Fiddler on the Roof sounded crazy. ““We knew what the reaction would be,” says book writer Joseph Stein. “‘You want to do a musical about old Jews in Russia who are going through a pogrom? What are you out of your mind?’” Yet today productions of the musical by Stein, composer Jerry Bock, and lyricist Sheldon Harnick is as much a tradition of musical theatre as Tevye’s daily prayers are of Judaism.
In the new documentary Fiddler: Miracle of Miracles, which hits select theatres August 23, filmmakers Max Lewkowicz and Valerie Thomas explore how Fiddler first took root and has grown into a global intergenerational phenomenon—a musical that, since its debut in 1964, has played every single day somewhere in the world.
Creators Stein, Bock, and Harnick reveal the early days of its creation, including private demos they used to write songs. Producer Harold Prince shares why he hired Jerome Robbins instead of directing the musical himself. Lin-Manuel Miranda digs into the musical’s cultural implications and influence—and why he performed a song from the Jewish musical at his own wedding. Theatre critics, historians, Jewish scholars, and more dissect the little known facts about the story, the impact, and why Fiddler is a wonder.
1. Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock did not set out to write a story about Tevye the Dairyman.
“Someone sent me a book by Sholom Aleichem called Wandering Stars—like a Dickensian novel about a Yiddish theatre troupe touring all over Eastern Europe and I loved it,” Harnick says in the documentary. “And I gave it to Jerry Bock and he loved it, and we thought there’s a musical in it, and we thought, ‘Who would be the right person to do the book?’ And we thought of Joe Stein.” But Stein said no, that wasn’t the one. He turned to Sholom Aleichem’s stories of Tevye and his daughters. That was the beginning of Fiddler on the Roof.
2. Harnick and Bock wrote separately.
“Sheldon and I, we’d become somewhat familiar with the book, we’d separate and I would guess as to what kind of music in terms of ambience, period, character, and so forth. So I would send Sheldon a half a dozen melodic guesses,” says Bock.
“I always looked forward to these tapes that Jerry would send,” Harnick continues. “On each tape, one or two of them would coincide with ideas I had for lyrics.” What Bock tells “Shel” in his recorded introduction on his melodic demo of “If I Were a Rich Man” is priceless. (You’ll have to watch to hear it.)
3. The trio knew it would be a tough show to produce—but they didn’t realize how tough.
So it was our baby and we worked on it on and off for a number of years,” Stein remembers. “Despite the fact that we were all successful, of all the shows I’ve done that was the most difficult to get a producer for was Fiddler.”
4. Hal Prince agreed to produce, but denied the offer to direct.
Instead, Prince suggested Jerome Robbins—having worked with him on West Side Story. “My thinking was very clear,” says Prince. “It had to have universality, and his incredible adroitness with movement.”
5. Robbins wasn’t convinced at first, but experts believe his personal history led to his commitment as director-choreographer.
When Robbins was a boy, his parents took him to Rajanka, Russia, to visit his grandparents. Years later, in 1958, Robbins was in Europe and made a detour to Rajanka. There was nothing left. The entire Jewish population had been annihilated in the Holocaust. “To realize this was gone forever … this affected him greatly,” says Ted Sperling.
6. The budget for the musical was $250,000.
Think about that.
7. “Tradition” did not exist in the early drafts—not as the opener, not at all.
“We had regular meetings and Robbins would say, ‘What is this show about?’” says Harnick. “And we would say, ‘Well it’s about this dairyman and his five marriageable daughters.’ He’d say, ‘No, that’s not what gives these stories their power.’”
“Ultimately we said, ‘Oh for God sakes, Jerry, it’s about tradition isn’t it?’ And Jerry said, ‘Write that,’” says Prince. “That unlocked everything that the show needed.” But after Bock and Harnick wrote it, during the first eight weeks of rehearsal in New York, Robbins refused over and over to stage the number. Finally, one day he came in and staged it in 30 minutes.
8. The lyrics we know today to “Tradition” are not the lyrics Bock and Harnick wrote originally.
In fact, the two performed a different version on television! The verse began “There’s noodles to make and chicken to be plucked / And Liver to be chopped and challah to be baked.” You can hear Harnick and Bock sing a full excerpt in the film.
9. The bottle dance was inspired by a Hasidic wedding.
As a choreographer, Robbins always did his research and always came prepared. He and Stein went to a Hasidic wedding for inspiration for the movement in the show—specifically Tzeitl and Motel’s wedding. “He was very taken with the wildness of the dancing,” says Stein. “One man was dancing with a bottle on his head. I saw it and I thought that was interesting and that’s all I thought. He saw it and he saw a dance.”
“I think it’s a little bit like a marriage,” says Bartlett Sher, who directed the 2015 Broadway revival. “You’re holding a bottle on your head and you’re trying to keep your balance when you’re going into a very intense and profound relationship.”
10. The out-of-town tryout took place in Detroit, and it did not bode well.
Fiddler opened at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit, Michigan. (A song list from that version of the production can be seen on screen.) The reviews…did not exist, thankfully. “There was a newspaper strike,” says Prince, “and I called to find out what the newspaper reviews would have been and they been published and they were bad.” Variety did publish and said there were no memorable songs in the show.
11. Among the cut songs was one of Bock and Harnick’s favorites.
In the place we now hear “Anatevka,” a somber tune of exodus, there used to be a satirical song called “When Messiah Comes,” all about how God would apologize to the Jews for everything he put them through over the years—including this most recent eviction. Audiences weren’t having it. It was not a moment to make light of the situation. So the creators leaned into the poignance. (Of note, there also used to be a song for Motel about his “sweet, sweet sewing machine.”)
12. “Do You Love Me?” was Harnick’s fantasy.
The lyricist’s parents fought bitterly during Harnick’s upbringing. The tenderness in this song was a realization of a dream for him: “When I wrote this song I was wishing that my father and mother had had this kind of relationship.”
13. Prince proved himself a hospitable Broadway producer.
When the show made it to the Main Stem, the line for ticketbuyers snaked around the block on 45th Street leading to the Imperial Theatre. Prince served coffee to everyone in the queue.
14. After the success of the stage show, the film came; but there was a hiccup during “If I Were a Rich Man.”
Chaim Topol was cast as Tevye for the movie adaptation of Fiddler. Director Norman Jewison explains why he chose Topol instead of original Zero Mostel in the documentary. Topol recalls that it took three days to film “Rich Man” and that he sounds a bit strange because he sang with a painful toothache.
15. The last scene they shot for the movie was the most emotional for Topol as Tevye.
The last scene Topol shot was his farewell to Hodel at the train station. “For me this is the most hurting place in the film, in the play,” says Topol. “It stayed in my head in my heart for years that scene.”
16. The title came from artist Mark Chagall.
Robbins drew inspiration from Chagall’s paintings in terms of the emotional tone of the piece as well as its scenic design by Boris Aronson. Aronson painted villager’s homes in the sky on the drop as an homage to Chagall. But it’s also where the musical found it’s title. “One of his paintings was of a man playing a violin and he’s standing, he’s actually floating just a bit above a roof but he looks like he’s standing on it,” says Harnick. “And that picture fascinated us, and one of us suggested it as a title: Fiddler on the Roof.”