American Icons: Fiddler on the Roof

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How a milkman from a Russian shtetl became a Broadway star and a hero of postwar American culture.

American Icons Fiddler on the Roof Studio 360

Surely one of the least likely heroes in American theater is a singing milkman from a small village in czarist Russia. But that milkman, Tevye, became one of Broadway’s most beloved characters in the 1964 musical Fiddler on the Roof.

Tevye — citizen of the mythical shtetl of Anatevka, beleaguered father of five daughters, persecuted by the authorities — made his debut in 1894, in a series of stories published in Yiddish by Sholem Aleichem. Aleichem eventually wrote a play called Tevye the Milkman, which premiered in New York in 1919. But it was the short stories, in an English translation, that caught the attention of Joe Stein, an up-and-coming librettist on Broadway. He bought a copy of Aleichem’s book in 1960 and shared it with his collaborators, composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick. The three of them saw the makings of a musical.

Director Jerome Robbins — who had won a Tony and an Oscar for West Side Story — wasn’t sure about it, recalls producer Hal Prince. "Jerry said, 'What the hell is this show really about?’" Tevye’s struggle to marry off his daughters to the right men — or to fend off a pogrom — didn’t seem like the making of a hit. How would the story appeal to non-Jewish audiences? Harnick was exasperated by the questioning when he finally exclaimed, “It's about tradition!” Robbins was satisfied, Prince recalls, and told the men, “’Now go write a song called Tradition.’”

Fiddler’s success — it ran on Broadway for eight years, a record at the time — marked a shift in American culture. In the postwar years, Americans were beginning to embrace their ethnic roots, and Ellis Island became part of our national narrative. Joe Stein made a critical change to Aleichem’s stories (which usually end badly for Tevye): Stein has Tevye and his family lose their home, but set out for a brighter future in the United States. Tevye came to be seen not as an emblem of the backwards old country, but as a prototypical immigrant, struggling with changing times and mores. “He is trying to shift and bend and acclimate as necessary to keep peace in his home, and to understand himself,” says Alisa Solomon, author of Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof. “He makes error after error in these stories in how he relates to his daughters, and for the reader, he never quite comes to satisfactory self-realization. That's part of the tension in the stories that's so beautiful."

Special thanks to Josh Rogosin and Zoe Azulay for production assistance. 

Music Playlist

  1. If I Were a Rich Man

    Album: Fiddler on the Roof (1964 Original Broadway Cast)
    Label: RCA Victor Broadway
  2. Tradition

    Album: Fiddler on the Roof (1964 Original Broadway Cast)
    Label: RCA Victor Broadway
  3. To Life

    Album: Fiddler on the Roof (1964 Original Broadway Cast)
    Label: RCA Victor Broadway
  4. Anatevka

    Album: Fiddler on the Roof (1964 Original Broadway Cast)
    Label: RCA Victor Broadway
  5. Sabbath Prayer

    Album: Fiddler on the Roof (1964 Original Broadway Cast)
    Label: RCA Victor Broadway
  6. Matchmaker

    Artist: Cannonball Adderley
    Album: Fiddler on the Roof
    Label: Blue Note Records
  7. Sabbath Prayer

    Artist: Joe Quijano
    Album: Fiddler on the Roof goes Latin
  8. Sunrise, Sunset

    Artist: Miriam Makeba
    Album: Evening With Harry Belafonte & Miriam Makeba / Magic of Miriam
  9. Rich Girl

    Artist: Gwen Stefani
    Album: Love Angel Music Baby
    Label: Interscope