Transcript:

Speaker So now I understand that you spent some time at Camp Tamiment, it was after Jerry Robbins was there. That's right. But maybe you could tell me a little bit about how that prepared you for your professional career, because I think that you may have those things somewhat in common.

Speaker Before I do that, there was a camp where Jerry and I both went together. Tell me about that. It's a camp called Kitney. I was a children's camp. I was the child and he was a counselor. And I have a general memory of him being very active in the musical aspect of the camp. But the most dramatic memory was when camp was split into what they call culture war. If your colors were green and white, they'd split the camp into as competitors. You very often found it painful because your best friends were separated from you. Jerry was in a foot race with the most prized athlete in camp and they started running around the track. And unbelievably, Jerry was in the lead, was leading this fellow. And just before the finish line, he collapsed completely and alcohol and Charlie won the race. I cited only as an indication of how far he will go. With unexplainable energy to win, to succeed, to whatever I'm sorry, I, I went off track, but back to Tamiment was one of the most valuable experiences of of my creative life because the assignment was to write for a one act review. Anywhere from three to four songs a week, a new review every week for 10 weeks, and I was aware that we had that camp had an illustrious history with Robins having been there and Danny Kaye and the like. Ours was a younger and untested group that was just beginning to find its way. But the necessity of writing in so short a period of time gave me the the. Energy and the the wisdom, if you will, that we could use when we were out of town with a show and suddenly one or two songs were cut and you only had a few days to try to replace it, it was that kind of preparation, a tamiment that I think allowed me to not run away frightened when a song was cut or we need we need it on very short notice to have a replacement. That, to me, was the extraordinary value of having gone to and for three years.

Speaker You worked with Max Liebman as well? Yes, I was met with Max at remember, he was gone from there. He was gone from there to what he was at the time. It was when Jerry was there. So maybe you could tell me a little bit about Max and what influence you think you might have had.

Speaker Well, Max, it you know, you bring up this kind of history that I'm only beginning aware of being aware of in terms of antecedents, both in Tamiment and Max was the producer of your show of shows and then the Sid Caesar Sid Caesar show and a third one afterwards. As a matter of fact, the first show was called the Admiral Broadway Revue. I and my writing partner at the University of Wisconsin left before graduation to make our mark in the theater. And a friend of my parents introduced us to Max. We had all of three songs to play for him and he liked them. And he hired us to do what you'd call production numbers for the Admiral Broadway Revue, subsequently your show of shows and the Sid Caesar show. So that's the continuity of the history from Tamiment to Jerry to Max to the our first television assignment.

Speaker Tell me a little bit about Max. What did he bring to the table?

Speaker Um.

Speaker He.

Speaker He either liked it or he didn't gave you some reasons, but his. Talent was to organize apparently disparate components of a review into a whole. Remarkably effective television show with original music and original sketches, that was the the the the key was that so little was borrowed in terms of routines and everything was fresh and inventive, as only Mel Brooks could be, as only Larry Gelbart could be his only March and Gower Champion could be. They all worked creatively, developing new things. I'm sorry that's missing today. Frankly, I don't want to, you know, sound too negative, but it was such an environment of creativity that it it turned us all on. Really. I think Max is responsible for continuing Tamiment in a way through the as far as I'm concerned, through the show, through the television show seepages.

Speaker Now, you and Jerry both also had contact with the great George Abbott. Yes. Tell me about Mr Abbott. Who was he for? Somebody who didn't know and what what influence did he have?

Speaker He was Mr Abbott. Until we opened Fiorello and then I, I had the courage to call him George. So as Mr Abbott, he was a deity, I mean, we we had. Nothing. In the past, that prepared us for him. He was very clear about what he wanted to do. He would very often give line readings if he wasn't happy with the actor and. We auditioned for Fiorello with two songs, one of which he wasn't sure was an original because it sounded so authentic for the period in which we were writing, but he was a workman. I mean, he he didn't well, he he didn't labor over things he accepted or rejected or commented or. Contributed in a very clear, succinct way, there weren't very elaborate conversations about things, he sort of knew what he wanted. Also, his work ethic was such that we started working on Tenderloin, started talking about Tenderloin before Fiorello had opened, not because we knew Fiorello was was going to be what it turned out to be, but that's he wanted to do the next thing once the other thing was was done. And of course, when you when you're into previews, there's not much more you can do but hope for the best. So we were on to the next show early on. I think that's a memory of George as a not a workaholic. But just to get on with the next thing that I think helped him look forward to life.

Speaker What did you learn from having.

Speaker I think.

Speaker That Sheldon and I at that stage become part and compartmental, we compartmentalize ourselves. You'll have to translate that. We were writing words and music. Jerry Wideman was writing the book. George was directing Hal Prince and Bobby Griffith were producing, and we that was our assignment, there was very little exchange among us. We had the assignment of a song indicated in the book. We wrote it and then turned it over to others to make it work. I think as time went on, we learned that the book does affect our writing, that conferences with the director of Vital as you're working, as you're developing. And so as time went on, we became. A collaborative team rather than an up team, meaning the whole group rather than composer, lyricist, for example. I like to think that if the musical is considered an art. It's the art of collaboration, unlike the poet or the novelist. It depends on the unified work of a number of different departments and different people. That if you reach a point of bad, where it's seamlessness, where you don't know who did what, but it all comes together at all, every person's dream is fulfilled by their own work working with others. That's as good an achievement as you could hope for. So you could pray for.

