Joseph Stein, writer of Broadway's "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Zorba," dies at 98

Joseph Stein
Joseph Stein (Family Photo)
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By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 25, 2010; 10:29 PM

Joseph Stein, a playwright who turned a set of short stories about the father of a passel of unmarried daughters into "Fiddler on the Roof," one of the most popular and enduring American musicals of the 20th century, died Oct. 24 at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York of complications from a skull fracture. He was 98.

Mr. Stein wrote the librettos for more than a dozen Broadway musicals, including "Zorba," a 1968 production about an irrepressibly charismatic Greek title character. The musical, featuring work by the songwriting team Fred Ebb and John Kander, was revived in 1983 and is expected to return to Broadway in the near future with Antonio Banderas as Zorba.

Mr. Stein's other Broadway credits include the comedy "Enter Laughing" (1963), based on an autobigraophical novel by entertainer Carl Reiner, and "Plain and Fancy," a well-received musical comedy about urbanite interlopers in an Amish farm community.

"Fiddler on the Roof" was by far the best known of Mr. Stein's works, however. Together with composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick, Mr. Stein brought the Yiddish tales of Sholem Aleichem to the stage for a production that skeptics said dwelt too much on matters of ethnicity and would never appeal to the general public.

In fact, its themes of defending home, family and tradition against the changing world - and its songs, including "If I Were a Rich Man" and "Tradition" - found near-universal embrace.

The story ranges from comedic to semi-tragic in the telling of the story of Tevye, a dairyman living in a shtetl in czarist Russia. Tevye wrestles to maintain his Jewish traditions despite the challenges presented by his sharp-tongued wife, their impetuous daughters and the pressures of the outside world.

"It catches the essence of a moment in history with sentiment and radiance," wrote New York Times reviewer Howard Taubman about the musical's opening in 1964. Actor Zero Mostel's portrayal of Tevye, he wrote, was "one of the most glowing creations in the history of the musical theater," and Mr. Stein's adaptation of Aleichem's work "goes beyond local color and lays bare in quick, moving strokes the sorrow of people subject to the sudden tempest of vandalism and, in the end, to eviction and exile from a place that had been home."

"Fiddler" ran seven years, nine months and 3,242 consecutive performances before closing in 1972. It won nine Tony Awards, including two for Mr. Stein: best musical and best author of a musical.

Mr. Stein also wrote the screenplay for the film version of the "Fiddler," which starred Topol as Tevye and was nominated for a best picture Academy Award in 1971.

By that year, an estimated 35 million people around the world had seen a production of the musical. The following year, it broke the record for longest-running Broadway show. That record was later eclipsed by musicals such as "Grease" and "A Chorus Line," but "Fiddler" went on to four Broadway revivals and countless reproductions in regional, stock and high school theaters.

Joseph Stein was born in New York on May 30, 1912, to Jewish immigrants from Poland. He graduated from City College of New York and went on to receive a master's degree in social work from Columbia University in 1937.

Mr. Stein's first wife, Sadie Singer Stein, died in 1974. He married Elisa Loti in 1975.

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