Tag Archives: Harold Prince

List, List, O List!: Being an Idiosyncratic and Annotated Compendium of 50 Essential Books on or About the Theatre, Sans Preamble and with a Preponderance of Musical Theatre Titles & an Unavoidable Focus on the work of Americans

By Scott Ross

Hollis Alpert, The Life and Times of Porgy and Bess  A thorough history of George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward’s “Broadway opera” (with a lyrical assist from Ira, leading to the Gershwin heirs’ ludicrous declarative title for the recent revival, The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which elicited a stern, and quite proper, rebuke from Stephen Sondheim.) The book is attractively put together in an over-sized format, with scads of photos. Included is the famous 1950s “goodwill tour” of Russia and the glorious 1976 Houston Opera production starring the rapturous Clamma Dale.

Amy Asche, ed., Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II  The most recent in Knopf’s beautiful series of coffee-table lyric collections, all of which are stylishly produced, contain breathtaking arrays of production photos and are as exhaustive as seems humanly possible.

A Pictorial History of the American Theatre

Daniel Blum, A Pictorial History of the American Theatre, 1860-1980 (New Fifth Edition; Enlarged by John Willis)  A huge volume in the Pictorial History series, noted for their thoroughness (and their impossibly crowded pages of tiny photographs.) Still, to leaf through one of these volumes is to be completely transported into the past.

Everything Was Possible

Ted Chapin, Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical Follies  I have been obsessed with this show, to my mind the greatest of all musicals, since my teens. (Name-Drop Warning!) In an early ’80s letter, I suggested such a book to Stephen Sondheim, who replied that he didn’t think much of the idea, “especially after the fact.” How wrong he was! And how grateful we should all be that it was Ted Chapin who put this together. He was there. He saw. He knows. And his personal view of the proceedings makes for an immediacy and a comprehensiveness that are just about definitive.

Don Dunn, The Making of No, No, Nanette  This one is dated by Davis’ smug, condescending and, frankly, bitchy remarks about “queers” in the theatre, and his frequent imputations to the many gay men involved in this successful revival, of comically swish attitudes and over-the-top, camp enthusiasms. Be that as it may; until Everything Was Possible, this was the most complete accounting we’d ever gotten of the production, from conception to aftermath, of a single musical show. It’s all here: The back-stabbing and in-fights, the terrible realization early in rehearsals that Busby Berkeley was not the man for the job of staging, the sackings, and the battle royal between the peripatetic Harry Rigby and the rather monstrous Cema Rubin, which culminated in the heartbreak of Rigby’s losing his own show. I don’t know whether it’s a juicy backstager, a cautionary tale or just a fine job of reportage (those homophobic tendencies notwithstanding) but it certainly is compelling.

Richard France, The Theatre of Orson Welles  France’s is the only volume of which I am aware that concentrates solely on Welles’ theatre work, and despite its un-attractiveness as a book, the scholarship is as impeccable as the conclusions are, occasionally, biased against—and unfair toward—its subject.

John Gielgud, An Actor and His Time  Essentially a transcription of Gielgud’s multi-part BBC Radio program, this is a rich, informative, amusing and beautifully illustrated volume by and about one of the greatest actors of the last century. Not to be missed.

Jon Anthony Gilvey, Before the Parade Passes By: Gower Champion and the Glorious American Musical  Gilvey writes about Champion’s work as though he’d been present for every show—an impossibility, given his age—and his descriptions of such seminal stagings as the opening of Carnival put you front row center, with an immediacy and a fulsomeness rare in books of this kind.

The Season

William Goldman, The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway  Another book that suffers from some dated attitudes, again in particular about gay men. But Goldman’s complete accounting of a single season (1967-1968) is breezy, informative, fascinating and, at times, wildly funny. I discovered a Bantam paperback edition in a second-hand book shop at 16, and devoured it in record time, and with the ardor only the completely stage-struck can approximate. Or appreciate. The wealth of detail remains vivid nearly four decades later. What’s interesting now is that Goldman’s overview took in a season that was generally regarded as one of Broadway’s worst, yet how rarified a world it seems now, with all those plays opening. Not musicals. Plays. In retrospect, Goldman’s, despite his disappointment, was a veritable Golden Age compared with today.

The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical

Mark N. Grant, The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical  Speaking of disappointment with contemporary Broadway… Grant, a composer, surveys the best of the great age of innovation with keen musicianship and some surprising findings (the fox-trot as the source of the American Popular Song… who knew?) He then brings us to now, and despairs. Everything of which he quite properly complains is something I, and many others who work in and love theatre, have been kvetching about for years: The over-amplification, the nearly total reliance on song catalogs and hit movies as source material, the creeping amateurishness of and rock-style reliance on assonance by most contemporary lyricists, the soaring cost of tickets, the appalling behavior of audiences, the ubiquitous standing ovations for every show… With all that, and some pointed critiques of specific composers and librettists (even Sondheim comes in for a few, gently articulated and quite astute, knocks) I can even forgive Grant for his dismissal of Kander and Ebb.

Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare  If, as the ad-meisters like to say, you only read one book on Shakespeare, let it be this one. Greenblatt’s scholarship and research are impeccable, his findings sometimes startling abut always on point, and his appreciation of the playwright total and convincing. It’s also a richly textured depiction of Elizabethan England, with all its perils, and that rare volume by a heterosexual historian and critic to take in, appreciate and even commend, the seemingly fluid sexuality of the Bard. Invaluable and unique.

