Speaker Tell me, if you would, about the circumstances of your first meeting, Jerome Robbins.
Speaker I think the first time I met Jerry Robbins was way back in around 1953 when he did the choreography for a review starring Bette Davis, and I had high hopes that a song I had written called Trenchcoat was going to be converted into a comic ballet by Jerome Robbins, which was very exciting to me. The whole thing fell through. I don’t think he found enough meat in the song. It actually was a song that had been written for my college review at Northwestern, but that was the first time I met him and I was excited. Because and I think this was after he had done export jazz, I think, and that was the first time I recall seeing a dance piece which affected me viscerally whenever that was the ending of the piece just was like a blow to my solar plexus. I just I can’t even describe what happened on stage, but I just felt something very deeply.
Speaker So just company also had. Nor can it, right?
Speaker Yes. About Nora. Oh, I actually because I only had one song in it, I was not really invited to rehearsals. I had to when they went out of town to Detroit, I had to provide my own transportation to go there. So I didn’t really meet Nora or anybody practically except Hiram Sherman. I wound up having one song in the show and so I used to go backstage and speak to Hiram Sherman, but otherwise I wasn’t connected with it. But you saw the show? I saw the show. And what was she like in it? She was electric. My memory, such as it is, is that there was something very feline about her, that the movements were very catlike and and exciting.
Speaker Also, 9/11 was in the show and at the last minute, Robbins, as is his want, realized that something was missing. So it seemed like overnight, I don’t know how long it took overnight. He choreographed a comic jam for her. I think the song was called Esther, and it featured her and Dave Burns, and she was just hilarious.
Speaker How it. Well, you told me you weren’t there that much, but I think that you were there long enough to see how Jerry and Betty Davis related to each other. Can you tell me about that?
Speaker I do remember an incident with Betty Davis and Jerry Robbins. And unfortunately, it was a reflection of the fact that the way Jerry worked with the dancers, they had enormous respect for what he accomplished and for how they looked on stage.
Speaker But sometimes they did develop an antipathy towards him. And in this particular occasion, Jerry was trying to teach Betty Davis a very simple dance step. It was a musical version of Rain, the Somerset Maugham piece. And she was Sadie Thompson, the sexy vamp. She could not learn this very simple piece of choreography. So Robbins went up on the stage. We were working in the theater. Robbins went up on the stage to demonstrate to her and he did the step. He was being very gentle with her and she preferred to take umbrage. She said, I know what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to make me look like a horse’s ass before all these other people. And she stormed off stage and she wouldn’t come out of her dressing room until Robbins went and apologized and got her to come back to rehearsal. And the cast was just enjoying this. They were giggling and tittering. They loved it.
Speaker It’s amazing, actually, because one of the things that Jerry is known for is being able to take on dancing people and make them look good so that it really says something about her, too.
Speaker I’m sure that if Betty Davis had had not had some kind of issue of pride going, that she would have listened and she would have learned. But something ticked her off and she just she she wouldn’t stand for it.
Speaker What was your impression of him in those days?
Speaker I had no impression of Jerome Robbins. I wasn’t close enough to him. All I knew was his reputation and the work I’d seen that I liked, but I didn’t know him at all.
Speaker But you got to know him eventually.
Speaker I did get to know Jerome Robbins during the final days and I got to love him.
Speaker He talked to you, I think, a little bit about his family, didn’t he, at towards the end of Jerry’s life? He was working on something called the papà piece. I think many times during his life, people had asked him to do his autobiography and for whatever reasons, he had turned them down. And I think what he planned to do was to do an autobiographical piece through what he did best, which was dance. So when he started the piece, it was to be all dance. And then at a certain point he realized that he needed some dialogue scenes. And so he called on John Weidman to provide those. And at a certain point, I guess because of his background in musicals, he felt that he could also use. Songs to advantage, so he called me and asked if I would do some lyrics, the music was by a young man.
Speaker I don’t remember his name, but I think he was with a musical group called something like The Flying Kamikaze. It was. And the composer did have a nice sense of musical humor, at any rate. Jerry did talk to me about his family somewhere at home. I have a lot of notes. Mostly he talked about his father because it was the love hate relationship that he had with his father that was at the basis of the piece. And I was not successful in writing the kind of lyric that he wanted. The stories he told me about his father were about a man who apparently had great humor when he cared to use it and when there was company when there was somebody that he wanted to amuse, he was capable of doing it. But when nobody was around for him to perform for, then he would bury himself behind his newspaper and become totally incommunicado, uncommunicative, uncommunicative, whatever that word is, so that he just didn’t speak. And also, Robbins told an anecdote. About one Christmas when Jerry was very, very young and his father had dressed up as Santa Claus and given Robbins, I don’t remember whether it was a little toy train or a toy car or whatever it was, it was something that Robbins was just delighted with and played with it and played with it. And when it was time to go to bed, he wouldn’t he just wanted to keep playing with the toy. And so and there were other people in the house. There were guests. His father, apparently dressed up as Santa Claus, again, came back and took the toy away and said, bad little boys, boys, don’t get to keep these toys. And Robbins was heartsick. And then his father took off his Santa Claus mask and everybody laughed. And Robin said he felt such a deep sense of betrayal, he never forgot it. It was an awful story. So there was that element that he wanted me to work into. This particular lyric I’m blocking right now about what the particular lyric was about. And I tried to make the lyric sardonic and maybe bitter is the wrong word, but a dark. I read the lyric for Robins and he thought for a minute and he said, you could speak to your father, couldn’t you? I said, yeah, I could I didn’t know what that meant, and then he told me about the difficulty, the silence of his father, and so then he explained again how difficult it had been to deal with his father, how sparing not only how sparing of praise he was, but how his father had imbued him with the feeling that he was untalented and that being Jewish, ultimately, whatever he accomplished would be taken away from him, so that even as an adult, Robbins’ apparently had these very deep feelings of fear in him. At least that’s the message that I got. So I tried another version of the lyric. I got closer. It still wasn’t right. And I was wondering to myself, why didn’t he ask Steve Sondheim? I guess Sondheim could do what he what I was not able to. And then the whole project came to a halt. Jerry had taken into his home some old friend who was dying of AIDS and nursed him, and I was thinking to myself, here is this gesture of deep compassion and how is he going to come away from that experience and back to this exploration of the bitter feelings he had towards his father? I have no way of knowing whether it was the experience of caring for his friend who died, which affected how he felt about the papà piece. But as far as I know, he never came back to it. I remember my feeling, of course, was, well, I let him down. I couldn’t do the lyric he wanted, so he’s not going to call me. But then I ran into John Weidman and I said, Are you still working on the paper piece? And he said, no. He said, I think he has dropped it. I’m not sure. And the last thing I say about that is that I did go to one workshop where Robbins had invited a number of us to see the very beginning of the peace and the beginning of the peace started with a man who I guess would have been Robbins himself, seated in a chair. And then in the background, there was a body covered on a gurney. Apparently, it was a dead body and that would have been his father. And then at a certain point. The Robbins’ figure got up, Wendover took the sheet off of the body, managed to get it off the gurney and began to dance with it. And the body, as I recall, was, well, you can imagine how difficult it is to work with an absolutely inert, heavy body. But then eventually the body came to life and took over and controlled the dance. And it was chilling. It was just chilling. So I don’t know if that was ever filmed. I hope it was, but I doubt it.
Speaker I think actually there is a. I haven’t seen it, but I understand that there is one, so I will look forward to it. We may come back a little bit to perhaps later, but before we stop talking about Jerry’s family, I think he might have told you, did he, about when his mother, I think, took him back to Poland when he was about six.
Speaker When we first met with Robbins’ about Fittler, when he agreed to be our director and choreographer, he told us something and I’ve never forgotten because I believe.
Speaker That this story accounts for, to a certain degree, to the success, the extraordinary success of Fiddler on the Roof. Robin said when he was I hear myself saying ultimately, Robbins and Jerry said, Jerry, I don’t know why I do that. He said when he was six, he was taken with his family to Poland, to the place where their forebears came from. And he said that even at the age of six, it was a very emotional experience. And I, of course, think that Robin’s, as a six year old, must have been an unusually sensitive and impressionable six year old. He certainly was an impressionable, insensitive adult, so that whatever he saw, whatever he felt, remained with him then. During World War Two, as accounts of the destruction of these little villages in Poland and other places in Eastern Europe, as they began to come into the news, he was horrified because it was his memory of places like the one he’d been to, that he was horrified at the notion that this had been exterminated. So he told us when he had the chance with Fiddler on the Roof to put that society back to life, bring that society back to life, to put that little shtetl culture on the stage. He wanted to give it bring it back to life and give it a life of an additional 25 years to keep it alive. It’s now 40 years. So he he wrote better than he knew. But it was my feeling that he was obsessed with that goal. Maybe this is the way he approached every piece. I only worked with him the once, but he was obsessed with every detail of Hitler to make it as perfect as possible.
