12 Things You Might Not Know About Fiddler on the Roof

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Good luck finding another show with Fiddler’s universal appeal. Audiences of just about every race, religion, and nationality have applauded the timeless, bittersweet musical since it debuted in 1964.

1. Fiddler on the Roof Was Based on a Series of Stories Written by "The Jewish Mark Twain."

Like Samuel Clemens, Sholem Rabinovich was better known by his pen name. In Hebrew, Sholem Aleichem—an alias that this Eastern European writer adopted during the early 1880s—means "peace be unto you." Inevitably, his knowing voice and relatable characters drew comparisons with Tom Sawyer’s famous author. Clemens didn’t mind: When the pair were introduced in 1906, Twain was told that he was addressing "The Jewish Mark Twain." Honored, he quipped, "Please tell him that I am the American Sholem Aleichem."

Tevye the dairyman is easily his most famous creation. A father who meets tragedy with humor, he narrated eight short tales published between 1894 and 1914. 

2. A Black and White Movie Adapted the Same Plot In 1939.

Simply titled Tevye, it’s a more somber take on the hero’s struggle to accept a rapidly-changing world while his beloved daughters leave home one by one. In 1990, this became the first non-English language movie to be selected for preservation by the National Film Registry (the actors use Yiddish).

3. Rejected Titles for the Musical Included Where Papa Came From and The Old Country.

Lyricist Sheldon Harnick and composer Jerry Bock weighed several possible titles for the show during the writing stage. In the end, an oil painting probably helped make up their minds. The Fiddler (1912-1913) is a famous piece by French-Russian painter Marc Chagall in which a green-faced violinist makes music on a rooftop. Though Broadway historians aren’t 100 percent sure about what inspired the show’s current name, consensus implicates The Fiddler.  

4. A Huge Number of Songs Were Deleted.

The writers conceived around 50 individual numbers, though all but 15 wound up on the cutting room floor. "A Butcher’s Soul" and "Dear Sweet Sewing Machine" were among those discarded.

5. Zero Mostel (ie: the Original Tevye) Fought to Keep "If I Were a Rich Man" From Getting Drastically Altered.

Harnick had second thoughts regarding the last verse, in which Tevye dreams of being rich enough to spend seven hours at the synagogue every day. "I wondered if it were too serious," the lyricist said. "I suggested that we cut it and end on a funnier note. Zero screamed. ‘No! These lines—they are this man. You must leave them, you must!' He was so forceful about it that we decided to go with his instincts."

6. Mostel and Director Jerome Robbins Once Got Into a Backstage Argument Over an Orthodox Custom.

The two often butted heads during the original 1964 production—and Mostel usually won. Case in point: During one rehearsal, Fiddler’s lead man kissed the mezuzah (a parchment inscribed with Hebrew verses that hangs near the doorway of Jewish homes) before exiting Tevye’s home. Robbins testily ordered Mostel to stop. Though the actor explained that, as an Orthodox Jew, Tevye would never neglect this traditional custom, Robbins was adamant. So, on the next run-through, Mostel crossed himself instead. Upon seeing this simple act of defiance, Robbins backed down.

7. Bea Arthur of The Golden Girls Fame Originated the Gossipy Matchmaker Role.

Long before Dorothy Zbornak came along, Arthur landed a spot in Fiddler’s maiden cast as Yente the matchmaker. Two years later, she’d snag another big role as the sharp-tongued, melodramatic Vera Charles of Mame.

8. The 1964 Run Was Nominated for 10 Tony Awards (and Won 9).

Fiddler claimed Best Musical, Actor (Mostel), Book, Choreographer, Costume Designer, Director, Producers, Score, and Featured Actress (Maria Karnilova, who played Tevye’s wife, Golde). However, the show’s Boris Aronson lost out on Best Scenic Designer. But don’t feel too badly for him—he did win six other Tonys. 

9. It Was the First Broadway Musical to Surpass 3000 Performances.

As if this feat didn’t say enough about the show’s enduring popularity, theatergoers have also been treated to four Broadway revivals—with a fifth coming this December.

10. Noteworthy Tevyes Include Alfred Molina and Leonard Nimoy.

Two years after Star Trek, Mr. Spock executed this very different gig for a few months in 1971. Molina’s portrayal during the fourth revival sparked a minor outcry, with some critics condemning the decision to place an iconic Jewish role in the hands of a Gentile (insiders began calling his version "Goyim on the Roof").

11. To Get the Look He Wanted for the 1971 Film Version, Cinematographer Oswald Morris Had a Woman’s Stocking Draped Over His Camera Lens.

This helps give Fiddler a period-friendly vibe. Speaking of the movie, it came in 82nd on the American Film Institute’s "100 Most Inspiring Films of All Time" list and has been seen by an estimated one billion people (at least, according to Chaim Topol—the picture’s very memorable Tevye).

12. Fiddler on the Roof Became a Surprise Smash in Japan.

Since 1967, the musical’s seen hundreds of Japanese revivals. Joseph Stein, who penned the book to Fiddler, was once approached by a Japanese producer who asked, "Do they understand this show in America?"

"Yes, of course," replied Stein, "we wrote it for America. Why do you ask?"

"Because," the producer said, "it’s so Japanese."