Joseph Stein was born on May 30, 1912, in New York City, the son of Charles and Emma (Rosenblum) Stein, Polish immigrants who emigrated to the United States. Growing up in the Bronx, Stein’s father read him the stories of Sholom Aleichem, a noted author of Jewish folk tales. Stein would remember these stories when he was called upon to develop the musical that became Fiddler on the Roof. Stein did not immediately turn to the theater, though. He attended City College, earning his B.S.S. in 1935, then his Master of Social Work from Columbia in 1937. Stein then spent six years employed as a psychiatric social worker, from 1939 until 1945.
In 1946, Stein began writing for radio. He wrote for such shows as the Henry Morgan Show and Kraft Music Hall. In 1948, he and writing partner Will Glickman began writing for the stage, contributing sketches to Broadway revues as well as whole plays and the books for musicals. Through 1958, every theatrical production Stein wrote was a collaboration with Glickman. In 1955, the duo had their biggest success with their first musical play, Plain and Fancy. Stein also wrote for television from 1950-62, primarily for variety shows such as Your Show of Shows and The Sid Caesar Show and specials for stars like Phil Silvers and Debbie Reynolds.
Adaptations of other people’s material proved to be the highpoint of Stein’s career. In 1959, he had his first solo success with an adaptation of Sean O’Casey’s Juno. An even bigger hit was Stein’s adaptation of Carl Reiner’s autobiography Enter Laughing in 1963. The apex of Stein’s stage career, however, was writing the book for the musical Fiddler on the Roof. Though backers were originally reluctant to produce the musical fearing it might have limited appeal, Fiddler went on to become a smash hit. Stein won three major awards for his effort, including the Antionette ‘‘Tony’’ Perry Award for best musical.
Stein continued to do well with adaptations. His next hit was the book for the 1968 musical Zorba, based on the novel Zorba the Greek. However, Stein’s career was not as successful after that point, hitting a low in 1986. Stein wrote the book for the musical Rags, which was a continuation of the story told in Fiddler on the Roof. Unlike the original, Rags failed to catch on immediately and was a box office failure in its original five-day Broadway run. The musical did have some success Off-Broadway and in regional productions; it received a Tony Award nomination in 1987.
Stein was married to Sadie Singer until her death in 1974. The couple had three sons, Daniel, Harry, and Joshua. Stein remarried in 1976 to Elisa Loti, a former actress and psychotherapist.
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