Otis Guernsey, Playwrights, Lyricists and Composers on Theatre  An anthology of pieces from the Dramatist Guild Quarterly during the early ’70s, this one is especially notable for its delicious panel discussions by the participants of specific shows, and includes Sondheim’s Lyrics and Lyricists talk, in which (among other things) he illustrates how he took a beautiful piece of dramatic prose by James Goldman and trasliterated it into the stunningly poetic lyric for Evening Primrose‘s “I Remember.”

Moss Hart, Act One  The great-grandaddy of all modern theatre memoirs. Hart, looking back from the perspective of the late 1950s, re-created his early days as the prototypical stage-struck young man and his early collaboration with George S. Kaufman on Once in a Lifetime. It’s a sharp, witty, gloriously fulsome self-portrait with one interesting little curlicue: Nowhere in it does this healthy young American male mention dating a girl. In light of later revelations about Hart’s conflicted sexuality, that omission seems almost no omission at all. (See also: Steven Bach—Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart.)

Mary C. Henderson, Mielziner: Master of Modern Stage Design  A gorgeous and profusely illustrated coffee-table tribute to one of the most important American scenic designers.

Hirschfeld on Line

Al Hirschfeld, Hirschfeld on Line  A long look back, from the then-near centenarian. A huge volume, taking in everything from Hirschfeld’s early, “serious art” phase to the evolution of his utterly unique style of caricature. From the ’20s to the Aughts. When I was a teenager I used to wonder how, when this venerable and brilliant man passed, an actor would know he’d “arrived” without Al to sketch him. Little did I know then how many more decades Broadway hopefuls had in which to make that arrival. A treasure.

John Kander and Fred Ebb with Greg Lawrence, Colored Lights: Forty Years of Words and Music, Show Biz, Collaboration, and All That Jazz  A lovely book, in which the most important and innovative songwriting team since the heyday of Bock and Harnick discuss their respective beginnings and their many superb collaborations. I’m deeply indebted to Greg Lawrence for getting them on the record while Ebb was still with us.

Robert Kimball, The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter  One of the earliest of the Knopf volumes, and one of the best. Literacy, humor, astoundingly free-flowing inner-rhyme and hot sex have seldom been so wittily evoked, or invoked, in the musical theatre.

Robert Kimball, Cole  A sumptuous, over-sized trove of photos and personal reminiscence by Porter’s friends and collaborators.

Robert Kimball and Alfred Simon, The Gershwins  The companion to Cole in beauty, style and completeness of pictorial lushness.

Robret Kimball and Stephen Nelson, The Complete Lyrics of Frank Loesser  Loesser was an anomaly: An full-time lyricist and amateur composer from the world of pop and Hollywood who came East and took Broadway by the throat with Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella and How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. Each time he re-defined himself, and expanded the syntax of musical theatre expression: From brassy, Runyanesque Broadway to near-opera to potent satire that, nevertheless, was amusing enough not to worry all those tired businessmen who flocked to it. Leosser’s great run was brief, perhaps, but few have accomplished as much in so comparatively little time.

Robert Kimball, Barry Day, Miles Kreuger and Eric Davis, The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer  While Mercer was, like Frank Loesser, more a creature of Hollywood and Vine than Broadway and 42nd, he began in musical revues and made periodic visits. He wasn’t always as successful on the boards as on the sound-stages, as he was the first to admit, but his lyrics to Harold Arlen’s magnificent score for St. Louis Woman alone would place him in the Pantheon. This is a book I wish to hell I’d had at my side when I was creating my own Mercer revue in the mid-’90s, transcribing all those songs by ear and, later, discovering with a pang that I’d blown some of them. (Pre-Google, who knew that “cute vest-pocket Mazda” referred to light bulbs?)

Journey to the Center of the Theatre

Walter Kerr, Journey to the Center of the Theatre  As a critic, Kerr has his own nay-sayers, but he was an unusually intelligent and big-hearted reviewer, and this collection of his 1970s work on theatre (and, occasionally, film) amply illustrates why his readers were so devoted. I particularly treasure his anger at Paddy Chayefsky in 1971 for not writing all that great dialogue in The Hospital for the stage and his re-evaluation of the lie at the center of the otherwise splendid Alice Adams: Who, he wonders, could accept the pulchritudinous Katharine Hepburn as a wallflower?

Miles Kreuger, Show Boat: The Story of a Classic American Musical  This superb early ’70s work, fortunately reissued in time for the complete 1988 studio cast recording of the score on Angel (Krueger was an important contributor to that boxed set of discs) is among the first, finest, and most beautifully appointed, books of its kind.

Alfred A. knopf [Borzoi]  1969 Lawrence Ratzkin

John Lahr, Notes on a Cowardly Lion  Lahr, just beginning his career as a critic, wrote this graceful, loving but remarkably clear-eyed portrait of his famous father just before Bert’s untimely death while shooting The Night They Raided Minskey’s. It captures a great clown in all his contradictory moods, his fabled insecurity, and his joyous genius. 40-plus years later it remains one of the most lucid, intelligent and compelling biographies of any theatre star.

John Lahr, Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton  Switching gears completely, Lahr next concentrated on the transgressive British playwright, unapologetically gay and astonishingly prolific throughout his brief, meteoric rise. In a sense, this is a dual biography, since Orton’s life—and even his very death—were so inextricably commingled with that of his one-time lover and eventual murderer Joe Halliwell. Quoting liberally from Orton’s then-unpublished diaries and early novels, all of which the author would later prove instrumental in getting into print, Lahr paints an unblinking portrait of a genius and wit whose appetites for casual sex perfectly reflected his times but the details of which would doubtless have shocked his public. This book is of enormous importance, if only for rescuing an important modern playwright from near-oblivion.

