THE BOOK SHELF: The "Tradition" of Fiddler on the Roof and Works by Tracy Letts, Annie Baker and More

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31 Aug 2014

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This month's column discusses "Tradition!," a new chronicle of the making of Fiddler on the Roof and a clutch of playscripts from the likes of Annie Baker, Will Eno, Richard Nelson, Athol Fugard and Tracy Letts.


Fiddler on the Roof turns 50 Sept. 22, an event which is being celebrated by at least two chronicles of the legendary Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick/Joseph Stein/Jerome Robbins/Hal Prince musical. (The 50th of Fiddler's close competitor, the Jerry Herman/Michael Stewart/Gower Champion/David Merrick Hello, Dolly!, passed in January. Once Dolly seemed a marginally stronger hit through the initial decade, but by 1980 had lost its edge.)

Alisa Solomon's "Miracle of Miracles" — subtitled "A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof" — indeed looked at the show not only historically but culturally. This allowed the author to investigate areas rarely found in a Broadway chronicle, putting things in a different context than usual. Now we have Barbara Isenberg's "Tradition!: The Highly Improbable, Ultimately Triumphant Broadway-to-Hollywood Story of Fiddler on the Roof, the World's Most Beloved Musical" [St. Martin's Press]. That subtitle offers a lot to prospective readers, even though it is unwieldy and not quite accurate; the movie was filmed in Yugoslavia and London, far from Hollywood's shores.

Isenberg, a journalist, has given us a fascinating fly-on-the-wall thriller about the creation of a big Broadway musical, yes; but that book was "Making It Big," about the fatally overhyped 1996 enterprise that sunk in the quicksand of Shubert Alley. "Making It Big" is tense, fascinating and alive; it delivers what Isenberg's Fiddler book promises. Readers looking forward to Fiddler being put under the Big microscope are bound to be disappointed. Isenberg has duly interviewed several surviving Fiddler veterans — Harnick and Prince are still very much with us — and countered their testimony with much previously-published information from other sources. But there is little new, here, and little surprising; what's more, there is relatively little about the original Broadway production itself.

Considerably more than half the book discusses other matters, with a major concentration on the 1971 motion picture. Isenberg discusses director Norman Jewison at length, giving him far more page space than Jerome Robbins. She also gives us more from John Williams — who "composed" the film score using the Bock and Harnick songs — than she does from Bock himself. Even the cinematographer gets pages of discussion; he filmed through a filter of silk stockings from Zagreb. Fascinating stuff, maybe, but Jewison and Williams and cinematographer Oswald Morris didn't create Fiddler; they simply adapted it into another medium, with mixed artistic success (as Isenberg makes clear by quoting from the major reviews). Meanwhile, there is only a mention in passing of the show's original conductor, and not a word about orchestrator Don Walker — a key player in the creation of Fiddler who ultimately outearned everyone involved other than the authors, Robbins and perhaps Prince.


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