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The Comings and Goings of Songs in “Fiddler on the Roof”

Thursday, September 04, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week Barbara Isenberg wrote about reminiscing with Bel Kaufman about Sholem Aleichem. She is the author of Tradition!, is an award winning journalist who has been writing and lecturing about theater for over three decades. Barbara has been blogging here for the Visiting Scribe series all week.

Broadway musicals are known for being not just written but rewritten, and many composers, lyricists and book writers have stacks of unused material in their closets or computers. With plot changes comes the need for new scenes, and with the new scenes comes the need for new songs. This was certainly the case with Fiddler on the Roof, the subject of my new book, Tradition!: The Highly Improbable, Ultimately Triumphant Broadway-to-Hollywood Story of Fiddler on the Roof, The World’s Most Beloved Musical.

When director/choreographer Jerome Robbins came onboard, he asked playwright Joseph Stein, lyricist Sheldon Harnick and composer Jerry Bock for rewrites many times. Stein wrote five drafts of his book. The songwriters turned out about 50 songs, of which the show uses fewer than one-third.

Consider the all-important opening number, for which “Tradition,” was a late arrival. Before Robbins got involved, the show opened instead with “We’ve Never Missed a Sabbath Yet,” a song about getting ready for the Sabbath that matriarch Golde sang with her daughters. Among its lyrics were cautions about getting those noodles made, chickens plucked, liver chopped and challah baked in time to light and bless the Sabbath candles.

But that song didn’t promise audiences the show Robbins had in mind. Again and again, he’d ask his authors what their musical was really about, and he refused to accept their answers that it was simply a story of a milkman and his five daughters. Finally, Harnick replied that the show was about tradition, and, replied Robbins,”That’s it. Write that.”

Today among the best-known and beloved songs ever written, “Tradition” sent “We’ve Never Missed a Sabbath Yet” scurrying. With it also went such Bock and Harnick creations as “ Poppa Help Me,” “A Butcher’s Soul,” “The Story of Jacob,” and “Baby Birds.” Gone was a love song called “As Much As That” and one of producer Harold Prince’s personal favorites, “Dear Sweet Sewing Machine.”

Similarly, Tevye first sang not “If I Were a Rich Man” but rather, “That’s Life,” a lament about his lame horse. Among its lyrics was the stanza: “So you’d like to be lazy and fat, of course/Well, it’s your rotten luck to be Tevye’s horse.” But Robbins was worried about having a real horse onstage that could make some of the highly-stylized sets look out of proportion. So he sent songwriters Bock and Harnick back to try again.

Fortunately, the songwriting team soon happened to be at a benefit when a mother and daughter came out to sing a Hasidic chant. Both men were taken with how the women substituted nonsense syllables for words, and Sheldon Harnick augmented their dedededums with some very descriptive language from Sholem Aleichem’s short stories. “I’m very smart,” Harnick once said.” I know where to take from.”

Barbara Isenberg is the author of Making It Big: The Diary of a Broadway Musical, State of the Arts: California Artists Talk About Their Work and Conversations with Frank Gehry. Her work has appeared in the LA Times, the Wall Street Journal, Time, Esquire, The Huffington Post, and London’s Sunday Times. She lives in Los Angeles. Read more about her and her work here.

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Reminiscing with Bel Kaufman about Sholem Aleichem

Tuesday, September 02, 2014 | Permalink

Barbara Isenberg, author of Tradition!, is an award winning journalist who has been writing and lecturing about theater for over three decades. She is blogging here for the Visiting Scribe series all week.

One of the saddest parts of writing a book is having to set aside material you cherish but which simply doesn’t fit in the book that emerges. This happened to me too many times on my current book, Tradition!: The Highly Improbable, Ultimately Triumphant Broadway-to-Hollywood Story of Fiddler on the Roof, The World’s Most Beloved Musical, and among the treasures still in my files are outtakes from my interview with the writer Bel Kaufman.

Bel Kaufman is best-known to the general public as the author of the best-selling 1965 novel Up the Down Staircase, based on her own experiences as a New York City schoolteacher. But she is perhaps equally well-known to Jewish readers as the granddaughter of the great Yiddish humorist Sholem Aleichem. Since Aleichem’s wondrous short stories about Tevye the Dairyman inspired Fiddler on the Roof, I was particularly eager to meet her.

Until her death this July at age 103, Bel Kaufman was the last remaining family member who actually knew Aleichem before his own death in 1916. So it was that one summer day, not long after her 100th birthday, I went to visit her to talk about her famous grandfather. As you might imagine, she immediately warmed to the subject.

“He was the most wonderful grandfather any child could have,” she told me that day. “We never called him 'grandfather.' For us, he was 'Poppa Sholem Aleichem.' He was much too youthful to be a grandfather. He was slight and elegant, and he loved fancy clothes. Velvet jackets. Beautiful ties. He was more like a European man of letters. He corresponded in Russian with Tolstoy and Chekhov. Of course, I didn’t know all that at the time. To me, he was Poppa Sholem Aleichem, who was great fun.

“I remember the sound of his laughter, and I have two or three visceral memories. I remember the feeling of his hand. He used to tell me that the harder I held his hand, the better he wrote. So I take all credit, for I held on very tight.”

Kaufman also spoke of her adult role as Aleichem’s granddaughter. “When I came to this country, at 12, I was introduced as ‘Sholem Aleichem’s granddaughter,’” she said. “It embarrassed me. I used to say it was my easiest accomplishment. All I had to do was to get born to his daughter. Then Up the Down Staircase was published to rave reviews, which I never expected. When the critics were kind enough to say I wore the mantle well, and had the same humor and compassion as my grandfather, it was as if I had been given permission to be a writer. It was as if I heard him say, alright, so be a writer.”

Barbara Isenberg is the author of Making It Big: The Diary of a Broadway Musical, State of the Arts: California Artists Talk About Their Work and Conversations with Frank Gehry. Her work has appeared in the LA Times, the Wall Street Journal, Time, Esquire, The Huffington Post, and London’s Sunday Times. She lives in Los Angeles. Read more about her and her work here.

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