Speaker OK, so the Tavia project, I understand that not everybody thought the idea of taking Shulem a lot of stories to make a musical was great. Tell me how it began.
Speaker I had done a show with Jerry Bock that Harold Prince directed. She loves me. We had a production in London and already we knew that Jerry Bock and I knew that we were going to be doing Fiddler on the Roof with Jerome Robbins while I was in London. There was an article in one of the London papers scoffing at the whole idea of doing a musical based on these sort of Aleikum Tavia stories. And there was little cartoon in it of a bearded dairyman dancing on some milk cans, just making fun of the whole idea, which was a surprise to me because it never occurred to me that there was anything daring or anything dangerous about doing this kind of a show.
Speaker What had happened was that a friend I can’t remember who it was, had given me a novel called Wandering Star by selling the and the friend thought it might be the basis of a musical. So I read it and I loved it. And I gave it to Jerry Bock who read it and he loved it. And we brought in Joe Stein to do the book. We gave him the novel and he read it and he said, it’s too big. It’s too big a canvas. It has it has dozens and dozens of characters. It spans 70 years in time. It’s just too big. It’s too sprawling. But since we love the work of this man, Solomon, let’s see what else we can find. And so we looked and we found the stories, the TV stories. And what struck us about them was that they were very warm, they were human, they were funny. There were moving. They seemed to have all the qualities that called for music and that would lend themselves to a wonderful musical theater treatment.
Speaker How did Jerry do?
Speaker I don’t remember. Who it was who suggested that we go to Jerome Robbins as the director. But we did, and I think we had written an act originally, we had a producer named Arnold S. Suber and then Arnold fell on hard times. He he had a number of flops. And we were told that he was having an impossible time raising money. So we thought it would be prudent to go elsewhere. And we went to a man named Fred Cole, who was in television because all of us loved the taste that he showed in the television shows that he did. But it turned out that Fred, to our surprise, was going through some kind of emotional experience. I don’t know. There was a nervous breakdown of what?
Speaker And he never showed up at our meetings. And I remember speaking to Herb Gardner because Fred was directing A Thousand Clowns. I think it was the film version. And I mentioned to her, I said, I wish you’d stop stealing our producer. He doesn’t come to our meetings. He says he’s going to your meetings. And Herb said, what a surprise. He never shows up at our meetings. He says he’s go to your meetings. And that’s when we discovered that he was having some kind of problem. So Jerry Bock and Joe Stein and I went to Harold Prince.
Speaker We had gone to Harold originally, Harold Hal. We’d gone to Hal originally. And how very frankly said, this is not my cup of tea. You’d be better going somewhere else. But by this time we had Jerome Robbins involved. And when we went back to Hal, I think it was Robin’s involvement that convinced Hal to take it on. But I don’t remember. How or who suggested that we go to Rob? It’s all I remember is that he loved the material. He said he would do it.
Speaker Can you tell me, with as much specificity as you can recall, how Jerry was involved in developing the script?
Speaker When we started to have meetings with Jerome Robbins. Well, in addition to calling him Jerry and Robin’s name, calling him Jerome Robbins. Well, he was a well-rounded man. I had never worked with Robbins. I had never worked actually with a director who worked this way. Robbins, I think, was more aware than any of us that once you go into rehearsal, it’s like just getting on a toboggan slide.
Speaker You get on, you start the sled and tomorrow you open. So he knew how little time there is once you get into rehearsal. And consequently, we started to have preproduction discussions maybe six months before we were to go into rehearsal. And I’ve never done that. So we would meet frequently and he would discuss aspects of the show because he was looking for any trouble spots. The biggest trouble spot to him was what the show was about. Again, I had really not had the experience of anybody asking me questions, asking all of us questions in depth as he did. What is this show about? What is this show about? He kept hammering away at it. And ordinarily we would say, well, it’s about this dairyman who has five daughters and we would describe the plot. And he’d say, no, that’s not what it’s about. That’s the plot, he said if that was all it was about, then this would be and he used as an image a successful radio and television shows called The Goldbergs, Molly Goldberg, which was very famous and very amusing and very warm. He said that’s what this show would be. It would be warm and amusing. But he said these stories have a power to them and the plot doesn’t account for this power. What does this show about? So it was months of these meetings and that one of them. One of us said, you know what this show may be about. Is the changing of a way of life and we began to look at the individual stories are there are more stories, more tavia stories than we chose to use. But we settled on, I guess it was four or five of them. And each story had to do with a daughter who broke away from tradition. And once we had unearthed this idea, Robbins’, I probably have a false memory, but my memory is that his eyes lit up. And once he got that, then we began to go through this show scene by scene, scene by scene, to figure out in what way every scene dealt with either the change of tradition or the preservation of tradition. And of course, ultimately, this led to an opening number called tradition, because and I remember his phrase, he said, if this is so is about tradition, then we have to give the audience a notion of what some of these traditions are. And it’ll be an opening number, which will be like a tapestry against which the entire show plays. So we eventually did the opening number. We did we did the opening number, I think shortly before we left town to go to Detroit. We waited till the last minute to do the opening because it wasn’t until then that we truly understood what the show was about.
Speaker That’s great. I’m going to ask you just to focus here. I’m just a little worried that you’re looking too closely to the ones that I’m. What does it look like? Yeah, it’s just OK.
Speaker If I look at you, it’s better.
Speaker OK, is that OK? But that was all right. That was fine. Thank goodness. OK, because that was great. I understand the jury spoke with the collaboratives about the dangers of allowing nostalgia to creep into the show, about not romanticizing the characters and keeping them as survivors, as resilient. Do you have any recollection of that?
Speaker I don’t myself recall Jerry talking to us about the dangers of the show becoming nostalgic or sentimental. I he that sounds like a conversation he would more likely have had with Joe Stein as the book writer. I do remember, though, once. Jerry told us about something he wanted to do directorially, and I don’t remember specifically what it was, but it changed something that we had done in the show, something that we were all very fond of. So we had our own rump caucus beforehand and we said, we will confront Mr. Robbins and we will tell him, no, it’s going to be the way we want it. So we came into the meeting and we said, Jerry, you know, that’s what we were talking about. Well, we think we want it exactly the way we’ve written it. And he grinned and he said, fine, and that’s the way it’ll be. And I’m sure your next director will handle that just the way you want it with. No, no, no, no. Don’t leave us. Don’t leave us. We’ll do it your way.
Speaker So you talked a little bit before about Jerry’s feelings about his Jewishness, which I understand he was a little conflicted about. Do you ever talk to you about Jerry?
Speaker Never talk to me, at any rate, about feelings of Jewishness since as it happens, Joe Stein, Jerry Bock, myself, and Joe and Jerome Robbins, Jerry him, Mr. Robbins, we were all Jewish. It never seemed to be an issue. We just dealt with the characters and the story of the show. The only thing I can recall, and this was not particularly Jerry’s issue, it was an issue that all of us had, and that was the use of Jewish or Hebrew words or phrases, because we felt that we should use a few as as spice, salt and pepper. But I remember during those six months of pre rehearsal meetings, a comic named Lenny Bruce was playing at a club in New York. And I was very curious about him because I had heard that he used a lot of obscenities in his act and he was quite a controversial figure. So I went to the cabaret to see Lenny Bruce. And to my surprise, he was not a stand up comic. He did little little monologues in which he became a character. And the use of obscenity, I thought, was absolutely appropriate for the character that he had adopted. But what did bother me was between these monologues when he was just addressing the audience, he would use Jewish phrases and there would be a table here and they have cabaret that would laugh. And another table would say, what did he say? What did he say? And I thought that that’s cheap. So we all agreed that with Fiddler we would use a few words. And I don’t think we used more than two or three and that if anyone laughed in the audience when they were used, they would come out. And the only time I remember that it became an issue was one night when Jacqueline Kennedy was in the audience, we had been told she was coming, so all of us were there. I don’t know if Terry Robbins was there, but the rest of us were there. And at one point. One of the characters says, mazel tov, and apparently she turned to her companion and said, what does that mean? And all around her from rolls around, people were saying means, congratulations, congratulations. Your big exception was I am obviously what you translater yes, I when we wrote last time, I thought I’m not taking any chances. I’m going to give the translation. And even that I found out that wasn’t enough during the last production we closed when in January and shortly before we were closed, I was seeing a performance and a doctor that I knew was there with her daughter. And the doctor came up and said, Would you explain to my daughter what the Hyam is that?
