Judged by the sublimity of its songs or the freshness of its form, Fiddler on the Roof hardly merits inclusion on the short list of the greatest Broadway musicals. Unlike the creators of Show Boat, Oklahoma!, or West Side Story composer Jerry Bock, lyricist Sheldon Harnick, and playwright Joseph Stein did not reimagine the possibilities of the genre. A Chorus Line enjoyed an even longer Broadway run, My Fair Lady is more enchanting, and several other musicals have more and bigger hit songs. But has any musical ever exceeded the expectations of its creators more spectacularly than did Fiddler on the Roof?
Opening in September 1964, Fiddler was supposed to do little more than satisfy Jewish nostalgia. Instead, it managed to become a wonder of wonders, insinuating itself into the hearts of millions of playgoers around the globe. More than a theatrical production, Fiddler became a phenomenon, and when the Hollywood version appeared in 1971, interest in the fate of Anatevka seemed practically universal. Sometimes, apparently, it takes a village to make a global village.
How this process occurred, from inspiration to impact, is the subject of Alisa Solomon’s terrific book. Though subtitled “a cultural history,” it is more than that. For it is also a work of social history, and it provides a riveting account of how an adaptation from a Yiddish storyteller came close—against all odds—to achieving universal appeal. Fiddler thus defied the suspicion that staging Eastern European Jewry would be too parochial to sell tickets to the multitudes that popular entertainment covets.
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