Fiddle Shtick

Everett Collection
Maria Karnilova and Zero Mostel in the original Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof, 1964

Fiddler on the Roof, which opened fifty years ago and had 3,242 performances, was the longest-running musical in Broadway history. We now have not one but two books about it—Alisa Solomon’s Wonder of Wonders and Barbara Isenberg’s Tradition! We can anticipate numerous revivals in professional theaters, schools, and summer camps. A reading of the Tevye stories by the great Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, on which much of the musical is based, was staged last summer at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse. Norman Jewison’s Academy Award–nominated 1971 movie version will soon appear at a number of film festivals. There is also Laughing in the Darkness, a film by Joseph Dorman, about the life of Sholem Aleichem, concluding with his funeral attended by 250,000 people in New York City in 1916. And there was last year’s rigorous biographical study by Jeremy Dauber (The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem), the concluding fifty pages of which were totally devoted to the musical the author never wrote.

Of all these, Alisa Solomon’s book is the best written, the most scholarly, and the most painstaking—while at the same time it is the most bewildering. A distinguished former critic for The Village Voice, now teaching arts and culture at Columbia’s School of Journalism, Solomon has done a prodigious amount of research. Her book includes a prefatory study of the life and career of Sholem Aleichem, and a comprehensive account of the entire Fiddler phenomenon, beginning with the first story ever published about Tevye the Milkman in 1894. Indeed, she approaches Fiddler on the Roof by producing a closely reasoned, learned dissertation, consisting of almost four hundred pages, 350 footnotes, and a twelve-page bibliography, devoted to the making and marketing of a Broadway musical hit.

She spends the first tenth of her book on Sholem Aleichem (or Sholem-Aleichem as she prefers to hyphenate his name) and how, fleeing a series of pogroms in the Ukrainian part of Russia, he sailed to America from Europe in 1905 in the hope of reforming the “sensational melodramas” or tasteless shund (“trash” in Yiddish) of Yiddish playwriting. (“I will never permit myself,” he announced, “to give in to American taste and lower the standards of art.”) These reforms he expected to introduce as he launched his own career as a playwright in the Yiddish theater, offering new plays to companies led by Jacob Adler, David Kessler, Boris Thomashefsky, and any local director willing to produce them.

Celebrated as an international literary hero, Sholem Aleichem lectured to overflow crowds throughout the US, and wrote two plays simultaneously produced by two different theater companies. Both were failures (scorned as insufficiently “American” by conservatives and as insufficiently revolutionary by leftists). He returned to Ukraine where he lived with his family until, jolted by another pogrom in Kiev and…

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