Joseph Stein, Tony Award-Winning Librettist of Fiddler, Dies at 98

By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
and Kenneth Jones
25 Oct 2010

Joseph Stein
Joseph Stein
Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Joseph Stein, the veteran musical librettist who penned the books to such shows as Fiddler on the Roof and Zorba, died Oct. 24, friends in the industry told Playbill.com. He was 98 and had recently been hospitalized.

Mr. Stein was best known for the folksy, heartfelt text for Fiddler on the Roof, which was replete with one-liners tailored to the talents of star Zero Mostel's comic style, many spoken directly to the Almighty. (Tevye to God: "I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can't You choose someone else?") But he also wrote the books to the shows Mr. Wonderful, Take Me Along, Juno, Irene and Plain and Fancy, and scored a solid comedy hit in 1963 with Enter Laughing, which was [AUDIO-LEFT]based on an autobiographical, coming-of-age novel by Carl Reiner, and made a star out of Alan Arkin. He won a Tony Award for Fiddler, and was nominated for Rags, Zorba and Take Me Along.

His steadiest collaborator was Fiddler composer Jerry Bock (they also worked together on Mr. Wonderful and Body Beautiful), but he seemed to have worked at least once with nearly every composer of note of Broadway's Golden Age, including Charles Strouse, Sheldon Harnick, Stephen Schwartz, John Kander, Fred Ebb, Bob Merrill, Alan Jay Lerner, Burton Lane, Marc Blitzstein, Jule Styne, and Albert Hague.

Kander told Playbill.com that he is "devastated," adding, "He was a close friend and collaborator and it's a big loss to me and to the theatre."

Mr. Stein was born on May 30, 1912, to Jewish parents in New York City, and grew up in the Bronx. Taking a masters degree in social work from Columbia University in 1937, he spent the next decade as a psychiatric social worker, writing comedy on the side. He contributed sketches to the revues Lend an Ear (1948) and Alive and Kicking (1950). His comedy Mrs. Gibbons' Boys ran on Broadway briefly in 1949.



His big break came when he accidentally met then-nightclub-comic Zero Mostel while having lunch at a friend's house. "I'd never heard of him," Mr. Stein said. "He was doing a radio show." Mostel paid Mr. Stein $15 for some jokes he made up on the spot. That stroke of luck led to more work. He began writing for radio, authoring jokes for the likes of Phil Silvers and Jackie Gleason. He later joined the famed team of writers on TV's "Your Show of Shows," alongside Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and Larry Gelbart. He became friends with Reiner and, after suggesting his book "Enter Laughing" would make a good play, was given the go-ahead to write it. (He later turned it into a musical called So Long, 174th Street, a flop in 1976 that was recently re-dubbed Enter Laughing.)

He was invited by producer Richard Kollmar to write his first musical. Kollmar envisioned a Pennsylvania answer to Oklahoma!, using the Amish in place of frontier settlers. Mr. Stein and his writing partner Will Glickman bought a 50-cent pamphlet of Amish slang and wrote the affectionate Plain and Fancy in 1955. Like many of Mr. Stein's future works, it dealt in part with the immigrant experience, and featured characters who feel secure within their small community, but isolated from and slightly fearful of the larger world. It starred Barbara Cook and ran for over a year.

Mr. Stein's work could be simultaneously funny and touching. Fiddler's book was noted for its mix of comedy and drama. For every Yiddish Theatre-like comic exchange between Tevye and his wife Golde there was a disturbing encounter with Russian officals, or a painfully intolerant conversation between traditional father and rebellious daughter.

Mr. Stein continued working up until his final days. He wrote the book to Kander and Ebb's musical take on The Skin of Our Teeth, called All About Us, which had a production in Westport in 2007. In 2006, Mr. Stein's works were showcased in the York Theatre's "Musicals in Mufti" series."

In 1997, the Round Barn Theatre in Nappanee, IN, was renamed in honor of the librettist. Plain and Fancy reportedly had played more than 2,000 performances at Round Barn.

A revival of Zorba is aiming for Broadway for the 2010-11 season. Also, 174th Street, retitled Enter Laughing, and a recent hit for the York Theatre Company, is looking to reach Broadway during the 2010-11 season. Mr. Stein welcomed the opportunity to revisit his work. In 1999, Paper Mill Playhouse presented a revised version of the four-performance 1986 flop Rags. "In a sense, I tried to do too much, to tell too much story," Mr. Stein conceded at the time. "It's perfectly fine for a novel, but it was a little too much for a musical structure. I think we've sharpened the characters and clarified some of the storyline."

"Look," Mr. Stein added, "if I had the opportunity to work on Fiddler now, there are a couple of little things I'd like to change. You can always improve something. Nothing is ever really perfect."

James Morgan, artistic director of Off-Broadway's York Theatre Company told Playbill.com on Oct. 25, "All of us at York are deeply saddened by Joe's death, but delighted that we became friends through our presentations of seven of his shows: The Baker's Wife (the New York City premiere in 1985, and again two years ago), Plain and Fancy, The Body Beautiful (which we recorded), Zorba, Take Me Along, Carmelina (twice) and, of course, Enter Laughing, which we did twice as a Mufti [concert], twice as a full production, recorded — and has now been announced for Broadway. He was a member of our Honorary Board, winner of the 2007 Oscar Hammerstein Award for Lifetime Achievement, and a dear and supportive friend of the company. It is hard to fathom his not being here; he was truly a legend." 

Mr. Stein is survived by his wife Elisa; and three sons, Daniel, Harry and Josh, from his first marriage to Sadie Singer, who died in 1974; and one daughter, Jenny Lyn, from his marriage to Elisa Loti.