Anatevka Alums Make a Joyful Noise for Fiddler at 50

Broadway stars from the past 50 years gathered at the Town Hall June 9 to celebrate the 50th birthday of the acclaimed musical Fiddler on the Roof. Andrea Martin and Topol were there. So was Playbill.

Sheldon Harnick
Sheldon Harnick (Photo by Monica Simoes)

*

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.

Chita Rivera
Photo by Monica Simoes

Prince, who co-chaired this Town Hall gala along with columnist Frank Rich and Broadway's last Tevye, Harvey Fierstein, expressed some serious doubt about Harnick's age. "I think it's a big lie," he stated frankly. "He seems, like, about 55. He's an absolutely perennial kid, and that's because of what's going on inside him. He doesn't look very young, but he has a joyful, inquisitive curiosity about everything, and it remains today, so it's kept him very young — a lesson for all of us."

Taking those directorial notes to heart, Harnick practically bounced to the stage — maybe not as long or as high as Hugh Jackman on Tony night, but with convincing buoyancy — to receive a Lifetime Achievement award from Chita Rivera. She said with some pride that she and Bea Arthur made their New York stage debuts in Shoestring Revue doing a Harnick song called "Garbage": "She sang it, I danced it."

Harnick accepted the award with a certain bittersweetness, regretting that Bock and Stein and Robbins were not present to share his joy. He remembered that he and his composing partner felt that if they had done their job right the show would run one or two years, but that Robbins was more ambitious and predicted a quarter of a century. "If he were with us tonight and knew that he had given that [shtetl] culture not 25 years of life but 50 years, I feel he would be overjoyed," he said.

He thanked Zalmen Mlotek, the music director who conducted the nine-piece orchestra from the piano and had to be dragged by Topol from the keys to take his curtain-call bow, "for putting this evening together. Many months ago when Zalmen told me the kind of program he wanted, I thought to myself, 'Good luck, Zalmen. This will never happen,' but, by God, he pulled it off. So, Zalmen, my hat's off to you."

Then, he returned his award to Rivera, glibly cracking, "Chita, see what you can get for this thing," and went center-stage where Andrea Martin joined him in Tevye and Golde's comic duet — that nagging question of old marrieds, "Do You Love Me?" The third Tevya of the evening was Mike Burstyn, who performed — in Yiddish, with subtitles — the scene where he thinks Lazar Wolf wants to buy a cow, not marry his daughter. Lazar Wolf was played by the beloved comedian, Fyvush Finkel, also 90, who made his entrance with the assistance of a son and a cane, but performed impeccably once he was seated on two pillows. His only Broadway credit other than two Fiddlers (in '64 and '81) is Café Crown, in which his famous shtick was slamming a cup of coffee down on the table with great indifference, startling the customer.

Jerry Zaks
Photo by Monica Simoes

Grammy-winning violinist Joshua Bell got the evening off to a rousing start with a virtuoso variation of Fiddler themes. Critic Jeffrey Lyons provided some amusing historical footnotes on the show, adding the flourish that Harnick is his cousin. Teyve's daughters came in three tidal waves of trios to carve up "Matchmatcher" among themselves: Lori Ada Jaroslow, Donalyn Petrucci Shreve, Deborah Grausman/Rosalind Harris, Michele Marsh, Neva Small/ Joanna Merlin, Adrienne Barbeau and Tanya Everett Bagot.

The first of the five Fiddler on the Roof productions ran almost nine years — 3,242 performances, from Sept. 22, 1964, to July 3, 1972 — and won nine Tonys, plus an honorary tenth in 1972 for "becoming the longest-running musical in Broadway history" up to that point. It's now #16 on the list of Broadway's longest-running hits.

"Absolutely everybody delivered, starting with the cast," lauded Prince. "The cast was quite extraordinary — and, since they're probably a lot of them there, why not tell you that?" Indeed, 75 cast members from the original Broadway production and various revivals as well as the film version surfaced and performed their big hits.

Among those who were present and accounted for: Robert Aberdeen, Leslie Alexander, Sammy Dallas Bayes, Joanne Borts, Rachel Coloff, Maurice Edwards, Michael J. Farina, Kerry Frances, Louis Genevrino, Jackie Hoffman, Rebecca Hoodwin, Sandra Kazan, T. Doyle Leverett, Faye Menken Schneier, Carolyn Mignini, Joe Ponazecki, Larry Ross, Mark Sanders, Carol Sawyer, Roberta Senn, Harriet Slaughter, Cheryl Stern, Mimi Turque Marre and Louis Zorich.

The original, Tony-winning Tevye, Zero Mostel, was represented via a 1961 television clip, performing "a Jewish folk song about a little tailor," and ruefully adding the postscript that "ALL Jewish folk songs are about a little tailor." Four-time Tony-winning director Jerry Zaks reminisced about his days as an actor in the mid-'70s when he played Motel opposite Mostel. "He was a great acting teacher," he said. "The only problem is he would give me my notes on stage!"

The most recent Motel, co-director Liberman, and the first Motel, Austin Pendleton, performed their character's exuberant number, "Miracle of Miracles." Pendleton then took the mike and confessed, "This is the only piece I've ever been in where, all through my life, I've dreamed I'm in it. Every few years, I dream I'm playing this part. It has total reality, and I wake up and I think, 'Oh, I dreamed that.' Sometimes, I think, 'Maybe I get to dream I was in the show. Maybe I never was in the show.'"

Karen Ziemba
Photo by Monica Simoes

Norman Jewison, a Methodist from Canada (despite the name), could not make the plane connections to attend the event. Also absent was Aleichem's 103-year-old granddaughter, Bel Kaufman, who's nearing her own golden anniversary (the publication of her best-selling quasi-autobiography, "Up the Down Staircase"). She suffered a fall in her home last week and was forced to cancel her appearance.

Alisa Solomon, who wrote "Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof," reported on the seething creative collaboration that existed between Mostel (who had been blacklisted) and Robbins (who had named names). "Robbins, nevertheless, knew that Mostel was the best man for the role and begged him to take the role, and Mostel knew too, that — well, he was the best man for the role," she pointed out. "They respected each other as artists, and they came to a working relationship that simmered, as Joseph Stein told me, 'at two degrees below hostile.'"

On her night off from Bullets Over Broadway, Karen Ziemba came forth and sang a lilting ditty that was left in Detroit, something called "Dear, Sweet Sewing Machine." A petite bundle of blonde curls stepped up to the mike in the show's final stretch. "It has been 50 years since I played Bielke, Tevye's youngest daughter," said Pia Zadora. "It is so hard for me to believe, especially if you read my official bio which claims I am still 43 years old... There are so many great memories of working with Bea Arthur, Bette Midler, Luther Adler, Herschel Bernardi and, of course, Hal Prince. Now, Hal would send all the cast members a bottle of champagne for Christmas every Christmas, but, given my age, he sent me champagne bubble-bath. It was the worst champagne I ever drank.

"But, of course, my most vivid memories are of the man who was the heart of the show, my Jewish father, Zero Mostel. Zero called me a little shiksa because I was the only blonde Jewish actress playing one of his girls. In fact, backstage, when he was introducing us as his daughters, he would say, 'This is mine' and 'This is mine' and 'This is mine,' and, when he got to me, he would say, 'And THIS is MINE?'

"He also taught me the only three Yiddish phrases that I'll ever need to get through life: mazel tov, oy vey and schmuck. He was right."