There’s been a lot in the news lately about the 50th anniversary last week of the Beatles’ first appearance on US television. But 2014 marks another musical half-century mark as well: the anniversary of the 1964 Broadway premiere of Fiddler on the Roof, the musical about Tevye the milkman and his family and neighbors in the fictional shtetl (Jewish market town) of Anatevka.
Happily, a new book about this improbably successful and resonant show celebrates the occasion. Wonder of Wonders, by theater critic and journalism professor Alisa Solomon, charts the phenomenon from its origins in Yiddish-language literature and theater through its transformation at the hands of a creative team of thoroughly assimilated American Jews—and its subsequent diaspora throughout the world. (According to a famous anecdote, when Fiddler arrived in Japan the local producer was incredulous that the show had been a hit in America—after all, it was “so Japanese.”)
To quote the New York Times review, the book is “as rich and dense”—and as delicious—“as a chocolate babka,” the swirly Eastern European yeast bread. There is indeed much to savor, but I’m going to zoom in on a topic of special relevance here: the title of the show.
The short stories on which Fiddler was based had been written between 1894 and 1904 by the great Yiddish writer who published under the pen name Sholem-Aleichem. (I’m using Alisa Solomon’s spelling and punctuation.) By the time the American director Jerome Robbins began shaping the material into a musical, the working title was Tevye, the name of the main character. But with rehearsals looming for the out-of-town opening in Detroit, in July 1964, the show’s producer, Hal Prince, wasn’t satisfied:
The authors and Prince had batted around ideas for months and they all agreed only that “Tevye” was too bland and too vague. “A Village Story,” “To Life,” “Listen to the Fiddle,” “Make a Circle,” “Once There Was a Town”: their list kept growing, but nothing zinged. “To Light a Candle,” “My Village,” “Three Brides and a Man,” “A Village Tune,” “Homemade Wine,” “Not So Long Ago,” dozens more. The authors liked “Where Poppa Came From,” but Prince preferred a name that suggested that the show was a musical. In late March, he called the question. “Anything on the list will do,” [book writer Joseph] Stein told him. “I don’t care anymore.” Prince scanned the list and made the choice. “But it doesn’t mean anything,” Stein said. Prince shrugged and replied, “Well, that’s the title,” Fiddler on the Roof went into rehearsal on June 1.
Hindsight is easy, of course, but it’s clear that Fiddler on the Roof was an inspired choice—and, contra Stein, full of meaning. The eponymous fiddler (played in the original production by Gino Conforti) opens and closes the show with his sad-sweet melody; his precarious position on the roof is the overarching metaphor for the characters’ predicament, teetering between old and new. (The roof violinist was a favorite motif of the Russian-French-Jewish artist Marc Chagall, who was Robbins’s first choice to design the sets and costumes for Fiddler. Chagall declined by cable: TROP OCCUPE POUR ACCEPTER FAIRE DECORS.)
But the also-rans are telling, too—and instructive for anyone struggling with a title or a name. Their flaws run the gamut from overly literal (“Where Poppa Came From,” “Once There Was a Town”) to unduly sentimental (“To Life,” “To Light a Candle”) to misleading (“Homemade Wine”). A great title, like any great name, invokes the senses while being multilayered, pleasant to say, and effortlessly suggestive. Fiddler nails it all.
A few other naming tidbits from Wonder of Wonders:
- The pen name Sholem-Aleichem is a common Hebrew/Yiddish greeting, “literally ‘Peace be unto you’ but the conversational equivalent of ‘How do you do?’,” writes Solomon. The writer’s birth name was Sholom Rabinowitz.
- Jerome (“Jerry”) Robbins—the brilliant and temperamental dancer, choreographer, and director who before Fiddler had been responsible for a string of Broadway hits, including Fancy Free, West Side Story, and Gypsy—was born Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz in 1918. He was not related to Sholem-Aleichem. “Rabinowitz” is a common Jewish surname meaning “son of a rabbi”; Robbins Americanized it because at the time, he said, “I didn’t want to be a Jew.” (That sentiment would change dramatically during the development of Fiddler, although he never became an observant Jew.) Speaking of names, Robbins named them as a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee, in 1953.
- The Wonder of Wonders title comes from a line in “Miracle of Miracles,” sung by Motel the Tailor in Fiddler’s first act.