Speaker I thought, OK, this is a long shot. But Jerry wrote somewhere that his grandma Ida was an inspiration for the show to ever talk to you about her.
Speaker I don’t recall Jerry ever speaking to us about his grandmother, Ida. For some reason, the name is vaguely familiar to me. So maybe he mentioned her, but I don’t recall in what context he would have mentioned her.
Speaker I if I remember right, I think that the show may have changed his relationship with his father a bit.
Speaker I think that his father was so pleased about the show that it made a difference in their relationship.
Speaker Did you see his father on opening night when he came back?
Speaker I never met Gerry’s father. By a terrible, terrible, tragic coincidence opening night of the last revival. I was sitting a few rows away from I didn’t know at the time that it was Jerry’s sister who died before the curtain went up.
Speaker That’s such an amazing story. I know Florea told me she was sitting, I think, right behind.
Speaker Yeah, and it’s not for publication, but somebody a few rows away from me said she didn’t see the dancing.
Speaker I know. I mean, it’s so unbelievable that that’s just like the Gower Champion story. All right. Behind these people’s sense of theatricality, you know, and it was it your impression that Jerry was a person who did a lot of research and homework or not? And if so, what did he do for Fiddler?
Speaker It was my impression that Robbins did an enormous amount of homework. What books he read, what his sources of the research were? I don’t know, but I do know that he took us to a number of Hasidic weddings and they were in a hotel on the west side of New York. Don’t remember the hotel, but we went to several and.
Speaker One of the.
Speaker Things that he picked up, there was an entertainer there at many of these weddings, we didn’t see many of these weddings at the weddings we went to, there was an entertainer who used to show up regularly. He was kind of a heavyset, short, red headed man, older man. And sometime during the day after the ceremony, when the entertainment was going on and people were mixing and mingling, he would walk around with a bottle on his head. And I saw Robin staring at him. And, of course, that wound up being translated into the extraordinary bottle dance that Robin’s did. And by the way, that. Moment of the moment following the bottle dance is, I think, my favorite moment in the show, the bottle dance itself was extraordinary, the the use of simple choreography, simple movement and steps, which was so effective. Plus the tension created by will these bottles drop or not? But after that, when they got to the end and the men took the bottles off their head, then they went into this ecstatic dance and I asked him about that because I found it so moving. And he said to me, this is their communion with God, and they do it through movement. And that’s what I saw every time I looked at that dance. It was just ecstatic. The other thing that he got there was a tradition I had never seen observed in any of the Jewish events that I’d gone to. And this was the lifting up of the bride and groom on chairs. These were very orthodox weddings. So that there was after the ceremony, there was a rope or a velvet cord or something which divided the space into two sides, the men’s side and the women’s side. And at some point, the man was the groom would sit in the chair, the bride would sit in a chair and.
Speaker Which was.
Speaker Joyous and military in a way that that Robins glommed on to and that wound up in the show, so he was observing everything and it reminds me of another memory, which has nothing to do with research. But it’s a memory that I remember. After the show or before the show, when we were walking down the streets just talking about what was coming next in his life, I suddenly asked. Why he had never married. And he looked at me rather strangely and said, Why do you ask? And I said, Well, because when we went to those weddings, I would look at you looking at the children, and you had this beatific look on your face and suddenly he had this beatific look on his face. Again, that’s just big smile suffused his his face. He said, I adore children. I love children, he said. But I was always afraid of really getting locked into a marriage. I couldn’t do it. That’s all he told you about why you didn’t get married at that time, at that time that was. No, no, that was the only time we ever talked about marriage. That was and that was what he said at that time. But he did. I wish there were a photograph of what Robbins’ looked like when he was looking at the children because he had such tenderness, such affection and such longing.
Speaker He and there are many wonderful stories about things that he did just spontaneously with children, friends, children who appeared at rehearsal or something, and he was he obviously had a deep affection for them. Taking up within Fittler, but taking a little bit of a different direction, I think it’s hard for people who don’t work in the theatre to understand exactly what a director does with a new musical, apart from being a traffick. In Gerry’s case, he was involved probably in everything, and I wonder if you could talk about that a bit so people could understand a little bit more of the scope and range of his contribution.
Speaker Before Jerome Robbins became our director, choreographer Joe Stein, Jerry Bock and I had worked on the show, I think it was the first time in my experience that it was a show we had organized. We had gotten the rights to the material. Ordinarily show came from a producer and we were commissioned more or less to do the show. But in this case, we got the rights, we picked the stories, we began to work. And I believe that by the time Jerry Robbins got involved, we had an act. We might have had more than that. When we went and he he would ask us many questions in the preproduction meetings, why did we do this? Why did we do that? I can’t think of specifics, but he might make a suggestion that this would be stronger. And with his experience and his wisdom was usually they were very wise suggestions we would accept them and go from there when we went into rehearsal. With his experience and this extraordinary instinct he had for what would work, he would see things that weren’t going to work before we did. I remember specifically we had a song for the tailor model and his wife, and it was in the second act. It was called Dear Sweet Sewing Machine. It came at a point where they were already married. They had a child and he realized his dream of being able to afford a second hand sewing machine, which would make his life easier. So we wrote a song which he and his wife sang to the sewing machine. Dear, sweet sewing machine. Jerry Bock had written it as almost a disguised jazz waltz. It was an adorable song and it was one of the hits of our backers auditions during rehearsals one day after he’d rehearsed it. Robbins came to Jerry Bock and me and he said there is something wrong, I don’t know what it is, but I sense that there is something wrong. And he said, well, maybe it’s my imagination, but we’ll have to keep an eye on that, we had no idea what he meant. We go to Detroit. It’s our first preview. We get to that song, which, as I say, had been a hit. During the auditions, Mothell and Sitel finished singing it. There was almost no applause. So the first thing we did, we thought, OK, the orchestra must be too loud and they’re doing it too fast. People are not hearing the lyrics. So we told Milt Greene, our conductor, take the orchestra down, take a little slower. So he did. Second preview. No applause or almost no applause. It was then it was the sound of one hand clapping. So at that point Robin said the numbers not working, we have to take it out of the shell. So he told me, I think we only had two previews. He said opening night, what I want you to do is prepare some underscoring. As soon as the number finishes go right into the underscoring will go into the dialogue that follows the number. We won’t wait for applause. And we took out the numbers as soon as we could. After that, we had a number of postmortems about it. Why didn’t the song work when it had been so effective during the backer’s auditions? And he said, Robert, I think, put his finger on it. He said, I think what’s happened in this show, we’re telling a number of different stories with regard to the stories about the daughters. Once the story has been resolved. That story, for all intents and purposes, is over. It’s time to go on to the next story. You cannot go back and give those people a major song. You keep them alive during the rest of the show, but you cannot give them something that really demands a lot of time and attention. And I think that was it. The audience just didn’t want to go backwards. They wanted to go forward to the next relationship. So that was one way. But then in the second act, I think Robbins recognized before any of us that a great deal had to be rewritten. We had the experience with Fiddler of having a first act in which there were almost no changes made. Once we got on the road, there might have been a few, but basically the first act stayed as it was the second act. We changed almost entirely. We the second act had had used to start with a song that for the villagers and it was. And it was a version of the music was an attack, but it was a joyous no celebrating their way of life and. It wasn’t working Helprin’s Prince, as a matter of fact, rather than Jerry Robbins, was the one Jerry trusted hell a lot and he said, what do you think is wrong? And Hal said, it’s a conventional second act opening. It’s an active number and it’s the villagers gambling on the green. And he said that’s not what this show is about. And Robin said, you’re absolutely right. And so instead, he did something which to me was very daring because I thought.
Speaker But but don’t you have to have an opening for the second act that just sets the mood for a nice, joyous, active show.
Speaker Instead, he had Tavia come out and talk to the audience and remind them of what they had just seen, the ending of the first act, and to to immediately pick up the story from there and go on with the story, because I think that was the main thing I learned from watching the way Robbins worked is it’s storytelling, whether it’s dance, whether it’s song, whether it’s in there, whether it’s a book, it’s storytelling. So that’s the way the second act started.