Speaker Which brings us to the Tavia project. Tell me how it started and how you came into it.

Speaker Tavia project, what is that? Oh, Fiddler, you mean like. Somebody recommended a novel by Sholem Electrum. I believe it was called Wandering Star. And we all read it and thought it was just too panoramic to convert into a musical. When I say we will, I believe it was Sheldon and I, because we shared that with Joe Stein and he said, have you ever read Sholem Aleichem short stories? Neither of us had Joe had read them in the original Yiddish. And so we got ourselves some translations of his short stories and one by one fell in love with the writing, the ambience, the atmosphere, the connection it made with us as well. That's how it it literally got started. And then it took the form of the traditional working on the assignment, which primarily. Was to do a rough draft, a book and score and then interest a producer to put his money where his enthusiasm was, so took the what you had written to a producer and tell me who that was and what his reaction was when we took it to a few producers who thought it was good. But but. But but until the most unlikely southern fellow called Fred Coe responded. With with such a positive. Response and energy that he said he wanted to produce it subsequently, the problem was he could not raise the money was an odd show to attract people because they were suspicious that it was so. Narrow in terms of people and scope that would only attract as narrow a group to come in to to celebrate it, so we went through some directors with the same. Enthusiasm. But but, but. And I believe it was Steve Sondheim who was fairly familiar with the project, recommended that we play it for Jerry.

Speaker Among the early producers, the first one we played it for was Hal Prince. How most openly said this was the kind these were the kind of people he was totally unfamiliar with.

Speaker He came from a whole other tribe, so he passed eventually Fred Koch picked it up and Steve thought we should play it for Robbins'. We did and. I do believe he liked it enough. To commit to the to the project. That opened the gates, we went back to hell with Jerry. And Hal's feeling for Jerry was was so positive and so he thought Jerry would be the answer to translating this piece to to everyone. So he came aboard the end of that story is that Fred and how to be equal partners raise equal amounts of money. Fred still had problems raising it. So eventually Hal became the sole producer of a fiddler. I don't know whether I've covered the territory, but that's sort of how it was born.

Speaker Was that the first time that you met Jerry during this experience? I believe so. Tell me what your impression of the mall do you remember? Yes.

Speaker In our. First of all, we never worked with a director who insisted on talking about the piece forever and ever. We had one meeting, two meetings a week. Eventually, the same question arose, what is the piece about? And every time that question was asked, we we had a different answer, it was about family stories, couldn't get married. It was about the programs that uprooted it until one day or one evening. And I'm not sure. Who said it, it doesn't make any difference. The word tradition. Came to surface. And Jerry says that's what the piece should be about tradition, and I think with that in mind, he began to imagine a circle. That started this circle of tradition that eventually began to splinter. And ultimately became disappearing in parts to various. Places, so it seemed to be the conceptual grounding for his working and contributing to the peace, but until we could answer what the piece was about. I think we'd still be in conference. Now, what is it, 42 years, uh, but that to me was paramount.

Speaker And so different from the process you described before, where you would just go off and write your songs and have them.

Speaker Absolutely, absolutely. Yeah, this was the the. The proof of. Collaboration, first of all, Gerry insisted on it. It wasn't a choice, I mean, he had to be involved musically, lyrically book, but that's that's his style. And we profited from that.

Speaker Now, how did that discussion, which ended in deciding the show, was about tradition? How did that eventually manifest itself in an opening number?

Speaker Funny you should ask. The problem we had was with the show as we're riding it. Was the opening number. Our first opening number thought, and we wrote it out and played it for Jerry, was we haven't missed the Sabbath yet. That didn't cover the conceptual feeling of what tradition, how tradition should be translated. So what happened was that. No. Was created in pieces and fragments and was stitched together over a period of time until one day in rehearsal, he was able to show himself and everyone. The opening number to Fittler, which was tradition. It helped us organize it in terms of its musical content, its lyrical content, and he was able to put it together finally in a in a rather offbeat, peculiar opening number. That was absolutely right when he finally and you couldn't see the stitches, even though we knew how long it took and how separate the components were and how he managed to bring them together is, I think, one of Jerry's remarkable talents to. Not to show the seams, but, you know, how many there were before that happens.

Speaker And how did it come about that the number included all of the, you know, the explanation of who all the different people were mean by the end of the number? You pretty much know a lot of people in Amitav.

Speaker Yes. Well, you knew the mom was the poppies, the sons and daughters. But Joe's contribution was to extract the some individuals, the butcher, the begger, Yanta, what have you, so that once again, demonstrating how the book collaborated with the musical environment to make one whole piece. And you did get to know the principals after that number was done in terms of who would be on on stage short of the many village people that that that backed up. But the principals were there for you to see in the opening numbers. Once again, a collaboration of. Lyrics, music book, and the director stitching it all together.

Speaker You referred before to the circle the image of the circle. Yes. How that began. Could you talk a little about how Jerry used that image and tradition and how it sort of developed it through the show?

