THE BOOK SHELF: The "Tradition" of Fiddler on the Roof and Works by Tracy Letts, Annie Baker and More

This month's column discusses "Tradition!," a new chronicle of the making of Fiddler on the Roof and a clutch of playscripts from the likes of Annie Baker, Will Eno, Richard Nelson, Athol Fugard and Tracy Letts.

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Fiddler on the Roof turns 50 Sept. 22, an event which is being celebrated by at least two chronicles of the legendary Jerry Bock/ Sheldon Harnick/ Joseph Stein/ Jerome Robbins/ Hal Prince musical. (The 50th of Fiddler's close competitor, the Jerry Herman/ Michael Stewart/ Gower Champion/ David Merrick Hello, Dolly!, passed in January. Once Dolly seemed a marginally stronger hit through the initial decade, but by 1980 had lost its edge.)

Alisa Solomon's "Miracle of Miracles" — subtitled "A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof" — indeed looked at the show not only historically but culturally. This allowed the author to investigate areas rarely found in a Broadway chronicle, putting things in a different context than usual. Now we have Barbara Isenberg's "Tradition!: The Highly Improbable, Ultimately Triumphant Broadway-to-Hollywood Story of Fiddler on the Roof, the World's Most Beloved Musical" [St. Martin's Press]. That subtitle offers a lot to prospective readers, even though it is unwieldy and not quite accurate; the movie was filmed in Yugoslavia and London, far from Hollywood's shores.

Isenberg, a journalist, has given us a fascinating fly-on-the-wall thriller about the creation of a big Broadway musical, yes; but that book was "Making It Big," about the fatally overhyped 1996 enterprise that sunk in the quicksand of Shubert Alley. "Making It Big" is tense, fascinating and alive; it delivers what Isenberg's Fiddler book promises. Readers looking forward to Fiddler being put under the Big microscope are bound to be disappointed. Isenberg has duly interviewed several surviving Fiddler veterans — Harnick and Prince are still very much with us — and countered their testimony with much previously-published information from other sources. But there is little new, here, and little surprising; what's more, there is relatively little about the original Broadway production itself.

Considerably more than half the book discusses other matters, with a major concentration on the 1971 motion picture. Isenberg discusses director Norman Jewison at length, giving him far more page space than Jerome Robbins. She also gives us more from John Williams — who "composed" the film score using the Bock and Harnick songs — than she does from Bock himself. Even the cinematographer gets pages of discussion; he filmed through a filter of silk stockings from Zagreb. Fascinating stuff, maybe, but Jewison and Williams and cinematographer Oswald Morris didn't create Fiddler; they simply adapted it into another medium, with mixed artistic success (as Isenberg makes clear by quoting from the major reviews). Meanwhile, there is only a mention in passing of the show's original conductor, and not a word about orchestrator Don Walker — a key player in the creation of Fiddler who ultimately outearned everyone involved other than the authors, Robbins and perhaps Prince.

Readers who want an in-depth discussion of the making of Fiddler on the Roof — with all its fits and fights and feuds and superegos — have a far better source to turn to than Solomon or Isenberg. Richard Altman, Robbins' assistant director on the show, gave us an intensive diary of the show's creation, under the title "The Making of a Musical: Fiddler on the Roof." Altman's 1971 book is duly cited by both Solomon and Isenberg, but they are merely pulling nuggets from a backstage goldmine. If you want 50th anniversary overviews of Fiddler, you have books at your disposal; if you want to know about Fiddler on the Roof — the show itself, and how it got that way — seek out the real book about the making of this classic musical.

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Collectors of playscripts have plenty of new titles to chose from, courtesy of TCG ( Theatre Communications Group). These include recent plays by some of our busiest playwrights. Lisa Kron, who is warming up the superb Fun Home for a spring Broadway engagement, brings us In the Wake, which played the Public in 2010. Will Eno, of the recent The Open House and The Realistic Joneses, is on the list with Gnit, which is adapted more or less from Ibsen's Peer Gynt and premiered last year at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. The grand master Athol Fugard is represented by The Shadow of the Hummingbird, which originated in the spring at the Long Wharf in New Haven, CT. Also on the list is Killer Joe, the 1993 Tracy Letts play that is on tap for Broadway this season.

 

We also get three new translations from the classics. Richard Nelson (of The Apple Family Plays) has teamed with translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky for Nikolai Gogol's The Inspector, which is the first in a proposed series of major Russian translations by the trio. A Master Builder, Wallace Shawn's adaptation (with director André Gregory) of Ibsen, has been in the works for 15 years or so; while it has still not been fully staged, it was filmed in 2013 by director Jonathan Demme. Finally, we have Annie Baker's new version of Uncle Vanya, which was staggeringly good when it was produced at the Soho Rep in 2012 under the direction of Sam Gold.

* The folks at Hal Leonard, who recently brought us vocal selections folios for A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical and Rocky, have added two more, recent Broadway titles: Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner's First Date and Andrew Lippa's Big Fish. For me, Big Fish offers plenty more to sing about, including "Time Stops," "Daffodils" and "Fight the Dragon."

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes", "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," 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.)