Robbins, Jewison & The Fiddler

UPDATE: Follow this link for the summary of this lecture that appears in the Fall 2013 issue of the Chicago YIVO Bulletin –> Fall2013ChgoYIVO

Vaill06 On September 22, 1964—the opening night of a new Broadway musical called Fiddler on the Roof—a man named Harry Rabinowitz sat in the audience “amid a crowd of cousins and family friends.” After the final curtain, Harry, “deeply moved,” went back stage to find his son. Years later, Gershon Rabinowitz—the man we now know as Jerome Robbins—remembered what happened next as follows: “When he saw me in the wings’ dim lights [my father] threw his arms around me and wept and wept and said how did you know all that.”

Who is “the Fiddler”… and how did he get on the roof? I started asking myself these two questions over thirteen years ago, in May 2000, on a trip to the Marc Chagall Biblical Message Museum in Nice. Now, after a decade of devotion to all things Fiddler, I have some answers I would like to share with you as I prepare a new lecture for the Chicago YIVO Society’s Summer Festival of Yiddish Culture. (This will be the 5th in a series of annual lectures I’ve given for Chicago YIVO in honor of Fiddler’s 50th anniversary.)

Many people contributed to Fiddler’s tremendous worldwide success: Jerry Bock wrote the music, Sheldon Harnick wrote the lyrics, and Joseph Stein wrote the dialogue. They based their musical on several stories by Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem, and Sholem Aleichem’s title character, “Tevye-the-Dairyman,” was memorably played by Zero Mostel (on stage) and Chaim Topol (on screen).

But for all the terrific work done by all of these great artists (and so many more), one individual deserves the lion’s share of credit for making Fiddler so ubiquitous in contemporary Jewish culture, and that person is Jerome Robbins.

When something is perfect, it freezes in the imagination and we forget the time and effort required to make it “just so.” But now that I’m living in Brooklyn, I’ve been able to spend many happy hours at the New York Public Library sorting through boxes of documents, and I’ve held priceless treasures in my own two hands like the songs that never made it onto Fiddler’s Original Cast Album.

Suddenly things I’d only read about before have a new reality for me. For example, did you know that Harnick and Bock wrote an Act 2 duet for Motel-the-Tailor and Tevye’s eldest daughter Tzeitel called “Dear Sweet Sewing Machine”? Here are some of the lyrics:

Do you know what you are,

Dear Sweet Sewing Machine?

You’ll come to mean our own samovar…

Beginning in early 1962, Harnick, Bock and Stein spent over a year trying to interest people like producer Hal Prince in a script “bearing the perkily upbeat title To Life!,” but all to no avail. Then, in the summer of 1963, after Jerome Robbins finished work on Funny Girl, they arranged a meeting with him. A few days later, on August 29, 1963, Robbins sent a telegram to Ruth Mitchell (who had been his stage manager for five previous Broadway shows):


But before making a formal commitment, Robbins demanded an extraordinary level of recognition, not just in the credits (where his name was not only to be the same size as the authors’ names but also set off in a box with the words “Entire production directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins”) but also financially. (Robbins negotiated a 20% royalty for himself to be taken from the author’s portion of the earnings.) Was it worth it? Many years later, when Amanda Vaill interviewed Joe Stein for her book Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins, Stein said: “Jerry always drove a very hard bargain, but he deserved his credit. If we hadn’t had him it would have been a different show.” Detail64LP

Indeed! Hiring Boris Aronson to create a visual tableau based on Marc Chagall’s imagery? All this came from Robbins. So without Robbins, there would literally be no fiddler and there would be no roof! But note that Robbins only brought Aronson onto the team after Chagall sent him a telegram on September 7, 1963 saying he was unable to do the set design himself. (“REGRETTE TROP OCCUPE”) Look at the dates and it becomes clear that Chagall was one of the first people Robbins reached out to once he agreed to direct a new musical that now carried the working title Tevye.

Looking back, it seems incredible to me that so much happened between August 29, 1963 (the day Robbins sent his “I’m in!” telegram to Mitchell) and September 22, 1964 (the day Harry Rabinowitz went backstage to find his son after Fiddler’s Broadway premiere). When the folks at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit saw the very first out-of-town performance on July 27, 1964, they got “Dear Sweet Sewing Machine,” but they didn’t get “Do You Love Me?” (which Robbins added later). So maybe we shouldn’t be too hard on TEW, the critic from Variety, who saw that first Detroit performance and concluded: “There are no memorable songs in this musical.”

Austin Pendleton, Broadway’s first Motel-the-Tailor (and now a member of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Ensemble), told Amanda Vaill that the mood in Detroit was grim: “The cast, dispirited by their reception, became enervated by Jerry’s endless blocking changes and merciless prodding, and rumors began to swirl… ‘It was all over town [meaning New York] that the show was a disaster.'”

But as we all know, when Fiddler finally did open in New York, it quickly became one of the most successful shows in Broadway history.

Walter Mirisch, the executive producer of West Side Story (which won 10 Oscars including Best Picture in 1962) was in New York a few weeks after Opening Night, so Stein arranged tickets for him. Mirisch immediately urged United Artists to buy the screen rights, but they hesitated. Several years later, though, once everyone knew that Fiddler “had legs,” United Artists finally agreed. By that point, Mirisch had worked on three hits with Norman Jewison—The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966), In the Heat of the Night (1967) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)—so Mirisch turned, once more, to Jewison.

Many people were surprised. Hadn’t Jerome Robbins won a Best Director Oscar for his work on West Side Story? But people in the know knew the truth: Mirisch had actually fired Robbins and banished him from the West Side Story set. Clearly, Walter Mirisch was not about to ask Jerome Robbins to direct a screen version of Fiddler!

So what? Jerome Robbins directed the stage version of Fiddler on the Roof and Norman Jewison directed the screen adaption, but isn’t it still the same show? The answer is no, it is not the same. But whether that matters to you or not is ultimately your call. Obviously it matters a whole lot to me!


I will be in Chicago next month to participate in the Chicago YIVO Society’s Summer Festival of Yiddish Culture. My first lecture will be Aug 13 (Tues) at Harold Washington Library Center (Chicago Loop). The HWLC start time is 6 PM. My second lecture (a repeat of the first) will be Aug 15 (Thurs) at Evanston Public Library. The EPL start time is 2 PM. Both lectures will delve deep into topics covered above. For details, visit my Blog:

All Chicago YIVO Summer Festival programs are free and open to the public.

Note: Unless otherwise specified, all quotes in this article come from Amanda Vaill’s 2006 biography Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins. Vale also wrote the screenplay for the documentary Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About which originally aired on the PBS American Masters series on February 18, 2009.

Posted 7/25/13 on JUF Online.


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