Speaker Um. I think it was what he saw was and they're both important at the beginning and end of the show, the beginning was a circle representing the the tradition and an intimate relationship of this village, the African village. The end of the show was the summation of what had happened during the course of the evening. Where tradition began to have less meaning and as it has less meaning, the circle began to fragment. So that at the end, everybody, instead of saying greeting each other good morning, knowing full well who they were at to say goodbye and go their separate ways, I think they the circle and the fragmenting of the circle was the conceptual beginning and end of the piece. That Jerry kept saying, we have to support that throughout the evening in order for the end to become truthful. We have to show how tradition became fragmented, splintered, diluted as each daughter took on. The assignment of either staying with it or breaking with it slowly but surely, and that affected other things as well in terms of showing how tradition began to disappear, which was a way of life that was no longer a way of life in the end. I think that's. How other cultures, other people could relate to Fiddler. Apart from it being a particularly ethnic show about particular people, when, for example, the the production in Japan, which Joe went to see, Joe Stiehm went to see. The Japanese. Producer at the end of the show asked Joe, how could he ever know what a how or how Japanese, how oriental the basic show could be for the Asians, how he said he must have taken the cue from what's happening in Japan, which was and the breakdown of tradition so that that diverse culture to what we originally presented on stage gave us an inkling that we might be able to share the show. Ideally, with more people than we ever imagined that weren't of the same ethnic background and it turned out to be true. Because I think they went that their cultures shared some of the very same things in the history.

Speaker I think Jerry also talked to the collaborator's a little bit about the importance of avoiding nostalgia and of making the people resilient somewhat. Do you remember that?

Speaker And I remember it in the abstract, but I do remember it as though he did not want to sentimentalize these people. I think part of that was what some of our reference was going to see some Hasidic weddings in in New York and the absolute strength and energy of of those songs and dances, I think gave him the sense that those are the kind of people we should rely on for our show who are highly spirited, who the moment sentimentality seems to rise, would make a joke of it and get on with it because there were too many more important things to do than to cry over spilt milk. So, yes, I think he meant it to be strong and positive and not no no tears until the audience felt that they couldn't resist.

Speaker There's been a lot written about Jerry's own feelings of his own Jewishness that he rejected, and it was a little harder to be Jewish when he was a young man and maybe became for him when he had a life in the theater. Do you ever talk to you at all about that?

Speaker No, he really didn't. I think his work on the show talk to us about it. But in terms of a one on one conversation or a revelation, no.

Speaker How important do you think it was that the collaborators were all Jewish?

Speaker I think it was important. That they could share. Life's experiences of their mother, father, grandmother, grandfather in in a similar light, I think it wouldn't have been written if all of us were Orthodox Jews. But I think the fact that we were. Assimilated without denying our inheritance caused us to have the freedom to to a musical instead of something more profoundly serious. So, I mean, Shulem, 11 is an ideal reference for us with his humor and his his his oblique look at things and and and his positiveness. And so he was key to our connecting with that kind of family. But we I believe I'm quite sure we dedicated the show to our fathers and not because all of them were were truly orthodox religious people, but because their parents gave them an inheritance that they somehow. Gave to gave to us.

Speaker Did you ever talk to you about his father? No. Did you meet his father on opening night?

Speaker We met his sister, you know, Sheldon would once again my my historic, not hysterical historical partner, Sheldon would would have remembered that. I know Shell remembers the story of Jerry wanted to go back to Russia, and I'm sure he shared that with you. But in terms of getting to know Jerry's family, I'm I'm misty about that. Except except for his sister Billy.

Speaker Do you remember Sonya? Pardon? Do you remember Sonya? Do you have. Did you have an impression of her?

Speaker You know, it was an introductory meeting rather than a sit down inquiry.

Speaker You referred before to going to weddings as part of your homework. Yes, I know Jerry was very big on doing research and homework. Did he talk with you about the homework that he did for Fiddler? And can you share that with us?

Speaker He didn't talk to us. He took us there. Others we we most of the time, if not all of the time, we all went to share this experience. His reading of it informed him later on for the show and as a matter of fact, one act in that show, a mother and a daughter sang a Yiddish song. That stayed with me. In the back of my mind. And when we started to think about a song to have your first song, if I Were a rich man. That song that we had heard from mother and daughter where they were doing that, but the other little dog became the reference for diddle diddle diddle diddle dum. I mean, that was such good fortune for us to a have seen them do it and be able to use it in our own way for expressing the joy of this man without specific words. And Sheldon ran with it. I mean, he he just celebrated that so well.

Speaker Could you tell me again where you saw this?

Speaker I'm thinking of Brooklyn.

Speaker Or Lower East Side. It was a Hebrew actor's union benefit. Check with Shelden now. I do believe it was where members of the Yiddish theater did their thing, it did their act, so to speak.

Speaker Do you have any recollection of Jerry asking you, apart from tradition, asking you to write a song for a particular situation, the show, does it sound familiar to and Golda?

Speaker Whatever gold it would be, do you love me? I don't remember him asking us to do it, but he may have. What did Sheldon say about it?

Speaker Oh, there are conflicting reports about exactly what happened, so I just want to know what you. But, you know, if you don't remember, that's fine.

Speaker No, I attribute it to Sheldon.

Speaker OK, all right. Tell me about Jerry as a collaborator. Was he somebody, for example, who fostered an atmosphere of mutual respect or what?

