A conversation with FIDDLER ON THE ROOF lyricist Sheldon Harnick
How did your upbringing influence your writing?
The starting point for Fiddler on the Roof was several stories from Sholem Aleichem’s major work, Tevye’s Daughters. That was the basis for the show. Once we started to work on it, I was reminded of the way I grew up in Chicago. Although it was a non-Jewish neighborhood, a small group of devout Jewish men raised the money to rent a hall to use as a synagogue. I remember the fervor with which these men prayed. Many, if not most of them, had come from the old country. Later, I remembered that many of them looked like the photographs I had seen of Holocaust survivors: they were kind of thin and they looked like they had lived very difficult lives. All of those images were in my mind.
What is at the heart of Fiddler on the Roof?
At the heart of Fiddler, I think, are two different stories. One has to do with our protagonist, Tevye. Three of his five daughters are at marriageable age and they are breaking away from the traditions that Tevye himself believes in. It is very hard for him to accept that they are rejecting his values. Eventually, he is able to accept it because of his great love for his daughters but it’s a struggle. This is something that audiences identify with because any parents who have children hope they will grow up observing their values. When they don’t it can be very difficult.
The other is the aspect of a minority culture, trying to cope with the majority culture in which in it lives. Joe Stein [composer], Jerry Bock [book writer] and I felt that what we were writing was not just about a Jewish family but that the themes were universal. The Jewish group in the village of Anatevka is subject to abuse and persecution. This, I think, is something that reminds people of what is happening to other minorities around the world, in places where persecution persists.
After the show opened, we had our first Actors’ Fund benefit and the audience was filled with actors. At intermission, Florence Henderson came running up the aisle and said, “Sheldon, this show is about my Irish grandmother!” And I thought, “we have succeeded!”
Do you have a favorite memory of writing the show?
Jerry Bock wrote the music to a Russian waltz. When I listened to it, it suggested lyrics that turned out to be “Sunrise, Sunset.” I went to Jerry’s studio, which was in his basement. We sang through the song a couple of times. Once I heard how it sang, I changed a word or two. When we had it the way we wanted it, Jerry called his wife from upstairs because we wanted to get a reaction. Patti came downstairs and we sang the song. When I audition a song for someone, I look at the wall above them or to the side. I don’t look in their eyes. So at the end of the song, I finally looked at Patti and, to my astonishment, she was crying. A few weeks later, I was visiting my sister. Although I’m not a pianist, the piano accompaniment to “Sunrise, Sunset” is simple enough so that I could master it and I played the song for my sister. When I finished singing the song I looked at my sister and she has tears in her eyes. I thought, “My goodness, this song must be something very special!”, which it has turned out to be.
What excites you most about this new revival?
Some years ago, when I saw The Light in the Piazza, I made a mental note of the name of the director because the show had been directed so beautifully. Years later when I saw the exciting revival of South Pacific, I noted that it had been directed by that same person. More recently, his exquisite production of The King and I won the Tony for Best Revival. I am speaking, of course, of Bart Sher.
It’s always gratifying to have a show produced on Broadway. But all of us connected with Fiddler have been looking forward to seeing it with particular anticipation. We were sure that Bart would bring to this Fiddler the skill, the freshness, the imagination, the beauty and the theatrical flair he brought to those aforementioned shows.
FIDDLER ON THE ROOF plays the Aronoff Center January 15-27, 2019 as part of the Fifth Third Bank Broadway in Cincinnati series presented by TriHealth.