressed as a kindness which does not recognize itself, as pity without self-congratulation, as familiar humor and irony without coarseness. This is beauty of content, if not of form. For the Eastern (Russian, Polish, Rumanian, Galician) Jews of yesteryear “would have been deeply puzzled,” Irving Howe and Eleazer Greenberg have said in their admirable introduction to a collection of Yiddish stories, “by the idea that the aesthetic and the moral are distinct realms, for they saw beauty above all in behavior.”
More of this meaning than we had a right to expect is contained in Fiddler on the Roof. Is it any wonder, then that an audience, living in one of the most heartless cities of the world at a time of conformity to the mechanics of production, an audience without much relation to any tradition beyond that expressed through lip service to epithets divested of living experience, an audience progressively more deprived of the warmth of personal contact and the example of dignified companionship, should weep thankfully and laugh in acclamation at these images of a good life lived by good people? In Fiddler on the Roof this audience finds a sense of what “togetherness” might signify. Without the cold breath of any dogma or didactics, it gets a whiff of fellow feeling for the unfortunate and the persecuted. It is a sentiment that acts as a kind of purification.
Is there too much “show biz” in Fiddler on the Roof? Undoubtedly. But apart from the fact that dramaturgic and musical equivalents of Sholom Aleichem’s genius are not to be had for the asking, is it conceivable that a truly organic equivalent of the original stories could be produced in our time at a theatre on West 45th Street? The makers and players of Fiddler on the Roof are not of Kiev, 1905, nor do they live (even in memory) a life remotely Page 93 | Top of Articleakin to that of Tevye the Dairyman, his family and his friends, or of the author who begat them. The producers of Fiddler on the Roof are Broadway—as is the audience—and, in this instance, perhaps the best of it. Those who have attended some of the latter-day productions of the Yiddish stage itself will know that they too are as alien to the spirit of Sholom Aleichem as anything we see at the Imperial Theatre.
The name of Chagall has almost unavoidably come up. The nearest thing to that artist’s type of imagination dwells within Fiddler on the Roof's leading actor. Zero Mostel has “Chagall” in his head. Mostel’s clown inspiration is unpredictably fantastic—altogether beyond the known or rational. One wishes this fantasy were allowed fuller scope in the show, even as compliments for its control are in order. For Mostel too, being part of Broadway, will fleetingly lapse into adulterations inhospitable to his fabulous talent.
Source: Harold Clurman, review of Fiddler on the Roof in the Nation, Vol. 199, no. 10, October 12, 1964.
Hewes, Henry. “Broadway’s Dairy Air” in the Saturday Review of Literature, October 10, 1964, p. 33.
Lewis, Theophilus. Review of Fiddler on the Roof in America, January 2, 1965, p. 25.
Review of Fiddler on the Roof in the Nation, October 12, 1964, p. 229.
Review of Fiddler on the Roof in Time, October 2, 1964, p. 82.
Sheed, Wilfred. “The Stage: A Zero and a Cipher” in the Commonweal, October 16, 1964, p. 100.
Taubman, Howard. “For Better or For Worse: Unaware of Limitations Popular Musical Theater Turns to Unusual Themes—‘Fiddler’ Brings One Off’ in the New York Times, October 4, 1964, section 2, p. 1.
Taubman, Howard. “Theater: Mostel as Tevye in ‘Fiddler on the Roof” in the New York Times, September 23, 1964, p. 56.
Altman Richard and Mervyn Kaufman. The Making of a Musical: Fiddler on the Roof Crown, 1971.
This book discusses Fiddler on the Roof from its conception to the original Broadway production as well as premiers in Europe and the Middle East. The evolution of the movie version is also included.
Guernsey, Otis L., Jr. Broadway Song & Story: Playwrights, Lyricists, and Composers Discuss Their Hits, Dodd, Mead, 1986, p. 115.
This is an interview with Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, and Joseph Stein on the creative process behind Fiddler on the Roof.
Rosenberg, Bernard, and Ernest Harbug. The Broadway Musical: Collaboration in Commerce and Art, Crown, 1971.
This book discusses the creative and financial process of putting together a Broadway musical, including Fiddler on the Roof in its discussion.
Suskin, Steven. Opening Night on Broadway: A Critical Quotebook of the Golden Era of Musical Theatre, Schirmer, 1990.
This book features summaries of critical response to and quotes from reviews of original Broadway productions, including Fiddler on the Roof.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2693200016