Fifty years ago this week, the greatest musical ever opened on Broadway. That show, in case you didn’t know, is Fiddler on the Roof. And before anybody argues that Fiddler on the Roof isn’t the greatest musical ever, allow me to provide some support for my claim. Then have at me. What, really, are we looking for in a musical? Some might answer “entertainment;” others, “great music.” To my mind, what we’re looking for is an emotional experience. The more feels we feel, the better. And usually when I talk about this concept, I tie in Aristotle’s notion that human beings have a need to go through a catharsis every now and then. So, the theory goes, the world would be a better place if more of us went to the theatre and watched good shows that provide all that good stuff, the empathy, the release. Now, when you come back at me with your claim that some other musical should be thought of as the greatest ever, you’ll check to see whether the audience goes through more peaks and valleys of the spirit than it does at Fiddler. I realize that personal taste is involved, but it’s hard for me to imagine anyone seeing a good, true-to-the-creators’-intentions production of Fiddler and not weeping buckets and laughing belly laughs. And that last bit is very important: Fiddler on the Roof is a musical comedy. There are shows that are supposedly emotional – Miss Saigon, Parade and The Secret Garden come to mind – where one never cracks a smile. Attending humorless shows is a punishing experience: Not my idea of fun, or entertainment (that first criterion mentioned above). I once joked that the perpetrators of such sob-fests should merely present Juvenile Cancer Ward – The Musical!, have characters die, and achieve the same effect. (That seemed like a joke some years ago. Of course, at times, jokes go on to become reality, and I’m sorry if you’ve had to sit through that juvenile cancer musical by a writing team that’s unaccountably won some major awards. Shudder.) Fiddler’s style of humor is old fashioned: deliberately, I think. The book writer, Joseph Stein, was an old-style mirth-maker – he, like many of the great 1960s librettists, had written for Sid Caesar’s television show in the 1950s. The show is set in the past, in a fairly exotic place (rural Russia) and the jokes combat alienation; they’re familiar to us. They’re also character-based. Tevye feels like an amiable slogger, like someone we’ve known and liked all our lives, mostly because of his humorous way of looking at the world. Stein’s tone for Tevye continues in Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics. It’s hard to find as great an agreement in a character’s diction in any other show with different lyricists and book writers. “I see her putting on airs and strutting like a peacock. Oy, what a happy mood she’s in.” is right in line with “As the Good Book says, if you spit in the air, it lands in your face.” I’ve seen If I Were a Rich Man mischaracterized as Tevye’s I Want Song. If that were true, then we have the least effectual guy in the history of Broadway leads, since he takes no active steps towards that goal. Chances are, though, that Harnick and composer Jerry Bock at one point thought it sufficed. That was back when, pre-Broadway, the opening number involved frantic preparation of the dinner table, a number called We’ve Never Missed a Sabbath Yet. Director Jerome Robbins (I’d argue the greatest director of musicals, but that’s another blog) pestered Bock & Harnick to answer, “What’s this show about?” There were a lot of responses put forward: Jews being expelled from their little town, a father trying to marry off his many daughters, a marriage like our grandparents had. Robbins kept shaking his head no until he heard the answer “It’s about the dissolution of deeply-loved traditions.” It seems obvious in retrospect, but once this theme was identified, the songwriters toiled with a new sense of purpose, and came up with Tradition, an opening number that, while setting up the world of the play, inherently expresses Tevye’s primary desire. He wants these traditions to continue.
It came as a surprise to some that Fiddler on the Roof would be embraced by groups besides Jews. But when it played Japan, the authors were asked how it was possible they understood Japanese people so well. You see, it’s true of every culture: an older generation wants certain things to go on the way they long have; tragically, circumstances get in the way of that. Tevye wants his daughters to marry well, and live on in Anatevka. We see his thrill at getting a rich butcher for a son-in-law, and then his willful eldest insists she marry a poor tailor instead. The second oldest marries a poor man too, one who takes a noble political stand that gets him sent to Siberia, meaning that Dad and daughter will be permanently separated. The third marries out of the religion, which, tradition requires, means that her father may never speak to her or look at her again; he must deny her existence. Then the Jews are expelled from Anatevka, innocent victims of the tsar’s arbitrary whim. All of this, happening to a character we love, is unspeakably sad. Yet Robbins, Stein, Bock & Harnick leaven the pain with constant humor. Had this tale been musicalized twenty or thirty years ago, lesser creators would have fashioned three hours or more of unrelenting misery. One of my first blog posts memorialized Jerry Bock, whom I always thought of, throughout my adulthood, as the theatre’s greatest living composer. If you’re looking for the ultimate textbook on how to write for character and situation, study Fiddler on the Roof’s score. Through his choice of harmonies, as well as a lot of evocative rhythms, Bock paints the setting of the play. Here’s a world where seventh chords with flat ninths abound, where it’s OK to stay in a minor key, where some form of dance is ever-waiting to be summoned. Look at the first nine notes of Sunrise Sunset. The phrase comes up again, and then another time up a fourth. That means it’s going to get stuck in your head, and you’ll feel like you’re hearing something familiar when you’re not. Now, that’s a traditional songwriting trick, but there’s innovation elsewhere. Sabbath Prayer imitates chants one might hear in a synagogue. Do You Love Me is, for the most part, impressively close to recitative, allowing the comedians in the duet to utilize their personal sense of timing. Fifty years ago, when Fiddler on the Roof began its journey to becoming the longest running Broadway musical ever, it was not uncommon for songs from shows to become popular hits. There’s a wide variety of reasons for this, a discussion for another day, but I think there’s something in the quality of Bock & Harnick’s way with a song that led so many of them to be so popular. I know it’s a silly sort of barometer, but when you come back to me with your argument that some other musical is better than Fiddler on the Roof, can I ask how many weddings a song from the score has been played at? As the Good Book says, don’t end with a preposition.