Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Behind the Story of "Fiddler on the Roof" with Alisa Solomon (on Thursday, November 21, 7 pm, at Boswell)

I can’t find them now to take a photograph as evidence, but I came to Milwaukee with a stack of Playbills over a foot high. Our trips to the theater started young; I remember seeing the musical 1776 with my fourth grade class.

It’s hard to believe there was a time when Broadway was not directed mostly at tourists, but towards New Yorkers. I think nowadays many New Yorkers would scoff at being Broadway musical regulars, but at one time this was not the case. A good percentage of those New Yorkers were Jewish, estimate at more than a third, but having an explicitly Jewish show was apparently frowned upon. Instead you’d have a character in Guys and Dolls throw out a line in Yiddish.

Perhaps a Jewish show would remind folks too much of their origins, represented by the Yiddish Theater scene, first on Bowery and then on Second Avenue. One of the mainstays at scene were the plays of Sholem Aleicheim (or alternately Sholem-Aleichem; some folks use the hyphen, some don’t). And that is where the story of Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof begins.

One of the many things I did not know about Fiddler on the Roof was that its creation was on the back of a huge Sholem Aleichem revival. Not only was a book about Aleichem a major bestseller in the 1950s,, it was followed by a New York revival of three of his plays that was a major hit off Broadway, and then toured the country, co-sponsored by JCCs and other organizations. When I was growing up, our equivalent of the JCC was called a YMHA. I think that the metro area is still sprinkled with both naming conventions.

Solomon notes that Fiddler on the Roof was a major transitional musical, between the old school best represented by Rogers and Hammerstein in the 1950s and the modern art form of folks like Stephen Sondheim in the 1970s. It also turned out to be cultural touchstone for Jews. As I was reading the book, I was reminded by a theme in Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, the history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show I read this spring. First it was of the moment, and then as it found success, the very elements that brought it to success led it into controversy. I didn't go crazy, but I found a few copies of the score to bring in for the event. Who doesn't want to break out into Matchmaker, Matchmaker when feeling forlorn?

Wonder of Wonders is divided into four basic sections, starting with the artistic and commercial life of Sholem Aleichem and his plays, and ending with two particularly interesting examples of how Fiddler on the Roof has become part of the cultural dialogue, first in a Brooklyn school production by Blacks and Latinos during the New York community schools initiative, which led to bitter teacher strikes, and then in a Polish town, once heavily Jewish, but now pretty much devoid of them.

But the heart of the story is the making of the musical. And boy, any student of theater would love all the loving detail that’s gone into Solomon’s research. You can really see how the production was shaped, with all the players, the way the momentum of the story changed, the ins and outs of casting, the many, many songs that were cut along the way. You could easily have a major release of songs that were cut from Fiddler on the Roof. It would have made a great follow-up to the original cast album. Hey, I’m fifty years too late for that idea.

Despite the many players in the story, it’s the crazy brilliance of Jerry Robbins who shines fiercest in the story in my opinion. This was a guy who pushed aside his Jewishness, as did so many folks in the arts in this time period, and seemingly came to terms with it in this production. But a lot of the players had similar experiences, like Zero Mostel, who was raised Orthodox but married an Irish woman, yet never forgave his mother-in-law for serving him creamed beef in his first dinner at her home. I don't think I would have wanted to work with either of them.

Alisa Solomon currently directs the Arts and Culture concentration at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. For more about Wonder of Wonders, check out this review from Shelley Salamensky in The Wall Street Journal, who praises the "exuberant" chronicle that "careers through the countless twists and turns of the Fiddler phenomenon."

Eileen Reynolds in The Jewish Daily Forward writes: "Wonder of Wonders offers a particularly thoughtful analysis of how Fiddler--a midcentury showbiz creation--has achieved something like folklore status in the American imagination, and grapples, as any history of this musical must, with fundamental questions about Jewish identity."

Coincidentally, a new biography of Sholem Aleichem has just come out from Schocken, entitled (of course) The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem. Author Jerry Dauber and Alisa Solomon would be a great pairing, right? I suspect that's happening somewhere in New York right now.

Mark your calendars for Thursday, November 21, 7 pm for an evening with Alisa Solomon at Boswell. This event is co-sponsored by the Sam and Helen Stahl Center for Jewish Studies at UWM, the UWM Theater Department, and the Harry and Rose Samson Family JCC Milwaukee on our appearance with Alisa Solomon.Want to help spread the word? Here's our Facebook event page.

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