Speaker OK, so you were telling me about Jerry’s big number and Jerry created something in the second act that as to me was like the doctor, the cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It was German expressionism. What he did at the moment, from the moment where Golda comes on stage to tell the Tavia that his third daughter, Halva, has eloped and gotten married to the non Jewish Russian he created. A piece of work that must have seemed to me that it was like 12 or 15 minutes was probably only seven or eight minutes, but it was long and it was rich and it showed what was happening in TV, his mind, and how he was becoming a bit unhinged by the notion that his daughter had done this and that he would have to declare her dead so that Tavia went from place to place in an attack, going here, going there. And as he did, the scenery changed and became distorted. The coloring became the lighting became kind of red. And it was it was a nightmare happening before your eyes. I thought it was I thought it was just genius at work and it was a man going crazy.
Speaker Oh, sorry. I thought you were finished.
Speaker So when when we went to Detroit and it came time for that moment, I thought to myself, oh, the audience is just kind of stand up and cheer at the end of us. They were stunned, but in the wrong way. They didn’t know what to make of it. There was no applause, almost none. And I thought, what happened? Jerry was the first one to realize what had happened, and even even he at first, I don’t think realized quite what happened, I think he thought it’s too long. So the first thing he did was to try and snip snip here. He slipped a little there, made it tighter, made it shorter. And each time he did this, suddenly the response grew. There was more applause and he made it shorter and there was more applause. He made it shorter and it was more applause. Jerry Buck once said, you know, if he if he cuts the entire thing, it’ll be a showstopper. So eventually, Robin said, you know what happened? We’re doing a very naturalistic show in the middle of it. I put this German expressionism or whatever phrase he used. The audience didn’t know what to make it. It was just too out of character. And so this long. No, however, it was eventually. Was pared down to about a two minute piece of the three daughters and pantomimed dance, pantomimed the three daughters meeting their suitors, pairing up with their suitors, leaving, and the last was halvah and the Russian. And this was all going through TV, his head. He was just recapping the romances of his three daughters and it was exquisite.
Speaker Now, I understand the jury asked you to put a song into the second act. You know which one I’m talking about became his favorite. Maybe tell me about the.
Speaker We at a certain point. Jerry wanted a number at the end of the show towards the end of the show, when the village let me go back and it’s coming back to, you know, we had another of our backers audition favorites in the show. It was the number originally written for the rabbi called When Messiah Comes. And it was to be an ironic number when the villagers are told they’re going to have to leave, then the rabbi sings this story, kind of recapping Jewish history in two minutes of tragedy, but looked at with a raised eyebrow and amused look at Jewish history. When Messiah comes, everything will change, will be happy. And this was followed by and I remember followed by or preceded by a number by the villagers themselves called Get the out and angry number about having told they have to leave, get the out. We didn’t during the backers auditions. We never did get them out, but we did when Messiah comes. And as I say, it was a it was a favorite. Another one of those moments of horror when we get to Detroit. The numbers don’t work, there is almost no laughter for one messiah comes. It just doesn’t work. People came from New York to see the show or they happened to be passing through. They’d come to see the show. We would meet them. And one of the first questions we asked was, why doesn’t when Messiah comes? And they would all look at us as though we were out of our minds. Are you crazy? This is a moment of great poignance near tragedy. The villagers are told they’re going to have to leave the place where they’ve lived all their lives, sell their goods and be out in three days. And by that time, we had taken the number away from the rabbi. We’d given it to Zero Mostel. And you have Tavia singing a comedy song. How can the audience accept it? You know, it’s embarrassing, it’s awkward, so we cut it, Jerry. Zero Mostel screamed because it was one of his favorite numbers and Jerry persuaded him it’s just not working. So he said, we need something else. What I’d like you to write. Is a number about the fact that now they have to leave an attack and he said, you know what I think we can do? Jerry was extremely musical. He said we had a number that opened the second act, which was very active. And if we slow that down, I think that will be that’ll have the right flavor for this piece and a. So I wrote a number very quickly. I wrote a lyric that they all that the six principals could sing about what it meant to them to leave an attack. And I was very happy. We all were happy with the lyric. But the way Robin stated it was so startling because he just emptied the stage of all the other villagers and left five or six of our principals on stage. And they sang it without moving. They just sang it, it was purely internal, and to me it was never better, it was just so moving and so effective.
Speaker That’s a wonderful story. It’s actually not the song I was thinking about. I was thinking of Do you love?
Speaker I know I can talk about that. Yeah, there was as with every show I’ve done, some of the best songs get written on the road. There was one song I had a feeling that at the moment in the second act.
Speaker Tavia has agreed to let his second daughter huddle, marry this poverty stricken revolutionary and Tavian goal to have a talk about that, she’s very unhappy. I had a feeling that it would be very funny for him to suddenly wonder in this culture of the arranged marriage to him to suddenly turn to his wife and say, Golda, do love me and for her to go, what would be such a shocking idea to her? But I didn’t know where to go with it from there once we got to Detroit. For our pre Broadway tryout, I thought, let me explore that and I would go for long walks and try and think, what would they say? It was so difficult. And at the end of a day, I was very happy if I had four lines. So it took a week before I had a lyric and it was a lyric that didn’t even look like a lyric. It looked like a dialogue scene. I gave it to Jerry Bock and I said here, I said, if you can find a setting, you’ll probably have to change the form of it. But I’ll rewrite just whatever music you come up with. And to my astonishment, he set the lyric. He found the underlying rhythmic structure of it, and he said it exactly as I had written it. So we gave it to Zero and to Maria Kornilov and they learned it. And the next night they put it into the show. They put it in very fast. And from the first time it was done, it worked and I was very pleased with it.
Speaker What surprised me, I couldn’t find a joke. I wanted to find a joke at the end of it and I couldn’t find one. So I ended it a different way. And to my astonishment, the last lines were so human that everybody chuckled. Anyway, the third time I watched it, I was in the audience. They got to the end of it and I suddenly began. I was standing in the back. I suddenly began to sob and I left the theater so I wouldn’t disturb anybody. And I got outside and I thought, why am I sobbing like this? And I suddenly realized what I had written was the relationship I wished had existed between my father and my mother. And it didn’t. They fought so much. And here was this loving, unsentimental, unsentimental but loving relationship between these two people. And I wished that that’s what I had grown up with.
Speaker It was your seventh prayer. Yes, I don’t. This is a shot in the dark. Did you ever do. Were you involved in casting with Jerry at all?
Speaker I was involved. We all were involved with casting. I think we trusted Jerry to make the decisions, but we were there at all of the auditions, which reminds me of two stories. One was the girl who wound up playing cycle, Johanna Mirlande, Joanna was a wonderful actress, not an accomplished singer. And when she came in her reading Just Florida, we thought, that’s the girl. And then she did her singing audition and she chose to sing in head voice, which was very weak. And we thought, we can’t use her. We can’t use her. Well, Jerry Robbins called her back time after time and the same thing happened. She would do a reading with great the best and then she would sing and we thought, we can’t use her. And none of us had the brains to say, Joanna, do you have a chest voice? Maybe that’s different. About the fourth or fifth time Joanna came back, she chose to do a chest voice. We thought it’s acceptable, hire her. So that was one thing. He just didn’t give up on her. The other was a sad experience. Two wonderful actors came in, both of whom had worked with Jerry before, William Daniels, who I knew from Northwestern and Gene Wilder. And they both did terrible auditions. They were good friends. And as it happened, I was at a party and they were both there. And I went to them. I said was so strange. I was looking forward to your auditions. I think they were both auditioning for Muckle and I said they were both very weak auditions. What happened? And both of them said, we’ve worked with Jerry before, he is a genius, there’s no question about it. But the when we worked with him, it was very difficult and we thought, why do we want to put ourselves through that again? So that affected their audition’s.
Speaker OK, now, how did it happen?
Speaker Zero was hired, particularly since he and Jerry had a history when Jerry Bock and Joe Stein and I were working on the show, we used to talk about imaginary casting. And our first choice for Tavia was an actor named Howard the Silver. Jerry Bock and I had worked with him in Fiorello and knew that he was not only a fine actor, but a fine natural singer, the kind of person I love to work with because they have a natural voice and they’re musical and they bring to it their acting abilities. So we wanted to use Howard when Jerry Robbins became our director and we began to talk about casting. We mentioned Howard and he said he said, Howard’s a wonderful actress. I love Howard’s acting. But he said, I have the very strong feeling that Tavia must be larger than life. And that’s why I want to go with Zero Mostel. When he said that I didn’t know that there was a political history that might make things difficult, but that was the reason he wanted he wanted somebody larger than life, so. Later, when I went into a herd, when we went into rehearsal, I began to hear these stories about the the the problems that existed because of the political stances they had both taken with the House un-American Activities Committee. But zero was smart enough to realize that Jerome Robbins was exactly the right director to make this show work and to to do it the way it should be done. And so, as far as I know, nothing I ever saw indicated any problems. Directorially working with Robbins’.
