Joseph Stein’s book for Fiddler on the Roof represents the author’s best known and most successful work in musical comedy. It was one of the last big successes in an era of great musicals on Broadway. Following its debut on September 22, 1964, at the Imperial Theatre, Fiddler ran for 3242 performances, achieving the longest run for a musical up to that time. This success was ironic considering the play’s producers’ initial fears that, due to the ethnically based story, the musical might not appeal to a broad audience.
Fiddler is based on short stories written by Sholom Aleichem, a Jewish writer who wrote primarily in Yiddish. Despite the producers’ reservations, a diverse audience embraced the musical, relating to its universal themes of family, love, dignity, and the importance of tradition. Many critics agreed. Theophilus Lewis, reviewing the original production in America, wrote, ‘‘Joseph Stein’s story has dramatic dignity, a continuous flow of humor, and episodes of pathos that never descend to the maudlin.’’ Most critics generally found the musical praiseworthy on many fronts— the performances especially the original Tevye, Zero Mostel; the acting; music; choreography; and direction. Several critics, however, found the production too ‘‘Broadway’’ while others felt it was too sentimental.
Stein won three prestigious awards for Fiddler on the Roof in 1965: The Antoinette ‘‘Tony’’ Perry Award for best musical, the New York Drama Critics Award, and the Newspaper Guild Award. The B’nai B’rith society also bestowed their Music and Performing Award upon Stein for his ‘‘exceptional creative achievement’’ in 1965.