Arthur Laurents, Original Story By: A Memoir of Broadway and Hollywood   Laurents was famously prickly, and his late memoir percolates with anger and contrariness even as it celebrates the author’s own accomplishments, his friendships and collaborations, and paints an indelible portrait of post-war American movies and theatre, musical as well as “straight.” Laurents was unique among his peers for refusing to pass, and for not feeling he had to.

Alan Jay Lerner, The Street Where I Live  Although his later biographer Gene Lees later invoked the famous advice of the frontier newsman to James Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”) as descriptive of Lerner’s memoir, it’s an irresistible volume for those who appreciate its author’s wit and rare literacy. Lerner certainly knew how to tell good stories about himself, and some of them may even have been true. Appended with a nice selection of lyrics from his best work.

Tom - The Unknown Tennessee Williams

Lyle Leverich, Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams  The only unfortunate aspect of this glorious, revelatory biography is that its author did not live to complete a second volume. Leverich traces Thomas Lanier Williams from his earliest days to the heady success of The Glass Menagerie with such impeccable scholarship and understanding, both of his subject and his subject’s milieus that you feel as though you’d never known anything about Tennessee before this book, and may never know as much after it.

Ken Mandelbaum, A Chorus Line and the Musicals of Michael Bennett  Mandelbaum’s superb biography of Bennett is also a riveting account of how the then-longest running of all musicals came into being. Bennett’s death from AIDS at 44 arguably robbed the American theatre of what might have been the ultimate popular maturation of the form.

William J. Mann, Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand  Covering Streisand’s life and development only up to the end of her run in Funny Girl, Mann concentrates his formidable wit and skill on what, and who, made her, apart from her own, unassailable drive and self-belief. Scrupulously foot-noted, exhaustively researched, this is the sort of book one waits decades for, and which mere fannish hacks can never get new, let alone touch.

Who Put the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz

Harold Meyerson and Ernie Harburg, Who Put the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz?: Yip Harburg, Lyricist  An important overview, and a long overdue biographic and critical assessment of one of the American musical’s most whimsical yet socially committed artists. The section on Finian’s Rainbow would, by itself, make this worth reading. The obvious affection for, and appreciation of, the subject (one of the co-authors is Yips’ son) does not, however, led to hagiography. Harburg was known to be difficult—his quirks of personality led his two finest musical collaborators, Harold Arlen and Burton Lane, to resist continued work with him—but his ultimate legacy is social comment buoyed by wit and charm. No one but Harburg could have created both Og the love-sick leprechaun and Flahooley, the Capitalist nightmare, let alone conceived of a world “Over the Rainbow” or written that anguished Depression-era cri de coeur “Brother, Can You Spare a Time?”

Arthur Miller, Timebends: A Life  Miller’s dramaturgy seems to me overrated and under-heated, especially when contrasted with the conflicted poetry of Tennessee Williams, his major post-war rival. But as an essayist and, here, as a memoirst, Miller carved out a niche particular to him, and in which he was most at home. His philosophical musings on friendship, betrayal, HUAC, Marilyn Monroe and the nature of dramatic theatrical expression occasion some of his finest writing. Fittingly, too, he wrote not a standard, linear autobiography but something approaching the labyrinthine manner in which memory itself so often works.

Ethan Mordden, Broadway Babies: The People Who Made the American Musical  Mordden is the Johnson of the American musical, even when, as in this book, he is annoying you with self-coined musical terminology (“numbo” here seems to mean “central aria” or, in the parlance, The Eleven O’Clock Number) or making specious claims (Bibi Osterwald’s studio recording of Gypsy, he tells us, may reveal the best Mama Rose of them all, yet a friend tells me that when he asked Mordden about this, the author admitted he’d never heard the record) or, as lately, spreading the hack phrase, “So to say” with whorish indiscretion. For a long time, this overview of the great creators of the form was the standard reference. Until, that is, his own subsequent volumes taking on the musical decade by decade, supplanted it.

Ethan Mordden, One More Kiss: The Broadway Musical in the 1970s  The author’s periodic critical histories of the musical by decade eventually led to this, the most anticipated volume. That is, the one that takes in the ascendancy of Sondheim and the flowering of Bob Fosse’s genius.

The Fireside Companion to the Theatre

Ethan Mordden, The Fireside Companion to the Theatre  One of the most well-thumbed books in my library, brimming with the author’s informed and idiosyncratic critical acumen. It’s all here, from Aeschylus to The Zoo Story, illuminated with wit and perspicacity. Mordden is particularly fine on O’Neill, but flip to any entry and chances are you will emerge hours later, having been inspired to skip to dozens of others.

George Plimpton. ed., Playwrights at Work  A sublime collection of Paris Review interviews includes invaluable conversations on the craft with Thornton Wilder, Lillian Hellman, Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams, Eugene Ionesco, Arthur Miller, Neil Simon, Edward Albee, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard and John Guare, among other (to me) lesser or more negligible figures (Sam Shepard, August Wilson, David Mamet and Wendy Wasserstein.) My copy is thick with Hi-Liter marks, and the collective wisdom contained herein is essential.

Hal Prince, Contradictions: Notes on Twenty-Six Years in the Theatre Perhaps prematurely, Prince recorded his memories of his work up to 1974; his hunger years were just around the corner. But as I regard him as the most important of the so-called “superstar” directors of the period, in that his staging innovations, and his embrace of more intelligent, thoughtful, and mature, content in the musical, his reminiscences are compelling, and fascinating.