Speaker Tell me.
Speaker Tell me about how Jerry worked with the cast during the first. How he he did certain exercises, I understand that this may come from his Actors Studio background, that in which they they were made to think about prejudice and how it would feel to be discriminated against. Can you talk about that?
Speaker One of the great regrets of my professional life. Is that I never seem to get the score right before we go into rehearsal, there always seems to be too many songs that don’t work. And the result of that, as we go into rehearsal, I discover we all discover the songs that don’t work. And I’m back in my apartment rewriting while everybody is meeting each other and having fun at rehearsals. So I never got to I rarely got to see how Jerome Robbins worked with the company, as I rarely got to see how George Abbott worked or how Helprin’s worked. I just didn’t get to see it. I do know that Jerry considered himself at that time, at any rate, to not to be articulate in talking to actors. And consequently, he always hired as assistants people who were very articulate and either very good actors are very good directors. So that in the past I think William Daniels had been an assistant. We had an assistant whose name I’m blocking down right now who but who did a book about the show, a wonderful book about the making of Fiddler on the Roof. I’m blanking on his name. And I think that Jerry Robbins counted on them to be able to communicate, communicate to the company if he himself felt that he hadn’t.
Speaker Which reminds me that before.
Speaker We began to work after we had had offered the job to Robinson, who had accepted it, I was talking to Steve Sondheim and saying, we’re going to be working with Jerry Robbins. And he said, well, let me tell you. You have to listen to Robyn’s very carefully, because he does not consider himself articulate and he said, but what he is, is poetic and he will express himself in a wonderfully poetic way. And if you listen closely, then you will hear what he’s actually saying, where he’s not always able specifically to say the exact words that describe what he’s trying to communicate. And I think I found that true.
Speaker Was it Steve who gave you the warning about Jerry’s?
Speaker What shall I say, Steve Sondheim, Steve Sondheim also warned me that Jerry in his search for perfection, Jerry. Rode herd on every element of the show, the sets, the costumes, the lighting, the orchestration, and that he would not hesitate to change something of mine. And the story he told me was about being in the auditorium when there was I guess they were already back from their tour of West Side Story and that Steve and Leonard Bernstein were having a conversation and the orchestra was was working.
Speaker And at one point, Jerry Robbins came up to Bernstine and said, Lenny, wouldn’t it be better? And here I paraphrase, Wouldn’t it be better if this phrase were played on the tuba instead of the bass fiddle? And Bernstein thought a while and thought, nope, should be played on the bass. Phil said, OK, so Steve and Berstein went on with their conversation. A moment later, the orchestra rehearsed that passage and there was an tuba and Bernstein heard it and went white and said He knows I can’t stand a scene. And he got up and left the theater and Steve told me that he said, so be prepared. And sure enough, when we are in Detroit, I came in, it was a matinee. I watched the show. And in the song Matchmaker, I heard two lines I’d never heard before. So I went backstage and I talked to Joanna Merlin, who was singing the lines. I said, Did you forget today? She said, No, Jerry Robbins gave me this chance.
Speaker I said, Aha. So I said, Joanna, would you do me a favor and learn two more new lines and do them tonight? She said, OK, so I just wrote something as awful as I could and substituted them for the lines that Jerry Robbins had given her. And she learned them. And that night she sang them. And after she sang them, I felt this presence behind me. And I turned around and there was Jerry Robbins coming up to me with this enormous grin on his face who say, OK, next time I’ll ask.
Speaker Oh, OK. Um, just give me a time, just cut for a second, take a drink if you want. I just we’ve skipped around and.
Speaker It confirmed my memories because Joe Stein and I have is like Rashomon. We have totally different memories of so many different aspects of what’s happened. I just remembered another aspect of Jerry Robbins directing, which I’d love to tell.
Speaker One of my regrets about this project is I can’t get Jerry Bernstein, Sondheim and Laurents in a room and ask them all about the genesis of why.
Speaker So, OK.
Speaker Actually, you, Jerry, relate it differently to different people. It’s not one of the people who treats everybody the same, right, that you got along very well with him.
Speaker And I’m wondering how you manage that.
Speaker When Jerry Robbins became our director, I told a number of people, and especially people who had worked with him and one of my very good friends was a tiny dancer named Sandra Lee Peanut’s, who had worked with Robbins, was very fond of him. And she said that everybody who spoke to about working with Robert, they all gave me warnings. Hers was she said maybe two weeks before you’re going to open Jerry’s demons will start to work. Apparently, he has this deep seated fear of failing. She said when that happens, you will know because you won’t be able to reach him in any way. And the last thing to go will be humor. If you can’t reach him through humor and stay out of his way. And so I did reach him with humor. But that’s not what accounted for our relationship, I think. That he liked what I wrote, that he appreciated what I was bringing to the show. Also, I think he knew how much I adored his talent. The I think I already mentioned the visceral response I had to some work he had done in the exports jazz, but there was another experience when I saw the King and I and they did a little house of Uncle Thomas, I began to weep. And it was not because there was anything sad going on, but it was just what I was seeing was such artistic perfection that something in me just went, Oh my God, it doesn’t get any better than this. I hope I can reach that level of accomplishment someday. It just made me weep just from the sheer creative artistry of it. And I think Jerry knew that I felt that way. Also, our senses of humor jibed so that it was a good relationship. And yet about two weeks before we were to open, then I couldn’t reach him. And also he had kept asking me for a second chorus of Sunrise Sunset, where he wanted to incorporate Hoddle and Pertschuk and the number, as well as Tevye and Golda. And I was having great difficulty with that. I tried lyric after Lyric and he would listen and he’d say, try it again. I don’t think that I succeeded until about a week before we opened. It was that close. But I remember as his demons began to be active and I would go up to him to make a joke, he would just stare at me and say, Where’s that lyric? Where’s that lyric for you can huddle? And I thought, OK, stay out of his way. So I did. After we opened, then we it became all friendly again. And he asked me at one point he called when he was doing his Charles Ives, the Ives ballet and he wanted to start at. Start it or finish it on blocking with a song by Charles Ives, but the song that he had chosen had was a setting of a French lyric and he wanted to do it in English. And I was so flattered that he had called me and asked me to do the lyric that I dropped everything and as quickly as I could, I did a lyric. So I gave it to him and he said, Thank you, this is fine. And it turned out that didn’t work for whatever reason. So he called again and he said, I’ve chosen another song. Will you do another song? I said, Sure. So again, I dropped everything. And in this one there were some aspects of the French that I couldn’t decide which was better, this or that. And by this time, knowing Robbins’, I thought, OK, I’ll let him choose. Then it’ll make it easier anyway for him to OK the lyric. So I brought it to him and I said here, I can’t make up my mind between this or that. And he said, aha, this. So he used it and I was flattered. I was pleased then it turned out. That I couldn’t get paid because to our surprise, we all thought that Charles Ives material had to be in the public domain. It wasn’t it was still protected by copyright. The publisher said, we don’t want an English lyric. We’re very happy just to have the French lyric because it’s you. Jerome Robbins will allow you to do this, but he can’t be paid for this. All royalties will go to the Charles Ives estate or to the publishing company. And Jerry was furious. But on opening night, on opening day of opening night, I got the biggest bouquet of flowers I have ever seen, which came from Jerry. Then the next, my wife and I saw the show. We we’re thrilled to be part of it. We went home the next day. Jerry called and very tentatively said, You didn’t like it, did you? I said, we loved it. What do you mean? We loved it. And he said, Well, why don’t you come to the party? So what party? He said, nobody invited you to the party. Said No. Oh, God. So we missed a good party.
Speaker But I think he knew that.
Speaker I just adored his talent and that spilled over to him. I heard all the terrible things about him politically. I heard about it wasn’t until I read a recent biography about him that I really got a picture of how cruel he could be to his dancers. But it didn’t affect me. I was not treated that way and I loved him.
Speaker How did struggle come into this struggle, imagery coming to.
