The scope of Alisa Solomon’s Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof seems like it’s biting off more than it can chew, but lo and behold, the book delivers what it promises and more. Fiddler on the Roof was a sensation when it first opened on Broadway, breaking box office records and winning a total of nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
“The initial performance played 3,242 performances — the longest running show on Broadway for years,” explains Solomon, and its revivals have kept racking up the awards since (in 1972 the production was awarded a Special Tony Award for its longevity). “As the first work of American popular culture to recall life in a shtetl — the Eastern European market towns with large Jewish populations — Fiddler felt tender, elegiac, even holy” adds the author in the introduction. The purpose of her book being to trace the show’s roots and comment on its legacy.
Solomon draws parallels between the creation of the show and Jewish life in America, cultural appropriation, and most interestingly the evolution of Broadway. “Specifically, it is a story about theater, the making of it and the meanings that come from the messy and marvelous collaborations that are its essence,” she writes. The book opens in the late 19th century as folk storyteller Sholem Aleichem, trying to find more fiction characters that “looked” like him, but were part of his world, created the character Tevye and published Tevye and His Daughters, a book in Yiddish collecting several important events in the life of this unique man. The tales ranged from Tevye becoming rich, to a trip to Palestine, and eventually found their way to the Yiddish stage, where high profile producers adapted the stories into successful shows, often “dramatizing the tension between tradition and progress”. But Tevye remained a creation in Yiddish for many years. It would take decades before Aleichem’s stories were adapted into English, more specifically after World War II.
If the story takes quite a while to finds its pace, once Solomon focuses on the Broadway adaptation, the book turns into a real page-turner. The legendary director Jerome Robbins was just coming off the success of West Side Story, and had just opened a new show called Gypsy. For such work he was being called an “American genius”, but deep inside he was also trying to avoid part of his cultural legacy. “I didn’t want to be a Jew,” he stated on several occasions, “I wanted to be safe, protected, assimilated, hidden in among the boys, the majority”.
Solomon suggests that it was this desire, linked closely to the shame he was carrying as a gay man, that attracted him to Tevye’s stories. It seems that somewhere along the way, Robbins at last found the Jewish pride he lacked. In a cable he sent as he prepared to do the show, he wrote “I’m going to do a musical which should really star my father,” also referring to it as a show about “our people”.
Robbins’ resistance toward his identity had completely disappeared and he threw himself into the project with abandon. Known for his perfectionism, he clashed with the show’s other creators, Jerry Bock who wrote the music, Sheldon Harnick who wrote the lyrics, and Joseph Stein who wrote the book. Seeking this as his opportunity to finally “stand up for the Jews” as Solomon suggests, Robbins sought to make this a sophisticated account of traditions he once neglected. He decided to make the show look like something out of a Chagall painting (inspiration which came to him through a book cover), and like producer Hal Prince, figured out “Robbins was looking for a way to make Tevye both particular and universal, combining earthly detail with spiritual fantasy”.
Needless to say, most of the book revolves around all the elements that came together to create the show. Solomon details the casting process, which was arduous (“not a surprise, given that [Robbins had] taken an unprecedented six months to put together the company for West Side Story”), the duels between Robbins and Zero Mostel who got the part of Tevye and who “like Robbins, fought an inner war over Jewish identity”, mostly because he had been practically forced to leave his family behind in order to seek success as an entertainer. Anecdotes like the one about Robbins making set designers move a moon a quarter of an inch, until he thought it was in the right spot, make for some delicious Broadway gossip.
As we all know, the show was a monster success. Yet, Solomon tells the tale with delight and enough suspense to make us wonder if this motley crew will actually pull off something that we already know is part of popular history.
The last part of the book focuses on several notable productions of the show throughout the world, which the author feels showcase the show’s ideals in a unique form. The most intriguing story from this section is an episode set before the summer of 1968, in Brownsville, Brooklyn, where Jewish instructors in a predominantly African American high school had recently been fired without due process on the eve of the premiere of their school production of Fiddler on the Roof. Since the show is about the struggles of adhering to Jewish tradition, and the adversities Jewish people have faced historically, the young black actors “discovered” the essence of their roles through empathy with their fired instructors who, like the characters in the show, were also being “evicted”. Despite attempts to cancel the play, the drama club went through with the production and as the author writes, “it’s hard to imagine any company that had done more to earn the standing ovation.”