The Theatre Art of Boris Aronson

Frank Rich and Lisa Aronson, The Theatre Art of Boris Aronson  Aronson’s work ranged from designs for the Yiddish theatre in the 1920s to The Diary of Anne Frank in the ’50s and ended with such groundbreaking Hal Prince shows as Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Company, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures and what must constitute his (and Prince’s… and Sondheim’s) ultimate masterpiece, Follies. This sumptuous visual appreciation holds pride of place in my library.

Deena Rosenberg, Fascinating Rhythm: The Collaboration of George and Ira Gershwin  A beautifully produced appreciation of the Gershwins (the cover reproductions of period sheet music practically shimmer) this overview by the daughter-in-law of Yip Harburg and the Artistic Director and Executive Vice President of the Harburg Foundation is informed by the author’s expertise, her skill at examining the material, and her obvious love for it.

John Simon, Singularities: Essays on the Theatre, 1964-1974  Simon’s obsessive concern with physical beauty, and his occasionally suspect pronouncements, which too often teeter on the edge of anti-Semitism, have served to detract from his very real erudition, brilliance, enthusiasm and love of the theatre. These essays, which encompass Ibsen, Cyrano de Bergerac, and that essentially indefinable but invaluable entity called charm, are Simon at his clearest and most perceptive.

John Simon, Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of the New York Theatre 1963-1973  All of the personal idiosyncrasies that mar Simon’s mar are here, of course, but his enthusiasms, knowledge and devotion to concision carry you past the more obvious (and even odious) affectations.

Wonder of Wonders

Alisa Solomon, Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof  Solomon’s expansive, informed and exciting evocations of Sholem-Aleichem, the initially uncertain but ultimately triumphant creation of Fiddler, the making of the inevitable film, and the show’s enduring impact down the decades makes for the finest book on musical theatre I’ve read in years.

Stephen Sondheim, Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principals, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes  Take note of that sub-title; he means it…. and he takes no prisoners. (American Theatre magazine titled its review “Snide by Snide by Sondheim.”) But that is, literally, a sidebar. The bulk of this indispensable book are the lyrics themselves and their author’s explications of their generation. For a man who claims to be no writer of prose, Sondheim’s is sharp, incisive, rigorously intelligent, often witty and always engaging.

No Applause Just Throw Money

D. Travis Stewart (Trav S.D.), No Applause—Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous  This marvelous pop history, which I saw, unheralded in the theatre section at Borders, provided me more sheer pleasure than almost any comparable volume of its kind. Not that it has any comparable rivals. “Vaudeville is dead,” James Agee once complained of an annoying ’40s musical. “I wish to hell someone would bury it.” Trav S.D. exhumes the body, dusts it off, props it up and, through his own, witty alchemy, makes it animate again.

Steven Suskin, Opening Nights on Broadway: A Critical Quotebook of the Golden Era of the Musical Theatre, Oklahoma! (1943) to Fiddler on the Roof(1964) Although Suskin is dismissive of Fiddler, among other landmarks, this fat omnibus of facts and contemporary newspaper reviews takes in every major, and many minor, musical offering between the advent of Rodgers and Hammerstein and the end of the era.

Jeffrey Sweet, Something Wonderful Right Away: An Oral History of the Second City and the Compass Players  Discovering the Avon paperback reprint of this collection of interviews at 16 or so was one of those thunderclap experiences. I was enraptured for a week. To say that the Paul Sills, his mother Viola Spolin and the Second City improvisational theatre were influential is an understatement of staggering proportions. Virtually every major, important comedic performer of the 1960s, and a comparable number of 1970s comics (including virtually the entire cats of NBC’s Saturday Night, itself the greatest influence on comedy in the ’80s) came through its doors. The interviews are sometimes painful, often hilarious, and encompass Mike Nichols, Barbara Harris, Alan Arkin, Alan Alda, Joan Rivers, Robert Klein, David Steinberg, Gilda Radner, Del Close, Severn Darden, Paul Mazursky and Sills himself. Indispensable.

Kenneth Tynan, Tynan on Theatre  A Penguin abridgment of Tynan’s 1961 collection of seminal reviews, Curtains, this collection is perhaps the single finest volume on Britain’s post-war theatre, with some sharp assessments of America added from Tynan’s brief engagement with the New Yorker. His opinions are infused with a lover’s besotted enthusiasm, cut with the skepticism of the too-often scorned and informed by an erudition, wit and rare in reviewers on either side of the pond. Sample Tynan’s encomium to Orson Welles’ Moby Dick—Rehearsed (“With Moby Dick, the theatre becomes once more a house of magic”) and you may well be hooked for life.

Sam Wasson, Fosse  This long, comprehensive, exceptionally well researched biography of a figure who has been one of my theatrical touchstones for decades, Fosse is endlessly fascinating and often problematic, but a must for aficionados of the man, his achievements, and musical theatre (and movie) history in the post-war era. (See my full review, https://playwrightatliberty.wordpress.com/2014/01/16/the-long-audition-fosse-me-and-sam-wassons-fosse/)

Arnold Wesker, The Birth of Shylock and the Death of Zero Mostel  Wesker’s memoir of his ill-fated revision of The Merchant of Venice is both revelatory and heartbreaking. Written less in anger than in sorrow, the British playwright’s saga runs along a descending line, as Mostel struggles, uncharacteristically, with his lines, ultimately succumbing before the Broadway opening and Wesker’s longtime director, the brilliant but insufferable John Dexter, abandons the troubled production for greener pastures.