Speaker I I think I think I don't know, mutual respect came to him. By virtue of reputation and admiration of the work he had done. My first experience with Gerri was seeing fancy free when he danced in it, so I sort of, you know, had him in my mind at somebody very special about thinking constantly about it. I would say Jerry imposed himself on the project in terms of almost insisting that certain ideas get thought about. If he didn't write them, he we he urged us to think about other possibilities. He never was at a loss of exploring. And that helped us to explore a bit more in terms of going too far. Jerry wanted to relieve the burden of the second act of going downhill in terms of the story where things got worse and worse. He thought he had to give a production number in the middle of the second act that would relieve the seriousness of the piece, if only for a moment. And I believe he worked longer and harder on that attempt, which ultimately did not fulfill what we all hoped it would. But in the interim, I remember being at the piano with the music. Dance music, music composer sitting next to me and we were improvising melodic moments that might help this production number. And suddenly I felt two hands over my shoulder reaching down at the piano and starting to poke out what he hoped would he would find in a in a melody. And I had the instinct to remove myself from the piano bench and say, be my guest, and he sat down and it didn't work. So we we went back to the piano to hopefully find the answer to this problem. The answer to the problem was to let the piece go as it naturally should go. There was there was no reason to intrude the happy villagers in the middle of the second act. And that's the risk we took, frankly.

Speaker I'm going to read you something that Sheldon said. About Jerry. He drove everybody crazy because he had a vision that extended down to the littlest brushstroke in the scenery and the triangle part in the order. Do you think that's true or not true? And if you think it's true, can you give me an example?

Speaker I don't know whether he. Well, yeah, probably drove everybody crazy. I thought I might have given you the example in the. In the impulse, if no one else could do it, he would do it to sit down at the piano and finally solve the melodic problem that was racing in his head in terms of this particular production number.

Speaker But. I think Jerry's creative force. Affected everybody department. And he had final say.

Speaker He drove people crazy, I guess. So the thing about Jerry giving people pain as they're working with him because of his adamant insistence that this be done. Seemed almost invariably after it was done and the show opened for everyone to admit that if it weren't for him, they might not have done the work they did. They may not have been driven as far because they didn't think they could go that far. So. I would agree with with Sheldon and in the long run, only adding that. They were grateful for that kind of pressure, which they were grateful for when it was ongoing.

Speaker Could you talk a little about Gerry's musicality, Gerry's musicality?

Speaker Was awesome in terms of the range he covered.

Speaker And.

Speaker And short of writing music, that was the only thing he couldn't do musically, he he heard. He heard. So well into those large pieces rhythms, of course, all those things. More than contributed to his choreography. I mean, they were music was part and parcel of his movement, and he you were detective. He faked that or gave it a kind of. Small reference, it was it was it was predominant and his talent, his musicality. I mean, every time we played something for him, you knew we heard it, he heard every aspect of it. So it was good to play for him because he couldn't kid you, that he just liked it. He would know in detail what was right, what was wrong and and how much. In fact, he he he didn't like it. He did hear it that continue to use that word. He heard everything musically.

Speaker And what he asked you to write certain things. Yes. Can you give me an example?

Speaker He would ask us to write again and again a song for pertschuk. I think and once again, my dear partner Sheldon will confirm this or not, we probably wrote three to four songs for every song that was finally in the score. I think that answers the question of how often we would try again and again and again at his.

Speaker Pleasure.

Speaker Now, I think you did. You were present when he was casting the show, were you not? Yes, part of the time, yes. About that. Was he somebody who had a real quick instinct about performers or did he like to work with people? Can you describe him a little bit?

Speaker I think both. He had a quick instinct of wrong. If it was right, though, he wanted to pursue it further and work with them accordingly. He was very attentive and very intuitive, what we might not have seen in an audition, he somehow saw something that he would want to explore further. Without which he very often did, there was no rush to picking this, this company, it was it was carefully chosen.

Speaker Tell me a little bit about his relationship with Zero, because that was a little bit complicated.

Speaker I think his relationship with Zero was truly complicated because. Zero. I won't use the word hate, but Sarah did not like him. For his revealing names to the House un-American Activities Committee, et cetera. And one would have thought based on the kind of information we received, we did see it, but we heard the background to their relationship that they could never work together. The surprise was that Jerry wanted. To zero to be Tavia. He may have been a name proposed, among others, but. My memory is that that was his favorite choice. So we played the score for zero. And Kate, his wife. In their apartment. And zero loved. Now, what he likes the score does not like Robin's, Robbins wants him. I think zero felt. Perhaps the part and the piece was more important. Then the antagonism, previous antagonism between the. Jerry had no problem wanting zero zero then had no problem doing that show, not because of Jerry, but because how he felt about it, how I think how he felt about the the desire to play that role. Zero was thoroughly familiar with Sholem Aleichem, etc, etc.. They made peace in a way that was extraordinary. I don't remember during rehearsals any violent things happening as a result of their their relationship to each other. Quite the contrary. Sarah was a good boy in rehearsal. He you know, he did everything he may have he may have had some sarcastic remarks when Robbins asked him to do something, but it was never above that. It was never there was no tirade in evidence ever. I don't know how I can crawl underneath that ever more, but that's how it worked out.

Speaker Now, Jerry said he wanted to make a shtetl out of the cast. You explain what he meant and what he thought about it.

