The evening began and ended with the same word — a word that had originally eluded the show's creators. Director-choreographer Jerome Robbins was not one to take no answer for an answer. He kept hammering away at his book writer (Joseph Stein), his composer (Jerry Bock) and his lyricist (Sheldon Harnick): What was this show about that they had created from Sholom Aleichem's "Teyve and His Daughters"?
Harold Prince, the show's producer, recalled in a film clip their lame responses. "'Well, it's about a man — Tevye the milkman — and his five daughters and how to marry them off.' And Jerry'd say, 'No, it's not that. I don't know what it's about, but it's not that.' He'd go away and drive a lot of people quite crazy because that happened on a number of occasions. Then, finally, in frustration, Sheldon said, 'Jerry, for God's sakes, it's about tradition.' And Jerry said, 'That's what it's about. Write about that.'"
Bock and Harnick did as they were told, and Fidder on the Roof opened with a song called "Tradition," perfectly set up by Stein with a now-famous lead-in for Tevye to deliver: "A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn't easy. You may ask, why do we stay up there if it's so dangerous? We stay because Anatevka is our home... And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in a word... Tradition."
At the evening's end, the word was invoked by the actor who first uttered it in the 1967 long-running West End production, then again in the 1971 film (for which he won an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe Award), and again in the 1983 London revival, and again on tour in the U.S. and finally in the 1990 Broadway revival (for which he nabbed a Tony nomination). "Without our traditions," said [Chaim] Topol, "our lives would be as shaky as... as... a fiddler on the roof!"
Silver-haired, bespeckled and 78, Topol took to the Town Hall stage June 9 with an acapella rendering of "If I Were a Rich Man," but his finger-snapping prompted the audience to clap in time. Later, he returned with Lori Wilner for a touching "Sunrise, Sunset."
The occasion was Raising the Roof, a one-night-only fund-raiser for The National Yiddish Theatre—Folksbiene. A couple of ex-Motels from the show, Gary John La Rosa and Erik Liberman, co-conceived and co-directed the benefit to celebrate three separate milestones: Harnick's 90th birthday on April 24, Fiddler's 50th anniversary coming up on Sept. 22 and Foksbiene's 100th year, which it will enter on June 14.
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