Sondheim & Co.

Craig Zadan, Sondheim & Co.  The week after checking out the original cast recording of Company from the public library at the age of 15 I was back to take out this seminal history of its lyricist-composer’s career up to 1973. (That a Broadway songwriter could eschew any easy rhyme like “life” and “wife” in preference for the surprising and appropriate “woman” took the top of my head off.) I perused my own paperback edition so often I practically had it memorized. No other book on the theatre meant more to me then, and no other has since.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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A much bigger circle: “Fiddler on the Roof” (1971)

By Scott Ross

fiddler poster

As Ralph Waldo Emerson noted, “For everything you have missed, you have gained something else, and for everything you gain, you lose something else.” The 1971 film transmigration of the 1964 Broadway phenomenon Fiddler on the Roof is arguably the most beautifully made  of all adaptations from the musical stage, and certainly one of the most faithful. By filming it in as realistic a manner as possible, and as close to the birthplace of its progenitor, Sholem-Aleichem, as the director, Norman Jewison, could get (Yugoslavia), the filmmakers honored the material as well, I think, as the source. What fell away, inevitably, was much of the very thing that made Jerome Robbins’ original so striking and even, in the terms of the musical theatre of its time, revolutionary. Any truly theatrical experience, play or musical, that exists in a heightened, stylized state can only be diminished by literalism. This is why any sane admirer of Follies, say, can only hope no movie ever gets made of it. Unless (as here) the material can support the transliteration, and the filmmakers are able to balance the inevitable losses with considerable gains of their own.*

Boris Aronson's set design for the interior of Tevye's home. Note the circle of houses surrounding it representing Anatevka. Like the figure of the Fiddler, they are precariously balanced, even upside-down, but they hold.

Boris Aronson’s set design for the interior of Tevye’s home. Note the circle of houses surrounding it representing Anatevka. Like the figure of the Fiddler, they are precariously balanced, even upside-down, but they hold.

Realism cannot take in, for example, the potent abstraction of Boris Aronson’s original Fiddler set. Inspired by (but in no way slavishly reproducing) the shetl-based paintings of Marc Chagall, Aronson constructed a series of stage images that fully expressed the key concerns of Robbins and his collaborators. Not merely the sense of tradition (arrived at through Robbins’ insistent, necessary, question, “What is this show about?”) but the crucial aspect of the circle which binds the community, the people of the play, even the faith itself.

Zero Mostel's Tevye leads the original company of the stage musical.

Zero Mostel’s Tevye leads the original company of the stage musical.

Nor can a realistic style encompass the inherent theatricality of the piece as a whole, especially as Robbins directed and choreographed it. As when, for example, in the opening, Tevye is suddenly joined by the figures of the villagers, hands linked, emerging from either side of the stage to create the circle that stands for Anatevka itself. A couple of songs in the Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick were also shed during filming, but their omissions are more than adequately compensated for by the filmmakers’ otherwise rare fealty to the score, superbly enhanced by John Williams’ rich, sensitive and often thrilling arrangements.

Thus, what was lost. (For some die-hards, the replacement of Zero Mostel with the earthier and less ostentatious Topol was likely also a grievous loss.) So what was gained? On a simplistic, yet pleasurable, level, the land itself — vast, verdant, arable, even majestic — and the physicality of Anatevka, especially its magnificently realized wooden shul with its stunning, intricate murals, glimpsed in the opening number and, at the climax, gazed at in anguished silence by Zvee Scooler’s Rabbi as he prepares to depart its walls forever. (In her absolutely splendid book Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof, Alisa S0lomon reports that Jewison wanted the building preserved but, by the time he’d reached an agreement in Israel for its transportation it had, heartbreakingly, already been torn down.) And too, the pogrom that destroys the wedding of Tevye’s daughter Tzeitl at the end of the first act is, because of film’s innate ability to realistically depict such events (Cossaks on horseback, flaming torches, shattered glass, the shredding of the young couple’s gifts) far more gripping, and powerful, on the screen than it can ever be on the stage.

Tevye and his director: Topol and Norman Jewison.

Tevye and his director: Topol and Norman Jewison.

The strength of photographic imagery in the movie of Fiddler begins almost immediately, and to the point; as Topol warms up “Tradition,” Jewison and his editors (Robert Lawrence and Anthony Gibbs) cut, in rhythm, to the various articles of faith as well as to the villagers themselves, engaged in their respective tasks. Not quite the image of the circle as enacted by the company on the stage, but each rapidly glimpsed clip sets, and reinforces, the theme of communal traditions as the glue that allows those in the Russian Pale of Settlement “to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking [their] necks.” Nowhere in the show, or the movie, of course, do the authors (Joseph Stein in his book and screenplay, Bock and Harnick in their score and, although un-involved with the movie, Jerry Robbins) suggest that the bending of ritual leads to the eventual expulsion of Anatekva’s Jews. It’s all of a piece: The advent of 20th century modernity and czarist anti-Semitism, conspiring by accident to alter the face, and form, of institutional observance. Tevye, seemingly the least hidebound of the older Anatevkans, bends, as he says, only so far. And although he is unwilling to break entirely, even he softens enough by the end to at least express his parting concern for his wayward daughter Chava, if only through the intermediary of his oldest, Tzeitl.

Topol, that

Topol, that “huge dancing bear of a man” singing “Tradition.”