Speaker When we first started talking about the show at that time, Robbins felt that there was a strong affinity between the material and the work of Marc Chagall and he actually thought, let’s contact Cigale and see whether he’ll do the scenery. So Segal was contacted and it turned out, I think, that he was from the area in Russia or the Ukraine or wherever it was where these stories took place. So he felt a very strong connection with it. But as I recall, he couldn’t do it. I think he was doing work for the Paris Opera. Whatever his work commitment was, he couldn’t do it. And this was a shame, not only because he would have done brilliant work for the show, but because we all thought if we have the work and the show is a flop, then we’ll all sell the work and we’ll split the proceeds and will retire. So instead, he couldn’t make up his mind. Robbins couldn’t make up his mind between the Eckert’s Jean Eckert, who are wonderful stage designers, and Boris Aaronson, who was also a wonderful designer. I think what clinched it, Aronsohn had an exhibit of his work, both as a stage designer, as a painter up in the storm King Mountains. So we all went up there to see the work and there were paintings, there were bar reliefs, there were mock ups of stage sets. And I remember standing with Robin’s looking at the set for the play, J.B., by the poet laureate poet whose name I’m blocking on. But it was J.B. It was a story about job play, about job and. We are looking at the set, and Robbins’, after studying it for a long time, said that’s a perfect set, he said, because it’s a wonderful piece of architecture and theatrical art, but it’s not complete and it won’t be complete until the first person sets foot on the stage. And the next thing we knew, he had hired Aronsohn. But the imagery stuff, oh, the not only did the Cigale imagery stick, but I remember a conversation with Jerry Robinson, Boris Aronsohn, where Robinson was laughing and he said Boris. He said, yes, we want a single touch, but we also want Boris Aronsson. And what you have given us is almost pure. Cigale is too much Sagala, not enough Aronsohn. Go back to the drawing board. So he did an opening night. I was standing next to Boris and he was looking at the stage and he said, I wish I could duplicate his accent, which was priceless, but I won’t try. He said that man is a genius. But what he put me through, what he put me through, but I forgive him because he’s a genius.
Speaker Oh, how did you, um, attach to the Fiddler on the Roof image? Were you involved in that at all?
Speaker At one point, we all started to think of titles. And we had a list of maybe 20 or 30 titles, I think Joe Stein and Jerry Bock and I wanted either to call it Chevy’s daughters or in honor of our fathers. We wanted to call it where papa came from, but we had this long list. And when Helprin’s agreed to become a producer. He was worried about this show, he was worried because of the darkness of the second act, which was unusual for a musical. It’s not unheard of. Certainly West Side Story had done that, but he was worried and he wanted something in the title that would suggest music. And my memory is that he looked at our list of titles. We had a title, Fiddler on the Roof, which came from one of the sugar paintings, which was a fiddler standing on a roof, playing the violin. And Hal said, Fiddler on the Roof, I like that because it suggests music and we desperately need that. Now, this is one of the places where Joe Stein and I have this Rashomon difference of opinion, because Joe’s opinion, which I don’t believe for a minute, is that Hal said, we desperately need a title, we’ve got a title. We’re going to go into rehearsal. We don’t have a title show me or list. He said, let’s let’s it’ll be number 27. What does that Fiddler on the Roof. OK, that’s the title. And I thought that that doesn’t make any sense.
Speaker Could you talk a little bit about how Jerry staging reflected this sort of break up of tradition, the way to the opening number as opposed to the ending?
Speaker I mentioned in this interview that we’d had preproduction meetings asking, what is the show about, what is the show about? And at some point we all realized that it was about this changing of a way of life and the changing of traditions. And I think it was at one of those very early meetings when we made that discovery that Robin said, now I know how I want to begin and end the show. He said, I want to begin it with one of the oldest folk blocking on the word for it. But it’s a folk circle. And that’s one of the oldest uses of folk material, so it’s going to start with a folk circle and then at the end, I want to break that circle. I want to have that circle disintegrate. And that’s what he did. And I think without maybe even knowing what Robin’s was doing, I think the audience was moved by it. I certainly was. Of course, I knew what he was doing, but the way he did it was a surprise because he did not do it naturalistically or realistically. He had the cast come on stage, form this big circle and then bow to each other formally, almost as dancers in a choreographed piece would bow not as these villagers would battle each other, but they made this very, very formal bow and then they separated. Then the circle fragmented. Remember another piece of staging, Rob, is, of course, a wonderful comic sense was one of the extraordinary things that he could be so moving and yet he could be so funny when he staged Zero Mostel. And if I were a rich man, he gave him a piece of business which had a very it was very funny, but it had a very specific meaning. Zero is, I should say, Tavia is singing. He raises his hands to God, he lowers them, and one hand falls into his milk can and he brings it out. His sleeve is all soaked with milk. And I thought, OK, this is one more minor. It’s not a tragedy, but one more thing that God has done to them. He looks at the milk. He looks at God’s. Is this to you have to do to me. So it was very funny and touching. When zero did it. In Detroit, within two days, it ceased to be a song about if I were a rich man and it started to be what what does a man do with a wet sleeve? That’s where his sleeve is filled with milk. So he rang it out, rang it out. He took the milk, he put it behind his ears like perfume. He grease the wheels of the wagon with it. It became like this three or four minute bit. The song went out the window and I thought, So what do we do? Well, one day I’m watching Zero perform it. He raises his arms to God, he lowers them. His arm goes into the milk can. And you could see he was shocked and he brought his arm out. It was dry, no milk in the milk. And that’s the way he dealt with it. And so zero had to live with it.
Speaker But everything that Jerry did.
Speaker Far as I remember, was based on reality, he would transform reality into a poetic movement and communicate the emotion of the moment through movement, whether I say poetic, but it could be comic, it could be touching. And that was his genius.
Speaker Tell me about how he used dance in Fiddler, because actually there’s not that much, but it’s used very well in Fiddler.
Speaker There’s not very much dancer’s movement. There’s there’s certainly movement in the opening number. And he would use. Movements he would discover, movements that the lyrics suggested to him, one that occurs to me is when the mothers are singing about all the work they do. He had them do a movement which suggests that busyness, the way his mind worked, lyrics would suggest, well, the way any choreographed choreographer works, they do the same thing. He just did it better than most of the other ones in.
Speaker To life.
Speaker He choreographed the number and he was never happy with it. He apparently wanted to make it even more exciting, more explosive. And I know that he is one of the things that that he did was to do a number again and again and again searching for the right way. Luckily, he had an assistant, Tommy Abbott, who had a photographic memory. And I remember in rehearsal he would say, Tommy, what was the third version we did? And then Tommy would show because he would do it just time and time again, looking for perfection and couldn’t find it with that number, at least not to satisfy himself.
Speaker And it wasn’t until we began to rehearse it in costume that I remember hearing him say he was smiling and he said the costumes have done it for me. The men are wearing these little prayer shawls and they have these fringes on them. And when they dance, everything is in motion. And that’s what makes the number. He said it wasn’t me, but it was Pat supressed costume.
Speaker He was very happy with it with. On a tough as I say, he had the notion of making it internal of all of communicating the fact that these were internal memories by not having the move. I thought it was it was brilliant. The bottle dance I’ve already discussed, that was one of the few dances he did something which he alone seemed to be able to do it. We the choreographer of our revival, but we talked about it. Jonathan couldn’t manage to recreate it. It’s in a dance which replaced a song which reminds me of something else, we had a song in the show in Detroit was called If I Were a Woman, it was for PreCheck and Hardell, it was their kind of little intellectual duel. We wanted to show that they were both smart and that underneath this this duling that they were attracted to each other in the song worked was about four minutes long, was a long song, but it worked. And to our dismay, one day one of our production meetings, Robin said, I want to cut that song, but it works. She said, I know it works, he said, but I think that I can accomplish the same thing in 30 seconds of dance. Let me try with a let him try. He’s going to try. There’s no way of stopping. So let me try. If it does, what I do doesn’t work. We’ll go back to the song. We’ll have lost nothing. We said, OK, when I saw the 30 seconds of dance, I thought, Oh, it’s better than the song, because without a word being spoken, what you see is them falling in love. The song starts with pertschuk talking about the fact that here everything is traditional. Boys and girls there must not touch. They mustn’t look at each other, she says, I’m looking at you.