Speaker He said he wanted Jerry wanted to have the company feel that they've known each other for a very long time and they knew each other's business for a very long time. They knew each other. So I he I'm not sure what technique he used, but. That company got to to become. The shtetl, as a result of his feeling, it was absolutely necessary to look like the real thing, even though you've had dancers and singers and comedians and so forth, they were all from the same country, from the same and more importantly, from the same village within an atmosphere of oppression from the outside. And I do believe there were pictures on the wall and books and reference books. Our Bible was lifers with people. That was a book that explained shtetl life as it took place during the period that that Fidel took place. And that became enormously important for everybody to read and to absorb and to then become those people that they were reading about.

Speaker And he didn't treat the the company, the people who were not principals, he didn't treat them as they were the.

Speaker No, no. Tell me about that. Well, they they were they were wives. They were mothers. There was the mother of of the tailor. They were related in some way. Yanta had friends who were dear, good friends. They knew what her assignment was in terms of marrying off their children. It all because it was a shtetl family, I'll call them, of a family of villages who felt instant contact with each other because of so much. They shared so much poverty. They shared so much religion. They shared so much tradition. They shared.

Speaker What was the significance of the central image of the Fiddler on the Roof?

Speaker That's the image of the fiddler. Came from. The outside. In a Chagall painting called The Green Violinist. And I do believe that mesmerise, Jerry, to the point of thinking. That that could be the symbol. Of tradition. A Fiddler on the Roof Shaki know you want to know how can he keep his balance up there? I'll tell you a tradition that was a good cue for our opening number. But that fiddler then became almost a spiritual connection throughout the whole piece because he suddenly appear, sometimes realistically, but sometimes in people's mind as the. Logo is the musical logo for tradition so that Jerry wove him in and out both abstractly and realistically throughout the piece. I'm a little vague about it, except knowing that the sugar painting was principally the reference for that fiddler.

Speaker If you were president, rehearsals, yes, yes, sometimes, sometimes tell me what what do you remember about how Jerry worked with the cast?

Speaker Um.

Speaker I don't you know, we were we were so busy in another room writing that we may have long to attend rehearsals, but we couldn't afford to because that was too much a sign. When I did attend rehearsals, it ended up primarily with the principals. What, because our assignments eventually became potential songs for some of the principals. So there was a double motive involved. But I don't remember sitting every day and watching him rehearse the piece except for for tradition. That was a miracle to watch that desperate segment Terry thing get pulled together and become one. Other than that, I really think we divided our time between writing words and music and what and watching rehearsals, except toward the end when the run-Through began. Then, of course, we we had to watch how well we would do it, how well everybody was doing.

Speaker Just getting back to the tradition as the number. How did it work exactly? Did you. You gave him fragments of material that he then began to stage and then you went back and wrote from that the back.

Speaker And eventually we we wanted to musically, I wanted to write something that that became apparent for the a piece for the Poppa's, the mamas, the daughters and the sons. What I hoped to do was write a counterpoint series of themes that when they were all sung together, would approximately go together. They didn't have to be precisely together, but in fact, if they were a little dissonant, so be it. But that is what we hope to achieve by taking these separate melodic moments and lyric moments, Sheldon stitched them together so beautifully, taking the assignment of what the paper was to do, the mother, the daughters and the sons with humor and grace. My assignment was to see how I could organize that, that musically. So when I say it came slowly and surely and then surely it was that kind of. Effort that you could never play two years ago when we first worked on it as the opening number, that came as a result of conferences. It came as a result of trying and failing, and it ultimately came as a result of somehow getting it together. It's one of those mystical, mysterious moments, hard to explain from start to finish.

Speaker And how would you characterize Jerry's contribution to that process?

Speaker Fundamental. Can you make it? I would think that Jerry's contribution was guiding it. Trying aspects of it. Seeing that it began to weave together. Helping us see it as well as we were riding his his he was the master of that opening number, he was in charge ultimately and much to our good fortune, we found something we never could have found by ourselves.

Speaker Could you talk a little bit about the use of dance in the show, it wasn't a show where people the show stopped in the dance number began, right? Right. Explain how, Jerry? Well, the dance material into the show.

Speaker Jerry wanted the dance. Apart from when it was asked for as dance to be movement, to just show people's natural rhythmic sensitivity to what they were saying or singing so that the show moved in a way that was not strictly dance, but felt somehow like it. But when you came to the wedding dance, that was a dance when you came.

Speaker And he must have saved himself for the explosion of the wedding dance when that group of men came down and with their hats and bottles on their hats that their turn. I get chills telling you about it. And every time we we have seen the show, it simply never fails. To be as honest and exciting. As a dance moment can be. That was the high point of, quote, dancing, unquote, in terms of scoring as a as a choreographer, and I think Jerry got this from certain references that he went to see in weddings and places, but he did his own translation of those as only he could.

Speaker Tell me about looks and are you remember Alexander from the original company? Yes. What can you what can you tell me about Gerry's relationship to him?

Speaker Look, Sander and Jerry, I believe GLAC was his teacher.

Speaker And and talk about remembering that and and.

Speaker Picture it look in the role of the rabbi. I don't think there was much of a discussion about it. It was a given. And it worked just beautifully. I don't know anything more than that in terms of what kind of teeth, what how did Gluck teach Jerry? What effect did he have on him as a dancer, choreographer, what have you. But there was a there was the the relationship that that that proved to be right on as far as Castlemont was concerned.