The one, indispensable, element of the movie’s strength must be accounted the performance of (Chaim) Topol as Tevye. As a sabra the actor was, in common with many of his fellow Israelis of the time, not especially attuned to Yiddishkayt. (Indeed, many were entirely antipathetic.) But Topol’s size, his vigor, his warmth and his courage — as much as, when compared to that of Mostel, his smaller but no less compelling theatrcial presence — bring him closer to us, and perhaps even to Sholem-Aleichem. Pauline Kael, in her review of the movie, which she called “the most powerful movie musical ever made,” referred to Topol “a huge dancing bear of a man.” That’s just about perfect, I think. Although the then-35 year old actor was only slightly younger than Zero Mostel when he first assayed the role, he carries with him an authority, and an expansiveness, that goes far beyond the touches of gray in his hair and beard. And although he is a far more handsome man than Mostel, sings better and more easily attains the higher notes without noticeable strain, what’s essential, even elemental, about Topol is the sense he projects of a man who, while firmly affixed to the appurtenances of his faith, is capable of elasticity — the flexibility a plant, however well rooted, needs to survive.**

The lyricist (Sheldon Harnick) and the composer (Jerry Bock) of

The lyricist (Sheldon Harnick) and the composer (Jerry Bock) of “Fiddler.”

Essential, too, are the songs by Bock and Harnick. It is not merely fashionable to dismiss them; most of the show’s original reviews expressed reservations (is that the polite term?) about this immensely treasurable score. But as much as Sholem-Aleichem himself, the Fiddler songs are inextricably linked to its sense of identity, its abundant charm and humor, and its remarkable power. Bock, one of his era’s most accomplished musical dramatists, as at home in New York’s Tenderloin as in Hungarian milieu of 1930s She Loves Me, steeped himself in Yiddish folk melody and klezmer, and refracted it through the prism of his own exceptional composition acumen. While the ultimate tone of, and concept for, Fiddler (then called Tevye) was not set during much of the writing process there is in Bock’s supple, often yearning, melodies the concert of the shtetl, at once vigorous and elegiac. And they are perfectly complemented by Harnick’s alternately playful, moving, direct and ruefully funny lyrics all of which seem, as he said of his experience wedding his words to Bock’s music for “Sunrise, Sunset,” to “crystallize,” as though there could be no other possible lyrics to any of those tunes. (Although there were, reportedly, dozens of attempts for every song that finally placed.) I’ve noted this before, but I think it bears repeating: If you think evoking Sholem-Aleichem’s people, and place, and doing so while keeping in your mind the correct rhythms and cadences, and the needs of the performers, and making the humor or the pathos land properly and effectively on 1,500 minds and hearts and pairs of ears hearing them for the first time, is easy, then go ahead: You write something as effective as “Tradition” or “Do You Love Me?” I’ll wait.

Norma Crane (Golde) and the Yiddish theatre star Molly Picon (Yente the Matchmaker). Note Picon's playful signature.

Norma Crane (Golde) and the Yiddish theatre star Molly Picon (Yente the Matchmaker). Note Picon’s playful signature.

Kael, who loved the movie in spite of what she saw as the “squareness” of Jewison’s direction and the (to her) Broadway jokes and disposable songs, nevertheless carped about the performance of Molly Picon as Yente the Matchmaker. Kael, for all her gifts, sometimes seemed to go to great lengths to separate herself from her own ethnic Jewishness. I don’t mean her less than laudatory remarks about Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (with many of which I agreed — not least her complaints about its sheer, numbing length — but which got her in a lot of hot water with some readers and colleagues.) I refer instead to her rejection of some of the richer veins of humor which American show business has accepted as a delicious gift from its creative Jews but which, for Kael, smacked either of special pleading or of unconscious self-abasement. She was hardly alone in this. Indeed, as Solomon points out in Wonder of Wonders, resistance to, and rejection of, Yiddish theatrical traditions lies at the heart of controversies that attended every mid-century attempt to place Sholem-Aleichem’s stories on the stage; second and third generations of Jewish-Americans didn’t want all that schmaltz and inflection their parents and grandparents loved cluttering up their brave new assimilationist world. So, nu? But Yente — her very name a Yiddish convention — is, while admittedly an invention of the show’s book writer Joseph Stein, very much a part of the soil of the stetl, at least as delineated by the creative team who put the show together. Even granted Robbins’ understandable aversion, as Solomon also tells us, to making his Sholem-Aleichem musical The Return of the Goldbergs, who better to embody Yente’s very yenteism than Picon? As the one-time, undisputed queen of the Yiddish theatre, she knew this woman in her very bones; the kvetching and kvelling, the self-martyring geshrais, the constant smug (and self-justifying) nudzhnikness of a woman who is despaired of but never entirely dismissed (all those children to be wed!) Picon’s performance, always pleasurable, is especially… well… piquant… now that she’s no longer with us.

No such complaints greeted Norma Crane’s Golde, although Kael did carp that the role was under-written. Perhaps. But so is everyone’s, aside from Tevye; the show is not called Hello, Golde! you know. What Crane achieves in her more limited screen-time is a highly believable portrait of a careworn, un-lettered woman of the earth with a great deal of love but no time for sentiment. Crane (who died, shockingly young, of breast cancer three years after the movie opened) had an almost Classical beauty, but hers is no glamour-puss Golde. No-nonsense, she bears her husband’s mischievous wiles as she does her daughters’ unruliness: with a shrug, an exasperated bark, or a sighing aside (“You can die from such a man…”) Yet Crane’s strength of character is not merely admirable, it’s necessary. How else could a woman like her bear the vicissitudes of that life? And when she breaks, as when Tevye orders her on the road to forget her middle child Chava, the effect of her normally ram-rod straight body (black-clad as though in mourning and whipped by the winter wind) bent double in hopeless despair, is harrowing.