Speaker He says you’re very brave. He says in the city they can they could be affectionate without a matchmaker. They even dance together. And he grabs her hands and they start to dance. And at first she is appalled because she thought I shouldn’t be doing this. And she looks off stage. Is anybody watching? Nobody’s watching. And she begins to enjoy it. At one point, Patrick just grabs her and pulls it to his side and says, How do you like it? She says, it’s very nice. And you can see that sexually she’s excited by it and embarrassed by it. And whatever Jerry Robbins, whatever magic he has, it was very funny and very sweet and very sexy. And Jonathan Butler tried to accomplish it in our revival. He couldn’t they went through the same movement, never work quite the same with Robin’s. It just established something so quickly. I don’t know what he said to the dancers, to the performers, how he got them to do it, but they did it. And by the end of the number, you could see that they were in love with each other and the number ended and huddle embarrassed, said, thank you. I mean, I excuse me. I mean, pardon me a good day. And she left. It was wonderful. And there was no question of putting the song back. It was just thirty seconds of brilliant dance.
Speaker Tom, was that OK in terms of where shoddiness like? Yeah, was it OK? I can’t tell from you.
Speaker When he thinks he high school all over the place, but I’m it’s not like we’re just we’re just very conscious. You’re not looking directly. Yeah.
Speaker What you’re describing is typical, Jerry, in the sense that he used an estimate of the story forward and he did that in a lot of his shows and and particularly he used dance in a very natural way. It’s nobody just stops and sort of dances for no reason. Right. So is there anything else that you’ve talked about this already, but there may be something else that you could say about how he used dance to move the story forward and.
Speaker The fact that it came naturally from the situations.
Speaker As I mentioned before, that what I one of the things I learned from Jerry was that behind everything was the narration, the telling of a story, for instance, in two life.
Speaker One of the hardest things that any choreographer has to do is a dance of joy, just do a dance of joy. There’s a wedding is being a potential wedding is being celebrated. So everybody’s dancing. But no, in this tavern are the Jewish population and the Russians and Robins being robins thought, OK, that’s where the tension is going to be. So at a certain moment, he has he brings the Russians into the dance. It starts innocently enough by saying congratulations and they dance. They dance in their Russian way. And then one of the Russian dancers loses control of himself and bumps into Tavia, bumps into him violently. And Tavia is angry. And what Roberts did from this was to have the narration, to have the dancer bow to apologize. It’s all pantomime to have Tavia forgive him and then to have the rush and go a step further and say, dance with me. And this was showing how in this community, Jew and Gentile could live side by side, could intermingle, I think, in the back of Jerry’s. I never talked about this. I never thought about it. But in the back of his mind, I’m sure, was the fact that ultimately this community would separate after the pogrom. But at this point in this show, he wanted to be part of the story. He was saying they can live side by side, they can coexist. And so he had them not only coexisting, but in the dance. There was a line of Jewish dancers and coming through the interweaving where the three Russian dancers, so that it was a community that was dancing and not just two separate factions. And that was storytelling.
Speaker You’ve talked a lot about how you for free for interchange with each other and just how what was Jerry like as a collaborator? Did he solicit your opinions or was he open?
Speaker Yes, it is a guess I didn’t. Once rehearsal had started, as I say, I was back in my apartment trying to come up with new lyrics so I didn’t get to interrelate with Jerry that much, I do know that that Joe Stine’s relationship was not always easy because Robin’s way of doing things is to do it himself. And if he didn’t think a scene was working properly and if he didn’t think Joe understood what he wanted, maybe he thought he hadn’t been articulate in conveying to Joe what he wanted. He would rewrite it, forcing Joe to come in and and then rewrite the rewrite, you know, but it was it’s a difficult way to work. So you come into a rehearsal as I came into a performance and saw two lines that I’d never seen, so. That, I think was Robyn’s way of work, I remember the first orchestra reading we had in Detroit, Don Walker was our orchestra orchestrator. Robbins was there and as they rehearsed, he would go to Don and say, I don’t want trumpets here. I want something else. Take this out, do that cut. And I thought, oh, my God, how can he treat this professional man like this? At the end of the long, long session after Robbins had left, Jerry Bock went up to Don Walker and he said, Don, I apologize to you on behalf of Sheldon and me. How could he treats you that way? And Don beamed. He said, Oh, I’ve worked with Jerry before. He loved it. Also, remember, this has nothing to do with anything. But I think we were in Detroit or maybe it was already in New York. No is Detroit. We were watching and Robin’s talked to our lighting designer, Jean, whatever her name was.
Speaker Jean Rosenthal, and he said there’s a shadow on the stage. She said, no, there’s not. He said there’s a shadow on the stage. She said there can’t be. I haven’t allowed for it. He said there’s a shadow on the stage. She said, no, it’s impossible. I’ve done the lighting. There’s no shadow. He grabs her by the wrist and he dragged her up on the stage. He said, that shadow. She said, oh, that. She said, move that light a little.
Speaker They talk about the same thing, really, do you have anything other examples that you can give me about his eye? He had incredible.
Speaker I don’t think I can give you any other examples about his incredible I, I do know that his experience allowed him, as I mentioned before, his experience allowed him before any of us to see something that didn’t work. He tried, but he would try things he tried in the dream sequence. For Jerry, this is unusual that he did something, maybe because it was a dream and it was fantastic. He did something that was illogical. He he had musicians behind the bed, one of them was a symbol player, and every so often the symbol player would clash the symbols together and which allowed Zero Mostel to do a take. And it didn’t make any sense to me. I don’t know what that is, but it was funny. So Robin’s left it in. And as a matter of fact, he found a wonderful joke to end that sequence with. The cymbal player was just getting ready to clash the symbols and Tavia or Zairo took the pillow from the bed and threw them, put them between so it didn’t happen. But one day. He tried something else that was and I don’t know what it was, but it was totally illogical. And after the performance, I went to him to ask whether that was wise and before I could say anything, he said, don’t say it, it’s wrong. It’s coming out.
Speaker You know, he knew. What can you tell me about Oleksander and Jerry’s Jerry may have told you a little bit about his history with him and his part in Fiddler and how they related to each other, then I can’t tell you very much about Jerry’s relationship with Alexandre.
Speaker I knew going in that he had been a choreographer and he’d been a kind of mentor to Jerry. So, Jerry. I think rather than casting the perfect rabbi with all the other roles, Jerry was looking for the right exactly the right person for the rabbi, I think he was I think it was a sentimental gesture. I think it was kind of repaying a debt. So he cast Gluck as the rabbi. And physically, Oleksander was was fine. He looked the rabbi. He wasn’t very effective. On the other hand, he wasn’t terrible. So it was it was OK. And I think we all realized why Jerry was doing this. It was very sweet gesture, but. As the rabbi, he could have been better.
Speaker Could you get a sense of the relationship at all? I was not enough around enough to see what the relationship between them was and how wrote in his autobiography that Jerry was indispensable to Fiddler. You agree with that? I’m guessing.
Speaker Can you explain why I think that Jerry was indispensable to Fiddler, starting with the discovery that he forced all of us about what the show was really about, about the changing of tradition, which gave it something far beyond the mere plot. Also, it was this obsessive desire to put that shtetl culture on the stage, his research, his this mission that he brought to it, that there was a an obsessive attention to every detail in it, which made it an extraordinary show. And also and perhaps this was the way Robin’s always worked. But this constant quest, it can be better. It can be better. It can be changed. And we all got the benefit of that pain in the ass. He may have been, but we all worked better for it.
Speaker It was very important, I think, both artistically and commercially, that the show be as universal as possible. Right.
Speaker And not narrow when we started working on it, a decision that Joe Stein and Jerry Bock and I made, this was before Robbins was involved. We recognized something universal in the show and we wanted to make to emphasize those universal values. One of the reasons why we were so careful in using Hebrew words, we thought if people are mystified by anything they see on stage, then that’s going to defeat our purpose. And consequently, we were very upset when one of the few bad reviews we got was in a Jewish periodical where I can’t remember the reviewer. That’s probably deliberate, he said. Shamanism wrote in Yiddish he was the Yiddish language stylist par excellence. And consequently, if you cannot understand Yiddish, then there’s no way you can appreciate what sort of life it was doing. And we thought he has just robbed the millennium of his universality. So that made no sense to us in this current.
Speaker The recent revival, one of the critics said they have emphasized the universal instead of the Jewish. And I think that’s a mistake. And I thought they’ve missed the point of what we’re doing.
Speaker Well, obviously, you were successful, isn’t there some funny story about the show in Japan?
Speaker We. We all went to Japan to see the show when it was done there.
