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92Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists Series: “To Life! Celebrating 50 years of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ with Sheldon Harnick”

One half century of the classic musical was uniquely remembered by a talented cast performing discarded numbers and hosted by its lyricist.

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Lyricist Sheldon Harnick at the 92Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists Series: “To Life!  Celebrating 50 Years of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’” (Photo credit: Richard Termine)

Lyricist Sheldon Harnick at the 92Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists Series: “To Life!  Celebrating 50 Years of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’” (Photo credit: Richard Termine)

Darryl Reilly

Darryl Reilly, Critic

“Is there anything left to discuss?  There IS!” exclaimed Rob Fisher, artistic director of the 92nd Street Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists Series about Fiddler on the Roof, in his introductory remarks to the concert “To Life!  Celebrating 50 Years of ‘Fiddler on the Roof” with Sheldon Harnick.”  A violinist and Klezmer clarinetist, who played tunes from that show, then joined him briefly before they settled in on stage with the other band members.  The format of the presentation was to commemorate this milestone anniversary of that classic Broadway musical in a unique fashion.

“Those expecting to hear the entire score of Fiddler on the Roof will be very disappointed,” explained Fiddler on the Roof’s 91 year-old lyricist Sheldon Harnick, and the concert’s affable host.  “These songs are twenty outtakes that were not heard in the final version.”

The sensational ensemble was composed of six performers with impeccable singing and acting skills.  Jonathan Hadary and Judy Blazer played the mature roles of Tevye and his wife Golde.  Kerry Conte, Leah Horowitz, Ross Lekites, and Alan Schmuckler performed the parts of the daughters and their suitors.  In addition, they also played other characters, and in some instances appeared simultaneously as the same characters during cleverly conceived numbers where the parts where split among them.

Mr. Harnick sat on a high chair off to the side of the stage and read from notes on a music stand. He detailed the genesis of the show and its creation with highly entertaining and informative background material and inside stories, as well as giving plot details.

Harnick and his collaborator, composer Jerry Bock, were enamored of Sholem Aleichem’s novel Wandering Star about a troupe of Yiddish theater performers.  They proposed it to book writer Joseph Stein as material for a musical. He found it unwieldy and suggested instead that they adapt the same author’s Tevye’s Daughters, though reducing the seven children to five.  They then went to work on it.

Kerry Conte, Judy Blazer and Leah Horowitz as the appeared at the 92Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists Series: “To Life!  Celebrating 50 Years of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’” (Photo credit: Richard Termine)

Kerry Conte, Judy Blazer and Leah Horowitz accompanied by Rob Fisher on the piano at the 92Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists Series: “To Life!  Celebrating 50 Years of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’” (Photo credit: Richard Termine)

“Jerome Robbins made Fiddler into what it is,” Harnick rhapsodized about the show’s director and choreographer.  For months Robbins kept asking, “What is this show about?”  After finally getting the answer, “It’s about coping with changing times,” Robbins said, “I can direct that.” His personal affinity with his Jewish heritage and being consumed with recreating the lost shtetel way of life inspired Robbins to go on to create this masterpiece.

“I like that one.  It suggests a musical,” recounted Harnick of the show’s producer, Harold Prince, who scanned a list of possible titles and than selected the one that the show is known as.  The 20 cut songs from the score came mainly from decisions by Robbins, Prince, as well realizations from Bock and Harnick as to what was and what was not working.  These excisions came mostly during the troubled tryout in Detroit.  Very interesting was Harnick’s recollections about songs that got great reactions at backer’s auditions but mystifyingly failed to do so in front of tryout audiences and that were therefore cut.

“We’ve Never Missed a Sabbath Yet,” a comical song with Golde and her daughters getting ready for the ritual dinner was the original opening number.  Robbins insisted on something that conveyed the essence of the piece and “Tradition” became the opening.  The second acting opening of “Letters from America/Anatevka” that involved letters from immigrant relatives was thought to be out of place coming after the pogrom at Tzeitel’s wedding and was reworked as the wistful finale, “Anatevka.”

“A Butcher’s Soul” brought too much focus on Lazar Wolf and was cut.  Harnick sang this wonderfully despite his earlier protestation that he was suffering from slight laryngitis.  “Dear, Sweet Sewing Machine,” for Motel and Tzeitel, was deemed ineffective during the tryouts as their story was over in the show.

