'Fiddler On Roof' Lyricist Talks About Show's Beginnings

A Broadway musical about a Jewish shtetl, a Russian pogrom and a poor milkman who talks to God? Sounds crazy, no?

"To us it was simply the next show to do," says Sheldon Harnick, who wrote the lyrics to the show that would become the beloved international classic "Fiddler on the Roof." "We were hoping that if we did our job right, it would run a year or two."

Instead, it ran nearly eight years for 3,242 performances, becoming in its day the longest running musical in Broadway history, spinning off countless productions around the globe, a 1971 hit film and four Broadway revival — with a fifth slated for fall of 2015 directed by Bartlett Sher starring Danny Burstein.

To celebrate the show's 50th anniversary this year, Goodspeed Opera House is producing the show, directed by Rob Ruggiero (Goodspeed's "The Most Happy Fella," "Carousel," "Show Boat") and starring Adam Heller. The show, now in previews, opens Wednesday, July 16.

Putting It Together

In an interview earlier this year from his Central Park West home that he shares with his wife, actress-photographer, Margery Gray, the 90-year-old Harnick talked about the show's beginnings, Broadway's Golden Age and his latest works he hopes to bring to the stage.

Harnick says in the early '60s his writing partner, composer Jerry Bock, and book writer Joseph Stein, considered a novel by Sholem Aleichem, "Wandering Star," as a possible source for a new musical. But it wasn't quite right.

"It's about a theater troupe but to capture the sprawling book it would have to had 40 minor characters on stage and it was just too big," says Harnick. But they loved Aleichem's writing and came across another book of his: a collection of stories, "Tevye and His Daughters."

It took several years to get the right producer (Harold Prince) and director-choreographer (Jerome Robbins). But who to play Tevye, the poor milkman from the 1907 Jewish village of Anatevka, under the rule of the Imperial Russian Tsar, during the eve of a revolution?

"We approached Danny Kaye but his wife turned us down saying he was too young to have marriage-age daughters," says Harnick. Popular singer-comedian Danny Thomas was mentioned as was Tom Bosley, who had the title role in the previous Bock-Harnick hit, "Fiorello!" "Jerry [Bock] and I wanted Howard Da Silva [who was also in 'Fiorello!'] but Jerry [Robbins] said Tevye was a figure who is larger than life and Howard is wonderful but he's life-sized and that's why we should go to Zero [Mostel]."

The show had its out-of-town tryout in Detroit during a newspaper strike but word of mouth spread and by the time it had its second tryout in Washington, D.C., there were lines at the box office. "That's when I started thinking, 'Well, maybe we have something special here,' but it was really Zero's performance that drew people in initially. Eventually, it became about the show."

There were many changes along the way, with many songs cut and added. (Tevye's first number, "What a Life," sung to his horse, was replaced with "If I Were a Rich Man.") During this period Robbins constantly asked his creative team the big-picture question: What is the show about? "There was an 'aha' moment after many meetings," says Harnick, "when one of us said, 'You know what it's about? It's about the changing of a way of life, as enlightenment from the West travels East, it's about tradition.' That excited Robbins and he said, 'That's what it's about — and now we have to tell the audience.' Robbins wanted a song about the change of tradition."

The opening song — "We Never Missed a Sabbath Yet" — was soon changed to the now iconic "Tradition," which introduces the characters of the village of Anatevka to the audience.

When it opened on Broadway, the reviews were mixed. "Water Kerr said, 'Too bad, near miss.' The New York Times said, 'Ah, but what a score if Leonard Bernstein had written it.' Another critic said, 'Why did they have to put a pogrom [a persecution of a minority group] in the story and spoil it?' We had one rave from John Chapman of the Daily News."

"After the show was a success, to my surprise people would say, 'Oh, you guys were so brave [because of the Jewish subject matter].' We never felt brave. We thought here are some gorgeous human, rich, funny stories and they should make a good musical.'"

The 50 years since its opening, has only confirmed to Harnick what the creators of the show set out to do. "When we started working on the show we all agreed that we wanted to emphasize the universal aspects of the show. It was a wise decision," he says, pointing to the global appeal of the show and from diverse audiences.

Learning From Failure

But the Golden Age of the Broadway Musical was winding down in the '60s as popular music and culture took a decidedly different turn.

When Harnick arrived in Manhattan from Chicago a decade earlier, he dreamed of writing lyrics for book musicals and becoming part of the bustling Broadway scene that was very much a part of American musical culture. He began honing his craft writing first for revues ("Boston Beguine' for Alice Ghostly in "New Faces of 1952" was his first break-out success), summer resorts in the Catskills where working fast and furious was the norm and industrials (in-house and expensive entertainments produced for industry and corporate gatherings) that could sustain talent with a good paycheck until the next hit show.

"It was seven or eight years before I had my first book musical," says Harnick. It was 1958's "The Body Beautiful' with Bock and it was a flop. But a young producer, Harold Prince, recognized the musical writing team's talent and hired them for his next show, "Fiorello!" which became a Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning hit the next year.