Alisa Solomon’s stimulating cultural history of “Fiddler on the Roof” blows the nostalgic dust off a show that has in some ways been a victim of its enormous success. Ever since Walter Kerr’s famously mixed review of the 1964 premiere (“It might be an altogether charming musical if only the people of Anatevka did not pause every now and then to give their regards to Broadway.”), higher-browed critics have disdained “Fiddler” as a showbiz makeover that compromised the authentically Jewish nature of Sholem Aleichem’s stories.
Such complaints are beside the point, Solomon declares in “Wonders of Wonders.” “Fiddler” is a distinctively American show that nonetheless has become “a global touchstone for an astonishing range of concerns: Jewish identity, American immigrant narratives, generational conflict, communal cohesion, ethnic authenticity, and interracial bridge-building among them,” she writes.
As this comment indicates, Solomon aims to provide much more than a behind-the-scenes account of the creation of a hit musical, though she amply fulfills those requirements in her substantive chapters on the original Broadway production. Her primary interest is in “Fiddler” as an instrument of “ethnic assertion and cultural adaptation,” and her shrewd analysis ranges from the publication of the first Tevye story in 1894 through various 21st-century revivals and reimaginings of “Fiddler.”
Aleichem himself was willing to make “grubby adjustments of showbiz,” tacking a happy ending onto a drama he hoped to get produced in New York’s flourishing Yiddish theaters. But Lower East Side audiences weren’t very receptive to “the folkshrayber of the Pale” in 1907, Solomon writes, adding with characteristic acuity, “Jews were becoming a different kind of folk, a modern urban audience and American ethnic group.”
Only after World War II had extinguished the civilization they left behind were American Jews ready to embrace their past and other Americans able to accept Tevye and his rebellious daughters as “characters who just happened to be Jewish,” in the words of “Fiddler” librettist Joseph Stein. The creative team, all Jewish, saw “Fiddler” as both a reaffirmation of their roots and a universal story about old ways changing. That was the inspiration for Jerome Robbins’s brilliant staging, from the opening number’s invocation of “Tradition” to the mournful farewell to “Anatevka,” leavened by the sense that Tevye’s family has already acquired “values of . . . tolerance and adaptability that need only find the proper setting” — in America, naturally. Solomon’s portrait of the rehearsal process and triumphant premiere of “Fiddler” contains little that conventional musical theater histories haven’t covered, but it’s distinguished by her focus on the show’s meaning.
It’s logical to move from Broadway to the first production of “Fiddler” in Israel, where sabras, raised to reject their parents’ European heritage, loved it for the same reason the children of American immigrants did: It offered the reassuring opportunity to “admire a legacy in the safely secular, make-believe space of a theater.”
Chapters on the 1971 Hollywood film and a 2006 performance in rural Poland also fit comfortably within Solomon’s investigation of the musical’s evolving relationship to world culture. Norman Jewison’s movie, starring Israeli actor Topol and produced in the wake of the Six-Day War, emphasized ethnic persecution and Jewish toughness. Polish stage director Magdalena Miklasz presented her version, in a town that lost half its population to the Holocaust, “as a way of recalling Dynow’s multicultural past [and] looking towards Poland’s European future.”
A chapter on a 1969 junior-high production of “Fiddler” is initially startling, though it’s moving to see African American and Puerto Rican students connecting with characters from a Russian shtetl as their Brooklyn neighborhood is torn apart by an experiment in community control that pitted the largely Jewish teachers’ union against the minority-led local school board. Solomon, refreshingly undogmatic on the charged subject of gender in her essay collection “Re-dressing the Canon,” strikes a politically correct note here: “The pop culture icon of Jewishness had become the vehicle, for a handful of children, for the assertion and agency that community control aspired to give the whole city.” Boilerplate language aside, her point is well taken: “Fiddler” is what you make of it, and it belongs to everyone.
Solomon wraps up briskly with a short survey of contemporary efforts “to lift the curse of kitsch off ‘Fiddler’ ” — plus an amused glance at an uber-kitschy troupe of entertainers in Hasidic garb who perform Robbins’s dazzling Bottle Dance at weddings and bar mitzvahs.
In Solomon’s inclusive assessment, “a Broadway showstopper turned into folklore” is as much a part of the musical’s legacy as an album of “Fiddler” songs delivered in a punk-rock frenzy by the Australian band Yidcore. She intelligently assesses the multiple responses to and interpretations of “Fiddler” for what they tell us about social and cultural changes over the past 50 years, without trying to shoehorn them into a single thematic box. “Wonder of Wonders” is exemplary critical history.
Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: the Group Theatre and America.”
WONDER OF WONDERS
A Cultural History of “Fiddler on the Roof”
By Alisa Solomon
Metropolitan. 433 pp. $32