Book Review: Sounds crazy, no?

The iconic ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ celebrates 50 years – and inspires another behind-the-scenes book.

A 2008 staging of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ at the Thwaites Empire Theatre in London. (photo credit: THWAITES/FLICKR)
A 2008 staging of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ at the Thwaites Empire Theatre in London.
(photo credit: THWAITES/FLICKR)
Unfortunately for Barbara Isenberg, it is impossible to read her latest book Tradition!: The Highly Improbable, Ultimately Triumphant Broadway- to-Hollywood Story of Fiddler on the Roof, the World’s Most Beloved Musical, and not compare it to 2013’s Wonder of Wonders by Alisa Solomon, covering largely the same topic.
Luckily, the 50-year history of the Broadway-show-turned-film and subsequent international sensation is rich and engrossing, providing more than enough material to keep readers and fans engaged.
Isenberg traces the musical from the earliest glimmer of its origins in 1960 (though not back to its birth from Sholem Aleichem’s Yiddish stories), through its Broadway opening in 1964, its film debut in 1971 and the dozens of international revivals and adaptations to this very day.
Both books are impeccably researched and full of details, and while there is understandably a large amount of overlap, Isenberg’s tome still provides new and interesting anecdotes.
Some stories and memories are so iconic to the spread of Fiddler that they beg to be included even a second time around – like when Joseph Stein, the show’s librettist, saw a staging of the play in Japan.
“The producer asked him: ‘Do they understand this show in America?’” Isenberg recounts. “He responded, ‘Why do you ask?’ The producer said: ‘Because it’s so Japanese.’” Stein’s experience reinforced what fans of the show around the globe have come to realize.
“We had unwittingly written something very special and apparently universal,” he later wrote. “The themes of the show are as true to the Japanese experience and Japanese culture as they are to the American or English: the breakdown of tradition, the differences between generations, the eagerness to hang on to a religious background. These things are very much a part of the human experience.
“I think, if anything, Fiddler on the Roof is even more relevant today – because it talks about a world in turbulence.”
Isenberg, a former theater reporter for The Los Angeles Times, also devotes a significant chunk of the book to the coulda- beens that auditioned for the play: Eli Wallach, Gene Wilder, Jon Voight and Sam Waterston; and those who got their start there: Bette Midler, Bea Arthur and even Glee’s Lea Michele, in the 2004 revival.
When it came to the movie, the producers got calls from Walter Matthau, Richard Burton and even Frank Sinatra, looking for parts. One unsuccessful auditioner who later went on to greater things? The one and only Robert De Niro, reveals Isenberg.
Tradition! also recounts the classic tale of the hiring of director Norman Jewison (his real name), for the movie adaptation.
When they offered him the job, “he looked around the room and realized everyone else there was Jewish,” writes Isenberg.
“His heart was pounding furiously as he thought to himself, ‘My God. They think I’m Jewish. What am I going to tell them?” When he worked up the courage to tell them, “The room was quiet at first. Then Arthur Krim [the studio chief] leaned forward, put his hands together and said, ‘Why would you think we asked you to direct this film? We don’t want a piece of Yiddish kitsch.’”
Unlike Wonder of Wonders, Isenberg devotes a significant portion of the book to the most widely seen version of Fiddler – the 1971 film. Most of the fresh incidents from the book are related to that period, like the long road to get acclaimed violinist Isaac Stern to play the fiddle for the sound track, or how the marketplace on the film set in Yugoslavia was so realistic “that during filming, a local resident actually tried to buy a horse – and the synagogue.”
There were also many challenges relating to the motley crew who made up the show’s shtetl cast.
“Every morning, said Jewison, makeup people would stop by his trailer to clip white hairs from his beard and apply them to [Chaim] Topol’s eyebrows,” Isenberg writes of the actor who played Tevye in the film.
The film’s producers also struggled to adapt many of the cast members’ more gentile features to appear Jewish. Many of the actors experimented with brown contact lenses to turn their light eyes dark, and Topol later recalled that “anyone with a sufficient growth of beard need only don a black hat or even a kippa, not to speak of a beaver hat, to look Jewish.”
That 50 years later the play and film remain so present in pop culture is attributed to its universal themes and messages – which resonate not just globally but also across time.
“After half a century of steady reinforcement, Fiddler on the Roof has achieved recognition far beyond the theater or movie house,” Isenberg writes. “People who have never seen the show or movie can often recognize not just Fiddler’s songs, but also some of its best-known lines and jokes.”