THE BOOK SHELF: Alisa Solomon's "Wonder of Wonders" and Stacy Keach's "All in All"

By Steven Suskin
January 5, 2014

This month's column looks at Alisa Solomon's "Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof" and Stacy Keach's memoir "All in All."

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There is an informative and highly entertaining chronicle of the making of the 1964 Bock-Harnick-Stein musical Fiddler on the Roof called "The Making of a Musical: Fiddler on the Roof" by Richard Altman and Mervyn D. Kaufman. Altman knew of what he wrote, as he was assistant director to Jerome Robbins on the show and was a first-person observer of the ins and outs and ups and downs. What, one wonders, does Alisa Solomon have to add in "Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof" [Metropolitan/Henry Holt]?

Plenty, it turns out. "Cultural History" might sound somewhat tame, but that's precisely what "Wonder of Wonders" is. Solomon, a former drama critic for the Village Voice, is also an incisive journalist and, based on the results here, a keen cultural observer. So this is not just a question of how often weepy grandparents sang "Sunrise, Sunset" at weddings in the 1970s and 1980s. Almost a third of the story takes place long before Tevye first started singing. Solomon draws a fascinating portrait of the writer Sholem-Aleichem, who wrote the first of his eight Tevye stories in 1894. The writer, during the days when he was trying to scratch out a living in New York, was called "the Yiddish Mark Twain." (Twain professed mutual admiration, dubbing himself "the American Sholem-Aleichem.")

But despite wide acclaim, Aleichem — whose real name, like Jerry Robbins, was Rabinowitz — underwent a constant struggle to support his large family. And, like many people of his time and place, he faced continuing uncertainty from the time that he escaped a pogrom in Kiev in 1905 until he died in New York in 1917 (at the age of 57). Thus, Solomon's tale begins with the Russian literary life and pogroms, continues with the life of cast-out wanderers, and delves into the world of the Yiddish theatre in New York, which Aleichem expected to be his financial savior. (It wasn't.)

After the author's death, she continues with the life of the Tevye stories and winds up dealing at length with the 1950s blacklist. All of this makes for fascinating reading, and all of this does indeed provide cultural background for what was to become Fiddler on the Roof.

Solomon then gives us her own account of the writing and production of the show. Different from Altman's, yes; while he was intimately involved in Fiddler, there were numerous things which he really couldn't talk about while the show was still running. What's more, Solomon continues to talk about the cultural aspects of Fiddler on stage, on screen and internationally, which gives us plenty of food for thought, as they say. Solomon makes it tasty and provocative.

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In the first ten pages of Stacy Keach's "All in All: An Actor's Life On and Off the Stage" [Lyons], the celebrated actor discusses his 1984 arrest at Heathrow for possession of cocaine; his internment in Reading Gaol (of Wilde-ian fame); his bad marriages; and his being lashed to a pole outside an abandoned building in freezing weather, not in some TV Movie of the Week but as a six-year-old perpetually bullied due to his cleft palate.

"All In All" Cover art

This out of the way, he then goes on to discuss his life and work as an actor on the screen and television but mostly on stage, where his goal was to follow in Laurence Olivier's footsteps as the premier classical actor of his generation. Coming of age in the turbulent sixties, though, there wasn't much of a place for classical actors; his first much-noticed role came in 1966, not as Macbeth but as Barbara Garson's counter-culture MacBird! (in which a thinly disguised LBJ — the sitting president at the time — murders John Ken O'Dunc). Steach achieved stardom in 1969 as Buffalo Bill in Arthur Kopit's Indians, but not after two successive cinematic misadventures. (He was fired by Mike Nichols after three days work on "Catch-22," the experience being so discouraging that he turned down the role of Hawkeye Pierce in Robert Altman's "M*A*S*H.")

While the latter film might have turned Keach into an instant movie star, Indians established him as a powerful stage performer with unlimited capabilities. The story of the 19th-century Wild West showman, Kopit's play was an allegorical assault on American arrogance in Vietnam; Keach calls his character "a bombastic vulgarian with an ego bigger than his conscience." Indians caused enormous controversy when it opened at the Atkinson; but while political controversy in 1969 made headlines, it did not attract Broadway theatregoers. (This was a time when men still wore jackets and ties to theatre.) The show closed after a short run, but Keach was staggeringly good; critically speaking, I never again found him quite so effective until Other Desert Cities in 2011.

Keach's chronicle of the actor's world — with a wealth of insight and a refreshing lack of ego — makes "All in All" an immensely likable and readable picture of life upon the wicked stage during the last third of the 20th century and up through today, as well as off, where he was wrapped up in the turmoil of Woodstock, the Chicago Seven and other anti-Vietnam protests, often in the company of his then live-in partner Judy Collins.

(Steven Suskin is author of the updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," "A Must See," the "Broadway Yearbook" series, and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)