Speaker We talked a little bit about this before, but I want to ask you to elaborate, which is that? On the surface, Fidel might seem to be a show with a Jewish theme, but it's actually much more than that. Can you talk about the themes in the show that and Jerry's relationship to fostering those that made it? I gave it a much broader universal appeal.

Speaker I think we hoped in our heart of hearts that fiddler would go beyond the pale, that it would reach out to people who were not either Orthodox or Jewish or had any kind of ultra religious background. I think Jerry really wanted that to happen, to go beyond New York, if you will. I mean, we were told originally before pre Jerry that the only people that would come to see the show would be people from the B'nai B'rith or the the the Jewish community, what have you.

Speaker And when it started. Breaking through those iron gates. And end up at 100 some odd countries. You wondered, well, what is what are the Japanese getting, you know, and every country would tell you, invariably I was fortunate enough to see it, of course, in in London, but also in all the Scandinavian countries and Finland. And they all recognize this village from their culture, from their parents, from their parents, parents. There was something in common with almost every country we visited that they could share exactly what was going on on stage, even though we were. A Broadway, New York musical. Somehow it reached out to them and in a way we hoped it would, but we never knew whether it would or not. I think Jerry sensed that this was going to go beyond 48th Street.

Speaker Why do you think it had such a universal appeal and still does?

Speaker I'm not certain why it has universal appeal, other than what I've been trying to explain, that there is a loss.

Speaker To so many people, when their traditions become.

Speaker Fragment become. Lost.

Speaker And what they see is a memory of that in the show and what they acknowledge is that it passed. So it doesn't matter who those people are on stage, what matters is the life they lead, what happens to them? And how it it it ends seems to be a match for so many cultures around the world.

Speaker And do you think also because people feel disenfranchised or dispossessed, displaced?

Speaker Yes, I think that could be the notion of being displaced, being displaced from the world, perhaps they were brought up in, or that their parents were brought up in recognizing that displacement and feeling it themselves may very well have a part in. And it's a universal. Appeal, strange word to use, but in its universal appeal or recognition of what was going on, what has been going on to more people than one ever would think.

Speaker What did you learn from Jerry?

Speaker Uh. Oh, what did you learn from Jerry? You learned? Infinite patience. You learned.

Speaker Never. To stop. Try working. Giving up.

Speaker Was. Out of the question in terms of assignments, in terms of conferences, in terms of changes. And recognition, finally.

Speaker That. Without him, there may not have been a Fittler.

Speaker Because before he came, Fittler was. Very fragile in terms of the possibility of it being produced. We started working on it in about 1961. And it opened in 1964, so there was a three year writing period, raising funds, period, et cetera, et cetera. And since part of my philosophy is everything happens for the best. Not necessarily while it's happening. But in the end. The fact that Jerry came to the show was was a gift beyond measure.

Speaker What was the reception to the show like?

Speaker Well, our first review out of town from a variety. Report, it was awful, I believe there was a paper strike at the time Variety gave us the review when we were in Detroit. And it was a harsh review, the only the only thing they this particular critic liked was zero. But other than that, he thought it a mundane.

Speaker Conventional show.

Speaker Despite that, they started to be word of mouth that began to people began to tell each other, you know, it's a show worth seeing. So for it. So by the time we went to our second out of town, I think that was Washington, I'm not sure we had better reviews, but still nothing to prepare us for what was going to happen to this piece. And by the time we preview the New York. How was handing out coffee to the lines that went around the block before the reviews, so there's no doubt in my mind that there is such a thing as word of mouth. There is such a thing as an audience enjoying a show in some very specific way that that insists they tell others to go see it. That's the best critic one could hope to have and. And then we got we got good reviews, that smash hit reviews, but. The show had gotten on a momentum that was fairly unstoppable.

Speaker Word of mouth.

Speaker And then award season came.

Speaker Yes, and what happened? Award season. I believe. Was.

Speaker I believe Fiddler got a great many Tonys for the show, I'm not sure was the Sound of Music open at the same time? I'm not certain. I don't think so. No Fiddler raked in the awards.

Speaker Attorney time, so an interesting thing happened, though, seven people, I think I've read anyway, including you won Tonys for the show, right? Yes.

Speaker Not one of you, apparently, in your acceptance speeches, acknowledged Jerry, really.

Speaker I'm just curious why, OK, somebody forgot, but seven people who were the other six, who were the seven people that forgot to acknowledge Jerry? Who would be the people to receive the award? Well, zero, of course, wouldn't have mentioned Jerry. That was his final retribution. That Sheldon and I didn't mention him is inexcusable. But I think we're so unused to getting Tonys that he would suck it.

Speaker And, you know, theater people tend to think when they get a Tony, they tend to think of themselves. It's changed now that more generous in thanking other people. I know we thank Robbins off camera endlessly, but the the particular speech was that that would have given him gratitude, which was there never took place. Interesting.

Speaker Well, you've done it. You know, he directed a number of actors in signature roles, right, a lot of them.

Speaker Yes. And King and I and Merman and Gypsy and Martin and Peter Pan, you go on and on, right? Yes. And of course, then zero and in Fiddler. Do you think that was. Casting genius, was it his brilliance as a director, what to what do you attribute that?