Maybe the most rapturous lovers in movie musical history: Leonard Frey (Motel) and Rosalind Harris (Tzeitel.)

Maybe the most rapturous lovers in movie musical history: Leonard Frey (Motel) and Rosalind Harris (Tzeitel.)

As Tzeitl, the eldest of the three marriageable daughters (the youngest pair are marginal) the beautiful Rosalind Harris makes an impression that can remain with you a lifetime. At a precocious 20 when the film was made, Harris carries herself with both a wry dignity and an open honesty of expression that she stays with you long after Tzeitl’s major part in the family drama is over. And as her nebbishy swain Motel, the adorably tongue-tied Leonard Frey is utterly endearing. Frey, who played the Rabbi’s son Mendl in the 1964 production (and who would eventually graduate to Motel on stage) had just come off reprising his definitive Harold in the movie of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band. Here he is scarcely recognizable as the actor who portrayed that acid-tonged, “32 year, ugly, pock-marked Jew fairy.” He nabbed an Academy Award nomination for Motel (as Topol did for his Tevye) and one would have thought that, if he could successfully negotiate those two, wildly disparate, roles, the world should have been open to him. (Alas, it wasn’t, and he succumbed to AIDS at 50, in 1988, leaving behind the sense that a major career had, somehow, been thwarted aborning. By homophobia? Perhaps. Or maybe just the usual purblind Hollywood myopia.) When he finds his voice at last, his serenading of Harris, and their delighted dance to “Wonder of Wonders” is one of the most rapturous numbers of its kind ever filmed.

Bending, but not breaking: Perchik (Michael Glaser), Hodel (Michele Marsh) receive Tevye's permission, and his blessing.

Bending, but not breaking: Perchik (Michael Glaser), Hodel (Michele Marsh) receive Tevye’s permission, and his blessing.

Michele Marsh, as Hodel, is a touch too conventionally cute, but she does convey the spirited independence of the role and sings a notably beautiful, poignant “Far from the Home I Love.” Hodel’s vis-a-vis, Perchik, is a bit of a pill in his ardent Socialist mania, which could make him a self-righteous boor in the wrong hands. Blessedly, Michael Glaser (later, as Paul Michael Glaser, the Starsky of television’s Starsky and Hutch) brings a kind of thoughtless, arrogant charm to the part, making Hodel’s eventual willingness to follow him as far as Siberia at least explicable.†

Neva Small as Chava.

Neva Small as Chava.

The third daughter, Chava is, in her way, crucial to the success of the narrative.  Her determination to not merely throw over tradition for love but to engage in apostasy, risking the eternal enmity and alienation of her beloved family, must be absolutely grounded or the increasingly troubling arc of the play’s darker second act can topple off its delicately balanced wheels. In Neva Small, Jewison found his ideal. In each of the show’s succeeding marriage stories, one gets the sense that these girls have been paying sharper attention to Tevye’s warm interior than his gruff exterior, and play off it in ways that place their father in ironic binds. But in the Chava story, that reading has not been nearly close enough; she pushes back harder, and more devastatingly, than she knows. Small somehow manages to embody both her father’s idealized vision of her (his “little bird,” his  cherished Chavelah) and the less perfect self of reality. Inquisitive, keen, at once guarded and open-hearted, Small’s face radiates intelligence and love in equal measure, making Chava’s eventual estrangement (and Tevye’s anguish) deeply, personally, traumatic.

Zvee Scooler lends his beautiful, gaunt face and gentle gravitas to The Rabbi.

Zvee Scooler lends his beautiful, gaunt face and gentle gravitas to The Rabbi.

The smaller roles were cast with similar care. Zvee Scooler, who played the innkeeper for the entire seven-year run of the play, makes a superb Rabbi. His gaunt, moving face and his gentle gravitas do much, I think, to take the curse off a role some Jewish commentators felt was too condescendingly comic on Broadway. Paul Mann’s Lazar Wolf, with his charmingly Santa Claus-like mien, is nicely judged as well, neither as boorish as Tevye at first believes nor as completely docile in the face of marital defeat as the peripatetic dairyman might hope. Louis Zorich likewise does wonders with the off-handedly anti-Semitic Constable who — in a scene added by Stein to the screenplay — makes agonizigly clear what Edmund Burke meant when he wrote that “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” (Well, maybe not “good” so much as halfway decent.) And the Welsh singer Ruth Madoc is an unforgettable Fruma-Sarah in the inspired dream sequence, wildly funny in her uncannily witchy ululations.†*

“The Dream”: Tevye and Golde menaced by Fruma- Sarah (Ruth Madoc.)

Which brings us rather nicely around to the strengths of Jewison’s imagery. Onstage, “The Dream” leaps from one form of heightened theatricality (Aronsons’ set) to another (folk-inspired ghost story.) In the movie the effect of the humor, and the quality of its tongue-in-cheek ghoulishness, in the midst of the filmmaker’s “square,” quoditian visual palette, is even stronger, and funnier. (There’s a shot of Topol reacting to Fruma-Sarah with knock-kneed terror that is especially uproarious.) That push-pull of the pragmatic and the fantastic is also true of the sudden distancing effect Jewison goes in for when Tevye confronts his daughters’ romantic yearnings: Topol is seen at a vast remove, suspended in agrarian space between his core beliefs and his overmastering love for his children. But when he speaks (sings) “Look at my daughter’s eyes…” the director immediately closes on those expressive orbs, bringing Tevye, and us, instantly back to the crux of the material’s emotional center. Likewise, the gorgeously realized “Chava Ballet” is rendered as an hallucination-like reverie, Tevye’s sense of his immediate world crumbling in the face not only of modernity but of the inevitable loss a parent experiences when his children move, as they must, away from his sphere of influence, and love.

