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Fit as a ‘Fiddler’: Broadway’s Sheldon Harnick looks back on 50 years of tradition

March 20, 2016 at 12:28 PM EST
More than 50 years after the Broadway premiere of "Fiddler on the Roof," the musical's universal story continues to resonate with audiences seeing its fifth revival, which opened in December. NewsHour's Zachary Green sits down with the musical's 91-year-old lyricist, Sheldon Harnick, who discusses the show's inspiration, meaning and legacy.
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BY ZACHARY GREEN

The musical, “Fiddler on the Roof,” which originally opened on Broadway in 1964, tells the story of a Jewish family in turn-0f-the-century Russia, struggling with changes to their traditional way of life, while at the same time facing oppression from the outside world.

More than 50 years later, the show’s fifth Broadway revival opened in late 2015 to rave reviews — a telling sign that, at its core, it’s the story that continues to captivate diverse audiences the world over.

“There was something universal about these stories,” the show’s 91-year-old lyricist Sheldon Harnick told PBS NewsHour. “We tried to realize the universality of what was in those stories, and to make this a show that would appeal to people of all faiths and all beliefs.”

Adapted from writings by Jewish humorist Sholem Aleichem, Harnick, along with composer, Jerry Bock, and writer, Joseph Stein, turned stories of Tevye the milkman and his five daughters into the beloved stage version.

“Some of [the stories] were actually tragic, and yet there was a great deal of humor in them,” Harnick said. “And by the time you got to the end of the story, you might be crying, but you were laughing along the way.”

And then there was the music. Harnick said the now iconic songs, including “If I Were a Rich Man,” “Do You Love Me?” and “Matchmaker” seemed to write themselves.

“I practically just took them right out of the story and set them to music,” he said. “That’s not entirely true; I have some craft. But a lot of those images were in the stories.”

Harnick said even as each new production gets mounted, the musical’s enduring legacy is still remarkable.

“When we set out to do Fiddler, our aim was to realize the beauty and the humor of the Sholem Aleichem stories,” he said. “Maybe we’ll run a year, we’ll run 2 years, and we’ll be very happy with it. That the show would become what it was, was a surprise to us. It’s kind of still a surprise. I must say it’s a very pleasant surprise.”


Read the full transcript of this segment below:

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF CAST: (Singing) Traditiooooon! Tradition! Trah-dish-un!

ZACHARY GREEN: A half century after its premiere, the songs of “Fiddler On The Roof” are known around the world. It tells the story of Tevye, a poor Jewish dairyman, and his family facing oppression in rural Russia at the turn of the 20th century. This production at the Broadway Theater marks the fifth time “Fiddler” has been revived on Broadway.

SHELDON HARNICK: This is one of the finest casts we’ve ever had. So revisiting the show has been a thrill.

ZACHARY GREEN: Even at 91-years-old, lyricist Sheldon Harnick has been directly involved in this revival…helping choose the director and attending rehearsals. We spoke with him at Sardi’s restaurant, famous for its caricatures of Broadway stars; amongst them, Harnick’s own likeness. Harnick says the inspiration for “Fiddler” came when he received a book by humorist Sholem Aleichem.

SHELDON HARNICK: The stories were riveting. And what was astonishing about them was that some of them were actually tragic, and yet there was a great deal of humor in them. And by the time you got to the end of the story, you might be crying, but you were laughing along the way. So I sent it to Jerry Bock, and I said, “This is our next musical.”

ZACHARY GREEN: Composer Jerry Bock and Harnick had already written hit musicals like “She Loves Me” — also a current Broadway revival — and “Fiorello”, about New York City Mayor LaGuardia.  

ZACHARY GREEN: But “Fiddler” would become their most successful collaboration and produced their best known song…based on Aleichem’s prose.

DANNY BURSTEIN: (Singing) If I were a rich man….all day long I’d bitty bitty bum, if I were a wealthy man!

SHELDON HARNICK: I find it a little embarrassing if somebody reads one of the stories closely, he will find the lyrics to if I were a rich man. I practically just took them right out of the story and set them to music. That’s not entirely true; I have some craft. But a lot of those images were in the stories.

ZACHARY GREEN: “Fiddler’s” main story follows the struggles of Tevye and his wife, Golde, as they try to marry off their five daughters.

ALEXANDRA SILBER, SAMANTHA MASSELL, AND MELANIE MOORE: (Singing) “Matchmaker, Matchmaker make me no match. I’m in no rush. Maybe I’ve learned…”

ZACHARY GREEN: The three eldest insist on marrying someone they love–despite the wishes of their well-meaning parents to find them wealthy suitors. That disassociation between love and marriage is illustrated in the song “Do You Love Me”, where Tevye and Golde admit their feelings for each other after 25 years of marriage.

Harnick wrote it as a late addition to the musical during its initial pre-Broadway run in Detroit.

SHELDON HARNICK: I was standing in the back of the house. And I suddenly started to sob. And I thought, ‘Why am I weeping like this?’ And then I thought, ‘It’s because I wished that my own parents had had the relationship that Golde and Tevye had had.’

I grew up during the depression, and there were a lot of vicious, violent arguments between my parents about money. Not that the relationship between Tevye and Golde is a simple, loving relationship, it’s a complex relationship, but basically it’s a loving relationship.

And it just affected me, and I started to cry. So there was much more in the song than I knew when I wrote it.

ZACHARY GREEN: “Fiddler” opened on Broadway to rave reviews and went on to sweep the 1965 tony awards. The original production ran for eight years — at the time, the longest run in Broadway history.  The 1971 movie version brought the show to a wider audience. Although the story focuses on the plight of Russian Jews, Harnick says the prejudice in the film and stage productions is familiar to many different people.

SHELDON HARNICK: We saw a remarkable production of it in a black and Puerto Rican neighborhood, where the cast was all black and Puerto Rican. And the young black man, he was 15-years-old, who played Tevye, was superb. They understood the show. They understood what it was about, and that kind of race hatred.

ZACHARY GREEN: And Harnick says the musical’s end — when Tevye’s family and fellow villagers leave with only the belongings they can carry — can still be seen in real life even today.

SHELDON HARNICK: The Syrian problem and people leaving Syria and having nowhere to go, it resonates even more. It says something terrible about the human race that in 50 years, that image has always been current. There’s always been some place in the world where something horrible is going on.

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF CAST: (Singing) To us and our good fortune! Be happy! Be healthy! Long life!

ZACHARY GREEN: But despite the timeless quality of “Fiddler On The Roof”, Harnick says the musical’s enduring legacy is still remarkable to him.

SHELDON HARNICK: That we would run 8 years, and that the show would become what it was, was a surprise to us. It’s kind of still a surprise. I must say it’s a very pleasant surprise. We recognized when we read the stories that they were not just about a Jewish family, that there was something universal about these stories.

And we tried to realize the universality of what was in those stories, and to make this a show that would appeal to people of all faiths and all beliefs.

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF CAST: (Singing) Drink l’chaim… TO LIFE!

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