Speaker I attribute it to the character in the piece that he felt the actor would fit like a glove, like an exciting. And bring out the character, even beyond its writing, as a performer, as an actor. I think his instinct for casting is awesome. And but he very often, when he reads a book, will immediately have someone in mind if he has a positive response to that, to that character in the book. The other characters took time, but the principal character, he hears somebody right away, as you as one thinks about the other shows that he's cast with, there's no doubt in his mind who's who's the front runner, who's who must play the role.

Speaker In fact, why wasn't he asked to direct the movie?

Speaker Why wasn't Zero in the movie, why wasn't Jerry asked to direct the movie? Why weren't a lot of the people who were so wonderful in the theater piece?

Speaker I'm going to try and tell you my instinct about the movies. Based on this experience. When someone wants to make a film of a theater piece. It no longer is an inheritance. It starts with the film. They ignore the fact that it's been running eight years, it now will be for the first time that Fiddler on the Roof as a musical in Hollywood. We were never invited to the opening of the film. They they that their concept disengages them from the history of the peace and in this particular case, there's no question in my mind, with all due deference to tuple, that zero had to play this. But couple had a stronger record of film background being in films, in fact. I don't know how many films Jerry directed. I do know on West Side Story. He he had his. Strength for the first opening number then disappeared. I don't know that history at all, maybe Jeri's Natya is not film. And but I think the film people want to make it their own and and detach themselves from the original source if possible.

Speaker Um. Sondheim wrote that he thought Jerry was the best staging of musicals he'd ever seen. Do you agree with that? You disagree and why?

Speaker I agree with that. I agree that. First of all.

Speaker How can I disagree with Steve Sondheim? I mean, he is he if he thinks Jerry is the greatest stage of musical numbers of all, I think he's telling the truth. I think his feelings would be shared by Sheldon and myself. Not examining that carefully and knowing that I've seen other shows that have been staged brilliantly. When you think of sherries, then you realize from fancy free on into musicals that his ability to stage individual numbers, group numbers, conceptual numbers, the range is so enormous. But I think what Steve is referring to and him being the best stager is the detail he finds and the humor he finds in the presentation of a number by a single character or a duet or what have you. He. He deepens the meaning of of the moment by thinking by so thoughtfully thinking about it, and Jerry's sense of humor is wonderful. I mean that that's another gift. So I think for a change, I'll agree with Steve Sunhat, yes.

Speaker Did you find Jerry to be a decisive worker or not, and can you give me an example?

Speaker A decisive worker is Jerry Robbins? Definitely. By decisive. He may examine other possibilities, but when he finds what he wants, that's it. And he rarely goes off track, his period of trying can be long and investigative, but once he finds the answer or feels he's got it, there's no wavering from from that time frame on.

Speaker What was your own relationship with him like?

Speaker Cordial, I mean, never, never, never intimate in the way of knowing him, apart from director writers and so forth, it was always it was strictly business. We enjoyed each other, but it always had to do with with the working. It was after the show opened that that we'd meet occasionally in a restaurant or something, and suddenly the notion arose, why couldn't we be that friendly then? We all have to go through that to become friends. So I was just. Kind of a working relationship without.

Speaker He.

Speaker Well, other than that, it was getting to know each other through our work and admiring his work beyond belief. And there was a gift he gave me. A serendipitous one 10 years after the show opened. Where he wrote he wrote me a note. That said. Approximately. That there was an article in The New York Times that previous it was during Christmas, it was a Christmas gift, and in a letter that he didn't want me to feel that his his feeling about Fiddler was anything less than what he feels that it was because the Times left out certain things in the interview. So he wanted me to know that. The score was the reason he did that, he did the show. He never would say that, but I think, as I say, it took 10 years.

Speaker And by the way, praise from there's nothing better than praise from a colleague. Whether it's another composer or lyricist or a book writer, those are the those are the places you don't ask about, but when they come, it's as gratifying as anything could be.

Speaker Did you find him generally to be a realist or more of a perfectionist? Did you find him as a co worker in that regard?

Speaker Both I think he had a commercial sense of what would work. But that wasn't enough, he wanted to invest. Surprises his own sensitivity to to it, so that if that's if Jerry is a perfectionist. It would relate to how long it took for him to come. To the final moment where he says that's it. In other words, I think he was searching for so-called perfection or approximating it by the hard work he put into it.

Speaker Other directors may have been satisfied with less. Jerry was never satisfied with the less.

Speaker Excuse me one moment. Whoever is standing, please sit down immediately. Sorry, you spoke before about fancy free. That you saw him dance fancy. Do you remember it well enough to tell me about?

Speaker Well, it was extraordinary because fancy free to me was a breakthrough of enormous proportion for ballet and the fact that the Bernstine jazzy score was the grounds for this. Jazz ballet for this wonderful pop contemporary piece, using figures that we all could identify with that weren't in in in tutus, but his freedom is his instinct for swing and jazz and storytelling. So combined with the Bernstein score that to me it was a revelation to see this on stage and I never forgot it. And every time it came back again, I would long and often did see it. I would rush out tomorrow to see if it had that indelible effect on me.

Speaker I mean, I just think his ballet work, I don't know. It's such a separate. Enormous talent that when you think he does that and musicals, you're speechless, you just have to be speechless. So fancifully was I'm glad that was my first reckoning with Robbins, because it it was a it was a knockout. It was a knockout. What was he like as a dad? He was one of the sailors.