The

The “Chava Ballet.”

The famous

The famous “Bottle Dance,” inspired by Jerry Robbins observing a red-bearded trickster at a couple of Jewish weddings in 1963.

In his quest to hone Fiddler to its essentials, director Jerry Robbins left choreographer Jerome Robbins somewhat high and dry. (That “Chava Ballet” arrived at its effective abbreviation only after a much longer, more frenzied and frightening, number outstayed its welcome.) But Robbins at least had a first act topper in the famed “Bottle Dance” during Tzeitl’s nuptials. Inspired by a trick he witnessed a red-bearded wedding guest perform at two different Jewish weddings, the dance has since become so much a part of the Fiddler ethos that many assume it’s an actual freylekh. Having been fired from the movie of West Side Story for the very deliberateness that led his theatrical collaborators to despair but which enhanced his unique staging, Robbins was never truly considered to helm the film, so it was up to his assistant, Tom Abbott, to re-create the original choreography, and it’s nowhere more ebullient or felicitous as during the wedding. Not only the sinuous “Bottle Dance” itself, but the entire sequence, is informed by Robbins’ meticulousness in recreating the exuberant, uninhibited, even frenzied, merry-making he witnessed at various Jewish weddings preparatory to mounting the show. And it’s here that Jewison makes one of his few missteps. The dance is shot, and edited, too casually, denying us the pleasure of watching those limber bodies going through their joyous paces. This is even more obvious when watching the Canadian Broadcasting documentary about Jewison on the Fiddler DVD, when the CBC’s camera placement during the “Bottle Dance” trumps Jewison’s own. Dance on film is always a sticky problem. Fred Astaire felt, and with no small justification, that the camera should be placed at a distance (and not further cluttered up by fancy editing) so the audience can appreciate the footwork. Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen concurred, and they never interfere with our  enjoyment of, and exultation in, even the most complex numbers in Singin’ in the Rain. Documentary realism has its limits, especially in musicals.

Fiddler on the Roof was, seemingly, a tough sell in the mid-1960s. Not only was the material overtly, even proudly, Jewish (as indeed were the Sholem-Aleichem stories on which it was based) but its action embraced a pogrom and the saddest of all possible climaxes, the enforced expulsion of an entire people. In comfortable, and comforting, hindsight, one can always look back and say, of a hit, “Well, of course…” (I always thought John Simon was being more than slightly disingenuous when he opined during that decade that the most enormous possible sure-fire Broadway hit would be “a big, vulgar musical about black, Jewish homosexuals.” Simon’s target was theatrical parochialism, I know, but let’s not be ridiculous.) No, Fiddler was no sure thing, in 1964 or 1971. What sold it, and continues to sell it, was the collective intelligence, even genius, of its creators as much as — and I would argue, more than — the universality of the underlying material. The unwavering devotion of Robbins, Bock, Harnick, Stein and the original producer Harold Prince to telling this story well, and with scrupulous dedication to its shades of meaning within a specific confluence of humanity, was picked up, and codified, by Jewison & Co. in their sumptuous turn. Those final, ineffably moving, images of a new Diaspora infused both with hope (in the amorphous form of Palestine and America) and hopelessness (in the unutterable grief of the dispossessed that presages the Shoah) contain, in microcosm, everything that made, and makes, Fiddler on the Roof such an imperishable fact of life.

Exodus: The haunting finale.

Exodus: The haunting finale.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

*One of my five favorite movies is the 1972 Bob Fosse version of Cabaret, itself, under Harold Prince’s direction, a highly stylized show. But as Fosse and his collaborators re-imagined the material, hewing more closely to the Christopher Isherwood model and throwing out the “book” songs,  it’s the exception that proves the rule.

**Topol was the London Tevye in 1967, based in part on the producer Richard Pilbrow’s having seen his 1964 Israeli comedy Sallah (or Shallah Sabbati.) Pilbrow was expecting a to meet much older man. Topol, who had succeeded Bomba Zur in the role during the highly successful 1965 Israeli Fiddler, was not what you would call proficient in English before he starred in London, and it’s interesting to compare his performance on the movie soundtrack with that on the ’67 Columbia cast recording; his inflections in the latter tend to Anglicized  pronunciation (“You may ahsk” rather than “You may ask.”)

†Glaser/Perchik lost out an a solo in the movie. Motel’s original number during rehearsals for, and early performances of, the show (“Now I Have Everything”) was eventually ceded to Bert Convy’s Perchik but Jewison didn’t think it right for the movie. Jerry Bock’s replacement melody, “Any Day Now,” is among the finest and most rousingly apposite he ever composed, and Harnick’s lyrics are in admirably quirky character. But the moment is a bit of a dead-end, and it’s probably just as well the number was cut. You can hear it, in Glaser’s somewhat over-taxed rendition, on the Fiddler soundtrack CD and the DVD.

†*Zorich is probably best known for his role on Mad About You as Paul Reiser’s father Burt. From conductor of pogroms to befuddled Jewish pater familas — that’s one hell of a range.

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