How ‘Tradition’ became a classic: Celebrating ‘Fiddler’ at 50

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Lines of people swarmed the box office as soon as Fiddler opened/photo: Photofest

Lines of people swarmed the box office as soon as Fiddler opened in September, 1964/photo: Photofest

The Tony award-winning Broadway show turned Oscar-winning film, “Fiddler on the Roof,” didn’t look from the start to be a work that would endure for decades. It took the team who wrote the work, based on the 1905 writing of Sholem Aleichem, a number of attempts to massage it into the classic it became. “Twelve things a day,” was the mantra after early lackluster reviews in pre-Broadway tryouts, as cast and crew worked to tweak the story of the poor Hasidic village dairyman in Russia.

Actor Zero Mostel's iconic pose was copied by future Teyves,
Actor Zero Mostel’s iconic pose was copied by future Tevyes.

Former LA Times writer Barbara Isenberg says in her new book about the making of Fiddler that finding the right talent was the next challenge. Enter Zero Mostel, whose depiction of Tevye has been mimicked by hundreds of actors since–even in Japan, where the show ran for 900 performances. Fiddler has toured steadily around the world since it first debuted, including a recent run in Senegal, Isenberg said. And then, of course, there’s the enduring 1971 film production, which won three Oscars, including one for best soundtrack by John Williams (his first.) Tradition!On her visit to KCRW, Isenberg talked about the making of this hit, and why it has endured. She also talked about what it is that the Japanese find so compelling about the story.

Can’t get the classics “Tradition”, “Sunrise, Sunset”, or “If I Were a Rich Man” out of your head? A “Fiddler” singalong, replete with a dozen area cantors and an orchestra, takes place on Sunday at 4 p.m. at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Koreatown. For details and to RSVP for this free event, click here.

Lyricist Sheldon Harnick, bbok writer Joseph Stein, composer Jerry Bock (at piano,) director-choreographer Jerome Robbins: Photo courtesy Photofest
Lyricist Sheldon Harnick, book writer Joseph Stein, composer Jerry Bock (at piano,) director-choreographer Jerome Robbins: Photo courtesy Photofest