Speaker And they had gotten the sketches for the costumes and the sets and they duplicated the sets of the costumes, so it looked like the New York production had looked like the Jerome Robbins production, except for one detail, which I thought was was charming. And I don’t know whether it was a mistake or whether it was deliberate participant in in designing the gabardine robes that the men wore at the wedding. This was their finery. And yet, as Robins insisted, these were poverty stricken people, by and large, except maybe for the butcher, so that Pat had to make the robes look worn and a little shabby. There were free marks on them in Japan. I don’t know whether the customer misunderstood the purpose of these frameworks, but instead of frame marks, there were butterflies on the robes that I thought that was charming. I don’t know what had been changed in the dialogue because I could hear them laughing at places where they never used to laugh and I could hear them not laughing at places where they always laughed. Jostein tells a story, but it’s made up. He says that he went to the man who played Tavia and that the man said, This is such a Japanese story. I don’t know how it could be successful in New York. And I this is this has become legend. And I asked Joe, I said that that really happened. He said not really. He just asked some question about how Zero played something as opposed to how he did it in Japan. Well, I can see that we have it, by the way, which is the continuing debunking of your other people’s stories, which have now become legend, one of the reasons that it turned out that it was so successful in Japan was that Japan had been a very hierarchical society. And after World War Two, the young people began to break away from the Japanese traditions, apparently in a way that had not happened before. And it was extremely difficult for the parents to accept this and to deal with it. So the the fact that that was what was a show was about was extremely meaningful to the Japanese. And as a matter of fact, when this particular actor who had played Tevye, he was a beloved actor in Japan, and when he announced his retirement, they said, OK, we will produce whatever you want. He chose Fiddler to go out and they taped it.
Speaker Jerry had a history of directing people in signature roles, right? Mary Martin and Peter Pan, hero, of course, Merman and Gypsy Streisand in Funny Girl. He had a whole Steinbrenner drinking and a whole string of them.
Speaker Was this a coincidence, a genius of casting, or was it something that he did to bring out the best in them? What do you think?
Speaker I don’t know, and thinking about all of the actors that Rob is directed who are known for the roles that Rob is directed, the men like Yul Brynner and Kayna. I don’t know why this is so.
Speaker And unless.
Speaker It has to do with the fact that just as with Fiddler on the Roof, Tavia Robbins felt the Tavia should be played by somebody who’s larger than life in a number of shows, he may have reacted the same way and felt this role has to be played by somebody who’s larger than life, man or woman. And so he got married, Martin, or he got Yul Brynner and they were larger than life. And through whatever Robbins brought to the show in terms of requested changes that the book, rather, the lyricist, the composer, they may have accommodated whatever Robins wanted.
Speaker It made the show and the performer even fit together more vividly, more strongly. And all of this came a an indelible performance.
Speaker What was the reaction to Fiddler like? Do you remember opening night?
Speaker I remember the the I remember two opening nights in Detroit. Oh, this is another story. We had a lot of trouble raising money for the show because the theater party, many of the women who ran the theater parties were Jewish and they were afraid of a show that had a program and that had an exile.
Speaker They were sensitive that it presented a side of Jewishness, which for some reason they didn’t want they didn’t want to deal with either that or maybe it was just outand out how can this be a success when it’s so dark? I don’t know. But we did have trouble raising money the at any given Bakker’s audition. Jerry Bock and I would do the score and I would fill in enough of the story so they knew why we were singing. And then at the end of it, Hal Prince would get up and say, and we’ve got Zero Mostel. So they’re going to be a lot of comedy. They’re going to be a lot of funniness, you know, to match the darkness. So he told us.
Speaker He had accepted a tryout in Detroit. However, the management of the theater in Detroit insisted that we stay for five weeks, but our subscription was only for three and a half weeks. So we had three and a half weeks of tickets sold and nothing for the last week and a half. And we thought, if we don’t get good reviews, we will die there. Well, to make it worse, we go to Detroit and there’s a newspaper strike. There are no reviews. Jerry Bock and I and I guess Joe Stein, we did a few radio shows. I don’t know who heard them. So we didn’t know what to expect. We were nervous opening night. The show ran long. We that’s as most shows do. You don’t know what you have to cut. The show is a long show anyway, and usually this show comes down about a quarter to 12:00 here. I think we ran after midnight. So it wasn’t surprising that towards the end of the show, people had to catch trains or had babysitters. They were getting up and leaving. What was what was encouraging. And I think I even had the the sense to recognize that it was encouraging that they didn’t just get up and walk out. They walked out reluctantly. They were watching the stage, walking backwards as they went. So at least they seemed to be interested. But we had to wait. And then we discovered that business, despite the lack of reviews, business was good. And by the time the three and a half weeks had lapsed, we were doing about 95 to 100 percent business. So we were OK. When we went to Washington, we had the phenomenon. We don’t know how it happened. The jungle drums were working. People in Detroit told their friends in Washington there were long lines at the box office already and the same thing happened in New York, long lines at the box office and the people and the previews were wonderfully enthusiastic. So that opening night was a disappointment. We don’t know whether it’s because these were backers who were worried about getting their investment back. We don’t know what the reason is, but there were a subdued audience at the end. I did hear a lot of sniffling and which was nice, but they were not a the kind of audience that we’d had. And so we were worried. And then the reviews came out. And the reviews, contrary to what people remember, the reviews were not rave reviews. The Times review. I don’t remember the reviews. And that also may be deliberate. He said things like, wouldn’t that have been wonderful if Block had written the score to this? Or maybe Leonard Bernstein. But Jerry Bock, you know, one of the other reviews said, oh, this could have been a such a nice show if they hadn’t put that program in it. Why why would they ruin a nice, happy show by doing a thing like that? We had one rave review and him I remember John Chapman in the Daily News. The rest of the reviews were not raves. Walter Kerr said near Miss. Too bad they’ve tried. They’ve gone the way of Broadway. Instead of making this a true folk epic, they have they have used razzle dazzle, whatever he said, it’s just to Broadway. So he said near Miss. And I remember thinking, this may be the only time in my life, and it was the only time in my life when the reviewers don’t matter. People are lining up to see this show. They want to see this show and the reviews won’t make a difference. And they didn’t.
Speaker Tell me something about the subsequent history of the show. I mean, about its success here and around the world.
Speaker The fact that.
Speaker Jerry Bock and Joe Stein and I wanted to make this a universal show. And I’m sure that although we never discussed it with Jerry Roberts, I’m sure he saw that and confirmed and agreed with it, that was confirmed for me in a wonderful way. Every show has to do an actress fun benefits sometime within the first few months of after it opens. So and the actress benefits are wonderful. This reminds me of another story leading up to that when the show opened, I asked Jerry Robbins, how long will you come around to check the show? And he said, I don’t do that. I go on to the next show. I just don’t like to look back. We have a wonderful stage manager. Don’t worry about it. She will keep the show up. So that’s not to worry about. And he said with this show in particular, I don’t want to see it two months after the show and I don’t want to see what Sarah is doing. And sure enough, but within two months, zero people who used my House seats, they would call me and say, the show is wonderful. But did you know that zero is doing this or that audience bought them no matter what he did? So it didn’t matter. However, at the Actors Fund, Benefit Zero knew that his his colleagues were out there and he gave an absolutely pure performance. But at the intermission, I was standing in the back and my Irish friend Florence Henderson came running. She saw me and she came running up the I said, Sheldon, this is about my Irish grandmother. And I thought that’s what we wanted. The best audience we ever had was an audience that was totally composed of nuns and priests. They’re the best audience we had. So the universality paid off. And I don’t know that we expected it to be that successful in terms of its being done all over the world. But my wife and I have gone a number of places. There was one tour we made where we saw in rapid succession. We saw Fiddler in London, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Helsinki, and we thought this will never happen again. So and we saw it in Japan. It’s been done all over the world. And because of what Jerry Robbins forced us to discover about the tradition aspect of it, it’s something that hits people everywhere because traditions are always changing everywhere. There’s always problems between parent parents and children. And there’s something that people identify with, with the show. How long did it run? And we ran not quite eight years on Broadway. And I have a photograph which I took with my long lens of the in the near distance is the marquee of the theater, and in the far distance is the movie which had just opened.
Speaker Why wasn’t your announcer directing the.
Speaker I don’t know why Jerome Robbins was not asked to do the movie, although I suspect that it has something to do with his experience in West Side Story. I don’t know too much about that, but I think if I remember and this may not be correct, I think it’s Jerry’s search for perfectionism, which in a film would cost too much