Jonathan Hadary singing the role of Tevya at the 92Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists Series: “To Life!  Celebrating 50 Years of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’” (Photo credit: Richard Termine)

Jonathan Hadary singing the role of Tevye at the 92Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists Series: “To Life!  Celebrating 50 Years of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’” (Photo credit: Richard Termine)

The harsh “Get Thee Out” and the bittersweet “When Messiah Comes,” with the cast and Harnick as the witty rabbi, were the response by the townspeople to their eviction and were replaced by the simpler and more powerful, “Anatevka.”

Reading from the Sholem Aleichem work and then performing the cut song, “Why Jew and Why Gentile,” was a great showcase for Jonathan Hadary.  This sequence dealt with Tevye’s feelings about Chava’s forbidden romance with the Russian Fyedka.  With simplicity, emotion, and comedy, this stalwart of the New York stage confirmed that he must have made an excellent Tevye in a recent regional production.  His comic gifts were in evidence during, “That’s Life!”  That was sung to Tevye’s immobile horse and was cut when Robbins decided it clashed with his vision of abstract scenery.  Though piqued by the offer to design the sets, artist Marc Chagall turned the opportunity down and Boris Aronson designed the sets instead.

Ross Lekites with his leading man looks and superb vocal abilities shone on an early version of “Now I Have Everything.”  He also was commanding singing the rarely heard “Any Day Now.”  This was written especially for Perchik to sing in the 1971 film adaptation.  It was filmed and shown in previews but was cut out due to Paul Michael Glaser’s deficient singing.

Alan Schmuckler’s comic timing, youthfully impish presence, and emotional depth enlivened, “Peppercorn.”  This was a whimsical song, for Perchik that played on his name was cut along the way.  “You Could Have the Richest Man in Town” was another gem for him.

The cast of 92Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists Series: “To Life!  Celebrating 50 Years of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’” with Marc Chagall’s iconic painting that inspired the title (Photo credit: Richard Termine)

The cast of 92Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists Series: “To Life!  Celebrating 50 Years of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’” with Marc Chagall’s iconic painting that inspired the title (Photo credit: Richard Termine)

Hodel’s response to Perchik’s being sentenced to Siberia was presented first by Leah Horowitz’s moving rendition of “Somehow the Time Shall Pass,” which was cut.  Then Kerry Conte achingly performed the only song heard from the actual show during the concert, “Far From the Home I Love.”  Horowitz and Conte were also hilarious together during the excised “Matchmaker Reprise,” in which there were funny lines to sing by the two youngest daughters who are left out of their older sisters’ more famous song, “Matchmaker, Matchmaker.”

Judy Blazer’s comic expertise, range and depth, were gloriously demonstrated throughout the event in the course of her appearances as Golde and as other characters.

With Rob Fisher on piano, the delightful band also consisted of Erik Charlston on percussion, Dick Sarpola on bass, Antoine Silverman on violin, and Andrew Sterman on clarinet.  Director Gary Griffin’s inspired staging gave the material a smooth pace and was visually engaging.

Since the music publishing company of the original score requested a title song though none existed, Harnick wrote connective lyrics that Bock joined with portions of the music to create a movie trailer style teaser that Harnick proclaimed “Has never been heard before!” The entire cast then energetically sang this novelty number as the finale.

Throughout the event illustrative slides were sparingly projected.  These included Chagall’s inspirational painting of a fiddler on a roof that inspired the title and the look of the show, the show’s original poster, and a photograph taken during a rehearsal. It was of a fierce Zero Mostel, who created the role of Tevye in street clothes with a rope around his neck pulling his milk cart, cast members in formation, and on the sidelines is the dominant figure of Jerome Robbins with an intense expression.  That image in combination with the sparkling cast, and Sheldon Harnick’s eloquent, first hand commentary, made this concert a vivid testament to the enduring greatness of Fiddler on the Roof.

92Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists Series: “To Life!  Celebrating 50 years of Fiddler on the Roof with Sheldon Harnick” (May 30 – June 1, 2015)

92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Avenue at 92nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-415-5500 or visit http://www.92y.org

Running time: two hours and ten minutes with one intermission

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Darryl Reilly
About Darryl Reilly (561 Articles)
A native New Yorker, Darryl Reilly graduated from NYU with a BFA in Cinema Studies. For the Broadway League, (formerly The League of American Theatres and Producers) he developed, and for five years conducted their Broadway Open House Tours, which took visitors through The Theatre District and into several Broadway theaters. He contributed to Broadway Musicals Show by Show: Sixth Edition (Applause Books). Since 2013, he has reviewed theater, cabaret, and concerts for Theaterscene.net.

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