Speaker He was wonderful. He was. He was free and surprising and moved like I'd never had seen anyone, you know, classic sense at all. All all contemporary. All right. On kind of dancing. Free, natural, real.

Speaker Things that that normally you did not see in in ballet. So.

Speaker He was he was a super dad. It's I'm glad I saw him dance because in Fiddler, his choreography was indicated. In other words, he had the language to tell the dancer what he wanted, but he couldn't show all the detail of the turn of the of the actual movement. He would he would do it halfway. He'd start it. And then it ended in a way. But he didn't have the he didn't have the physical ability to dance in 1964, as he did in 1950. So but he still was able to communicate remarkably, not showing them every step, but indicating what he wanted. But I'm glad I saw him as a dancer.

Speaker So I'm going to ask you if you could sort of place, Jerry, in the pantheon of American musical theater talent.

Speaker In the pantheon of American musical theater. It seems to me that Robbins was unique. It's hard for me to measure one against the other because so many in that pantheon made different contributions.

Speaker But Robbins' range. As directing the book. As staging. Songs as developing the dance with continuity throughout as. Then unifying these segments into a whole. I think places him. In the in the top rank. Of. Musical directors and when you add to that. It is extraordinary, inventive, creative talent as a choreographer in all fields. It's hard to think of anyone else that measures.

Speaker Was there anything that could could I have quiet over here, please? Is there anything else that you would like to say, um, related to any kind of musical issues on that you and he interacted? Was there anything that I can ask you about related to?

Speaker Well, there are two things. One, in relation to Fiddler. Jerry was searching for a conductor early on, and I recommended one that had no reputation as far as past achievements, which whom he met. And much to my surprise, said, fine, let's go with Milton Greene so that that was that was I expected, Jerry, to bring in those people that he were that he had worked with. And I think I I supported Milton in a way that may have impressed Jerry, who thought and I just I'm thinking of this now that's more important for the as important for the composer to have his conductor up front as it is for me. Jerry, the other thing had nothing to do with Fiddler, but I think it's worthwhile telling when we were working on the apple tree subsequent to Fiddler, Mike Nichols was the director. Also of enormous celebrity director type and we went out of town. And we had trouble. Connecting the show because they were three separate short stories and we were desperate to find some kind of connective tissue that would. Tell the audience this is what as Robbins' would say, what is the show about? This is what the show is about. Well, we were hard pressed to come with it. And Mike said, look, let's stop going around in circles. Let's ask the best. So he calls Robbins', Rod Robbins came up, saw the show, and in his unbelievable intuitive manner, suggested one, The Devil, the devil was in three shows, put the devil in a tuxedo, make us recognize him in each show. That'll give continued. He did that kind of fixing fine tuning, if you will. That once again, was was a revelation. And it helped the end of the story, which which which I mean, to just to examine for you is that we all thanked him. He left the hotel room, but before he shut the door, he turned to Mike and said, I envy you. I could never have done that.

Speaker And that meant for me that jury couldn't have asked for that kind of help of a pair of equal magnitude.

Speaker And that revelation at as his curtain line was astonishing. And new and. Sad in a way.

Speaker I mean, maybe he didn't ever feel he needed help, that he could solve all problems and we know he had certainly help along the way as assistant book director and assistant choreographer, et cetera. But the kind of help, Mike, that we might as well ask for the best was something beyond his Ken. So I thought that would be of interest.

Speaker Is there anything else that I haven't asked you about? You would like to tell me about Jerry.

Speaker I think I just told you about something that makes sure we don't know.

Speaker I after Jerry died, they were offering things of his possessions and in his apartment. And.

Speaker My wife and I, Patty and I went there and just took a kind of Persian plate that had nothing to do with the theater or anything, but for us it was more meaningful to have something he had had apart from the theater, as something he treasured. All the things I've heard about Robin's giving pain to people I'm sure are true. I'm I may be one of the fortunate ones. That saw his anger and his impatience and. His yelling. But. I never felt. That it was directed at me. For certain reasons that that undid me when it when it was I knew that was the atmosphere, but honestly, there was so much work to do for a composer and a lyricist that the only thing I can say, had I been a performer, I probably would have a different answer. But I think Jerry wanted us to do our best and maybe we were in in, in a sense coddled. Because. I'll tell you who who went through more pain than I believe Sheldon and I know myself was Jostein. Joe was asked to labor beyond. Belief and not always in the most positive, encouraging way.

Speaker So my guess would be that Joe had Joe could tell tales not out of school, but in school about his experience there. I confess, unless I have psychologically blocked it out of out of my mind that I don't have any strong memory of.

Speaker On. Anchored anger at Apne.

Jerry Bock
Interview Date:
2006-07-17
Runtime:
1:25:45
Keywords:
None
American Archive of Public Broadcasting GUID:
cpb-aacip-504-pk06w9721k, cpb-aacip-504-0c4sj1b39b, cpb-aacip-504-bg2h708k21
MLA CITATIONS:
"Jerry Bock, Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). 17 Jul. 2006, https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/974
APA CITATIONS:
(2006, July 17). Jerry Bock, Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About. [Video]. American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/974
CHICAGO CITATIONS:
"Jerry Bock, Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). July 17, 2006. Accessed January 27, 2022 https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/974

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