By Elisa Lichtenbaum
What makes Fiddler on the Roof so timeless? Find out in Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles, a new documentary airing Friday, November 13 at 9 p.m. as part of “Broadway’s Best,” the acclaimed Friday night line-up of acclaimed theatrical productions on Great Performances.
Composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick are among those sharing stories and insights into Fiddler’s deep reach across time and cultures, along with famous fans Lin-Manuel Miranda, Topol, Joel Grey, Harvey Fierstein, and cast members from the 2015 Broadway revival including Danny Burstein, Jessica Hecht, and Alexandra Silber.
Before you tune in, check out this starry list of actors who have appeared in this beloved musical.
1) Bette Midler
The Divine Miss M scored a Tony Award for her dynamic portrayal of matchmaker extraordinaire Dolly Levi in the 2017 revival of Hello, Dolly!, and was honored with a Special Tony Award in 1974 “for adding lustre to the Broadway season” with her one-woman show at the Palace Theatre. The charismatic performer brought her lustrous presence to the original Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof, as well, making her Broadway debut as Rivka, a villager, and later replacing Joanna Merlin as Tevye’s eldest daughter, Tzeitel. She performed in the show from 1967 to 1970.
“It was a perfect storm of talent, and universal themes: the pull of tradition and family, the struggle to retain your human dignity in the face of terrible odds,” Midler said of the groundbreaking musical in a 2015 New York Times article. “And of course, everyone knows a Yente, even if they’re not Jewish.”
WATCH: Behold Midler’s star power as she performs “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” with Tanya Everett and Mimi Turque in this video from the 1968 Tony Awards.
2) Josh Groban
It’s no secret that global superstar Josh Groban is a self-proclaimed musical theater geek. His 2015 PBS special Josh Groban Stages: Live was a valentine to showtunes, his spectacular Broadway debut in Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet of 1812 earned him a Tony nomination, and he penned a Comet-inspired memoir, Stage to Stage: My Journey to Broadway.
But when a video of Groban performing “If I Were a Rich Man” in a high school production of Fiddler on the Roof went viral in 2014 – and resurfaced on the 2016 Tony Awards courtesy of host James Corden — even the most ardent Grobanites were floored. How could an 18-year-old embody the character of Tevye – the King Lear of musical theater roles – so assuredly and convincingly?
We think the answer to that question is: hello, he’s Josh Groban. But Groban’s explanation is much more profound.
“Being onstage as Tevye was the most cathartic thing for me going through a difficult high school experience,” he said in a 2017 Guardian article.
HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL: Enjoy Josh Groban’s incredible adolescent star turn as Tevye here.
3) Bea Arthur
To some fans, she’s sardonic Golden Girl Dorothy Zbornak. To others, she’s outspoken liberal Maude Findlay. But did you know that Bea Arthur originated the role of Yente in the original 1964 production of Fiddler on the Roof?
The natural born showstopper auditioned for the role multiple times, but almost wasn’t cast as director/choreographer Jerome Robbins and the creative team thought she was too contemporary, lyricist Sheldon Harnick explains in this Manhattan Digest interview.
She landed the part, but her scene-stealing talent made the show too Yente-centric for Robbins’ liking. “Everything was wonderful until we got to Detroit, our tryout town, and Jerry Robbins had to come to me and say, ‘This isn’t a play about a matchmaker,’” Arthur said in a 2001 Chicago Tribune article. “The part was considerably cut. I tried to get out of my contract, but producer Hal Prince wouldn’t let me.”
Arthur eventually left Anatevka and scored a 1966 Tony Award as Angela Lansbury’s boozy bosom buddy Vera Charles in the original Broadway production of Mame.
PHOTO OP: Click here to see a photo of Bea Arthur, Maria Karnilova, and Zero Mostel recording the Fiddler on the Roof original Broadway cast album. (Photo Credit: Marvin Lichtner)
4) Harvey Fierstein
Fiddler on the Roof is in Harvey Fierstein’s DNA. He was a 10-year-old nice Jewish boy from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn when he saw the original 1964 production starring Zero Mostel. “The curtain went up and it was a stage full of Jews. My life was never the same after that,” he said in a 2015 New York Times article.
Yet when it was announced that Fierstein would replace Alfred Molina as Tevye in British director David Leveaux’s notoriously goyishe Broadway revival in 2005, some musical theater mavens wondered if the raspy-voiced, larger-than-life actor – who donned a dress (and won a Tony!) as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray — could bring the required earthiness to Anatevka’s beleaguered milkman and do justice to Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s beloved songs.
Fierstein proved the skeptics wrong. Variety raved that his Tevye had “the necessary charisma and chutzpah in spades,” and praised his “deeply felt” interpretations of the stirring ballads “Sabbath Prayer” and “Chaveleh.” Ben Brantley’s Times review was less flattering, but as Tevye himself might say: critics, schmitics! Besides, his Goldes included funny ladies Andrea Martin and Rosie O’Donnell. What’s not to love?
GREETINGS FROM ANATEVKA: Watch Broadway.com’s coverage of Harvey Fierstein and Andrea Martin’s opening night in Fiddler on the Roof here.
5) Sally Struthers
Best known as Archie Bunker’s daughter Gloria in the groundbreaking 1970s TV series All in the Family, Emmy winner Sally Struthers is also an accomplished stage actress. The colorful characters she has brought to life onstage include Miss Lynch in the 1994 Broadway revival of Grease, Miss Hannigan in the 20th anniversary tour of Annie, and the iconic title role in the 50th anniversary tour of Hello, Dolly! The pint-sized thesp with a supersized personality has been an audience favorite at Maine’s Ogunquit Playhouse since her debut in 2005 as Miss Mona in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. She played Golde in their 2008 production of Fiddler on the Roof. Her Tevye? Eddie Mekka, best known as Carmine “The Big Ragu” Ragusa the 1970s sitcom Laverne and Shirley.
Great Performances “Broadway’s Best” premieres Fridays, November 6-27 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings), pbs.org/broadwayonpbs and the PBS Video app.
Join the conversation on social media using the hashtags #GreatPerformancesPBS and #BroadwayOnPBS.
Watch a preview of Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles:
Elisa Lichtenbaum | @ElisaVonTap
Elisa Lichtenbaum, editor of the monthly THIRTEEN program guide, is also Senior Writer at WNET, a tap dancer, and theater geek.