Fiddler on the Roof

by Joseph Stein

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Critical Overview

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When Fiddler on the Roof had its first out-of-town try-out in Detroit, Michigan, there was debate over whether the show would ever have the mass appeal to make it to Broadway. A reviewer from Variety predicted it would only have a slim chance to be successful. Still, good word of mouth spread through its next stop in Washington, D.C. By the time Fiddler reached Broadway, it was a blockbuster hit from the first night, September 22, 1964. Fiddler on the Roof was the hit of the season and played on Broadway until July 2, 1972.

Still critics were unsure about the sustained appeal of such an ethnically specific play. Theophilus Lewis in America wrote, ‘‘Not that extravagant praise of Fiddler involves more than a remote risk.’’ Nonetheless critics praised the source material, Sholom Aleichem’s stories. Howard Taubman in the New York Times asked, ‘‘Who would have guessed that the stories of Sholom Aleichem would be suitable for the musical stage?’’ The reviewer in Time magazine said, ‘‘Paradoxically, Fiddler’s conscientious good taste may have robbed it of the richer seasoning of the Sholem Aleichem tale it comes from. Fiddler does not swell with Aleichem’s yeasty joy, pain and mystery of living.’’

Some critics thought that Fiddler would save Broadway. Taubman wrote: ‘‘It has been prophesied that the Broadway musical theater would take up the mantle of meaningfulness worn so carelessly by the American drama in recent years. Fiddler on the Roof does its bit to make on this prophesy.’’

Fiddler received many rave reviews for its content. Henry Hewes in the Saturday Review of Literature wrote, ‘‘Joseph Stein and his collaborators have . . . arrived at a remarkably effective mixture that thoroughly entertains without ever losing a sense of connection with the more painful realities that underlie its humor, its beauty, and its ritual celebrations.’’ Taubman argued that the play ‘‘catches the essence of a moment in history with sentiment and radiance. Compounded of the familiar materials of the musical theater—popular song, vivid dance movement, comedy and emotion—it combines and transcends them to arrive at an integrated achievement of uncommon quality.’’

Many of the critics who liked the play expected more from it, however. These critics believed the musical bowed too much to the cliches of Broadway. Taubman was one such critic. He wrote, ‘‘if I find fault with a gesture that is Broadway rather than the world of Sholom Aleichem, if I deplore a conventional scene, it is because Fiddler on the Roof is so fine that it deserves counsels towards perfection.’’ In another review, Taubman said, ‘‘I wish it had the imagination and courage to turn away from all compromise with what are regarded as the Broadway necessities.’’

Several critics were not as impressed by Fiddler on the Roof. The critic from the Nation found the musical less satisfying than the source material, writing ‘‘I found it too endearing—worthy of the affection the enthusiastics had manifested. Yet thinking of it in its detail, the text lacked the full savor of the sources.’’ Yet the critic went on to say that he changed his mind over time. Wilfred Sheed, writing in the Commonweal, was more harsh. He wrote, ‘‘some of the attempts to establish an atmosphere of Yiddish quaintness in Fiddler are pushy and overexposed and fair game for straight criticism. There is too much formula here; the village of Anatevka unburdens itself of more wry resignation in a half an hour that you’d expect to hear in a year.’’

Still, Sheed, like many other critics, singled out the performance of Zero Mostel, the original production’s Tevye, for praise. Theophilus Lewis in America believed that ‘‘In human values, Tevye is a magnificent character, and Zero Mostel’s portrayal is a memorable one.’’ Taubman agreed, saying ‘‘Zero Mostel’s Tevye is so penetrating and heartwarming that you all but forget that it is a performance.’’ Mostel’s Tevye has come to be regarded as the ultimate interpretation of the role.

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