‘Fiddler’ was breakthrough for Jews on stage

Fiddler on the Roof

, with music by Jerry Bock; lyrics by Joseph Stein, and based on the famous stories by Sholom Aleichem, especially “Tevye’s Daughters,” opened at the Imperial Theatre in New York on Sept. 22, 1964 for what was to be a record-setting run of 3,242 productions. A Broadway musical or play with such explicitly Jewish content, featuring Jewish actors portraying Jewish characters in a show with a positive message was at the time both unprecedented and a pioneering breakthrough in show business which sometimes shunned Jewish themes.

Throughout much of the history of Broadway, Hollywood and network TV, despite the predominance of Jewish movie moguls, playwrights, screenwriters and actors, there was an almost universal and pathological fear of any kind of production that the audience might find to be “too Jewish.”

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Much of the “too-Jewish” phobia afflicted some of the Jewish movers-and-shakers of the entertainment industry. When a successful young actor from the Yiddish theater named Julie Garfinkle presented himself to Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures, the tough producer changed his name to John Garfield.

“Look kid,” Cohn said to Garfinkle. “They’re gonna find out you’re Jewish sooner or later, but better later than sooner. In the meantime you have to act under a different name.”

Other Jewish actors and actresses would also be obliged to disguise their “too-Jewish” names. Allen Stuart Konigsberg became Woody Allen; Benjamin Kubelsky became Jack Benny; Danny Kaminsky became Danny Kaye; Betty Perske became Lauren Bacall; Emmanuel Greenberg became Edward G. Robinson, etc., etc., etc.

Even the names of characters in films and plays were often changed if a producer feared they would be “too-Jewish.” Thus when in the original script for The Odd Couple, Neil Simon named one of the two main characters Oscar Magidson, it was changed to Oscar Madison. The same phobia was prevalent in network TV shows, with an almost 30-year gap between shows with explicitly Jewish main characters, from The Goldbergs in the 1950s to Bridget Loves Bernie in the 1970s. The fear of content or characters that are too Jewish was brilliantly satirized last year in the film For Your Consideration, in which a screenplay dealing with the Jewish festival of Purim was changed to deal with Thanksgiving instead.

Two major forces came along to help demolish or at least substantially diminish the Judeo-phobia of the entertainment industry: the career choices of Barbra Streisand and the phenomenon of Fiddler on the Roof ‘s unprecedented popularity. Barbra Streisand was told early in her career that both her name and appearance were “too Jewish,” and that she should change her name and get her nose “fixed” to reduce her “Jewishness.” Streisand boldy refused, insisting that she would perform with both the name and the nose she was born with, and would not hesitate to accept important roles of Jewish characters.

Thus she appeared as the famous Jewish comedienne Fanny Brice in Funny Girl and in the lead in the film version of Yentl. While rehearsing for the latter role, Streisand sought the advice of rabbis and studied both Hebrew and the Talmud to ground hersellf in the role as the young Jewish woman who disguised herself as a man in order to become a rabbi.

Any notion that Streisand’s open embrace of her Jewishness would hurt her career was demolished when she became the only entertainer to literally sweep all of the major awards of the entertainment industry, including the Oscar, the Emmy, the Tony, the Grammy and the Golden Globe. Streisand’s singular success in multiple fields of entertainment should consign the “too Jewish” phobia to the dustbin of show business history, although traces of it continue to this day.

Fiddler on the Roof has not only enjoyed tremendous success nationally on the Broadway stage and locally at The Muny, but has also appeared in productions around the world, with audiences from diverse cultures identifying with the struggles of Tevye to resist the irresistable forces of modernism by invoking the Tradition! Tradition! of the Jewish people. For years, Fiddler was the longest running Broadway production, including non-musical productions, and the ninth longest running London musical.

The by-now very familiar story never seems to fail to grab its audiences no matter how many times they may have seen previous productions. The show deals simultaneously with the persecution of the Jewish people in Czarist Russia which would trigger massive emigration, especially to the Goldene Medina of the United States. Stanley Green, in The Encyclopedia of Musical Theatre points out, that the play “had neither attractive costumes nor scenery,” but “its theme of a people vainly trying to preserve tradition in an alien, hostile and changing world turned out to be one with which large numbers could identify.”

Fiddler on the Roof is based on the widely popular fiction of Sholom Aleichem, the Jewish author who was often called “the Jewish Mark Twain” in tribute to his ability to evoke the Jewish experience in the shtetls of Eastern Europe. Some of the original creators of the musical had been inspired by Aleichem’s stories about Tevye and his daughters. Tevye, the simple, righteous and hard-working man, in keeping with Jewish tradition, often argues with the God he loves so much.

“Sure, we’re the Chosen People. But couldn’t you choose someone else once in a while?” Tevye asks after a pogrom sacks his town.

Fiddler on the Roof , when it first opened on Broadway in 1964, featured the legendary Zero Mostel as Tevye; Maria Karnilova as his wife Golde; Beatrice Arthur as Yente, the Matchmaker; Joanna Merlin as daughter Tzeitzel; Austin Pendleton as Motel; Bert Convy as Perchik; Julie Mignenes as Hodel; Michael Granger as Lazar Wolf; and Tanya Everett as Chava.

While Barbara Streisand would not star in Fiddler, between February 1967 and February 1970, the role of the eldest daughter Tzeitzel was played by an aspiring young singer-actress named Bette Midler.

Oldest daughter Tzeitzel marries Motel, the poor tailor after Tevye had promised her to Lazar Wolf, the prosperous butcher; second daughter Hodel marries a revolutionary who is sent to Siberia to which she follows him; third daughter Chava marries out of her faith, which to Tevye is the “last straw,” causing him to renounce her in one of the show’s most painful episodes. Even while Tevye and Golde are wrestling with their family problems, the entire shtetl is ransacked in a pogrom, convincing them and the other residents of Anatevka to seek new lives in America.

Green points out that the original concept of Tevye as that of a “thin, gaunt man.” He adds that Danny Kaye was the first actor sought for the role; others considered were Tom Bosley, Howard Da Silva, Danny Thomas and Alan King.

The selection of Zero Mostel, a huge man whose presence literally filled the entire stage “scored a triumph,” and he remained a tough act to follow through the years. The show continued its successful run with such replacements as Tevye as Luther Adler, Herschel Bernardi, Harry Goz, Paul Lipson, Jan Peerce and Jerry Jarrett. In the 1971 movie version, Israeli actor Chaim Topol played Tevye to positive reviews.

( Fiddler on the Roof will appear at The Muny in Forest Park, Aug. 4-10. Single tickets are available at The Muny Box Office in Forest Park. For more information, call 314-361-1900, or visit www.muny.org).