09/19/2014 12:59 pm ET Updated Nov 19, 2014

Fiddler on the Roof Celebrates 50th Anniversary!

all photos by UA or by Jay

It was 50 years ago this week that "Fiddler on the Roof" opened on Broadway! You may ask how I would know that and I respond that I was at the opening. You see, I was dating an attractive young woman named Eleanor Mostel and her father, Zero Mostel, was the star of the show. So she took me to the opening night performance and the party afterwards.... which explains how I remember it. (Just don't ask me what I had for breakfast yesterday; that I won't remember.) On Sunday, I was invited by the Landmark Theatres' publicity guy, Steve Indig, to a celebratory screening of the film version at Landmark's Regent Theatre in Westwood. It was one of their Anniversary Classics Series celebrating classic movie anniversaries with major actors and filmmakers in person. (Next up is Laura.) After the screening, there was a panel discussion on stage shepherded by Steve, and Theodore Bikel, who has played Tevya over 2,000 times, was joined by Barbara Isenberg, Los Angeles Times' contributor and author of the book on the musical, "Tradition: The Highly Improbable, Ultimately Triumphant Broadway-to-Hollywood Story of 'Fiddler on the Roof,' the world's most beloved musical." The third panelist was Lynn Stalmaster, casting director of the 1971 film. When I went up to him afterwards and said he had cast a movie I had produced in 1968, Night of the Juggler, with James Brolin, he didn't remember it.

Israeli actor Topol as Tevya in the film.

The three panelists at the screening.

Bikel is still obviously bitter that he was not cast or even considered for the film version, and he commented that he thought Topol's performance in the film was "a ittle slow." Bikel last performed the role in 2010 in a 100-minute version in Las Vegas and then hung up his dancing shoes. Stalmaster told how director Norman Jewison was having trouble finding the ideal screen Tevya until the show's writer, Joe Stein, suggested he go to London to see the Israeli actor Topol. and Norman signed him on the spot. I asked the obvious question: why had they not used or even considered Zero Mostel for the film role, and Lynn explained that Mr. Mostel had been 'a rascal' all during the stage play. After the first week or two, when he performed beauifully and got great reviews, he started doing 'schtick' every night, often making the show run 20 and 30 minutes over. Barbara then said that the United Artists film financiers David Picker and Arthur Krim just thought that Mostel was "too big" fo the movie. .

The three older daughters dancing.

Another view of Topol as Tevya.

The stage version of 'Fiddler' reigned as the longest-running musical in Broadway history for many years, over 3,000 performances, until it was upstaged by "Grease." Fiddler had music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and book by Joseph Stein. It was set in a village of Imperial Russian in 1905, based upon Tevya and his Daughters written in Yiddish by Sholem Aleichem. You'll remember that it is about a milkman named Teyva, who has five unmarried daughters. The title came from the painting, 'The Fiddler,' by Marc Chagall, one of many he made about Eastern European life. I read somewhere that it is a metaphor for survival through tradition and joyfulness in a life of uncertainty and unbalance.

The original poster for the stage musical.

Barbara told the story of how the new director of the musical, Jerome Robbins (who replaced the original helmer), called all the principals into his office and asked them what the musical was about? When they said it was about a milkman in Russia, he said that was not sufficient. Finally, Joe Stein said it was about 'tradition,' and Robbins leaped at the idea: "That's it. Write it. " This is why the song Tradition is the backbone of the play. We learned that the play, when it opened pre-Broadway in Detroit and Washington, ran over four hours...and received mixed reviews. They worked assiduously to bring it down to three hours...the film ran just three hours and one minute. The play and film deals with Teyva's attempts to maintain the traditions of his family and his Jewish faith against the outside attempts by the Tsar to repel them. His three older daughters each choses a husband against his wishes. The play was nominated for ten Tony Awards, winning nine, including Best Musical. Both the play and the1971 film were extremely profitable and internationally acclaimed. Bea Arthur played the matchmaker in the play and my distant aunt, Molly Picon, played the matchmaker in the movie. Bettle Midler took the role of daughter Tzeitel during the original run and Pia Zadora played the youngest daughter.

As I sat in the movie house on Sunday, I was remembering Hollis Alpert's review of it in the Saturday Review: "If this is not the most satisfying musical film ever, surely it is awfully close to it." I sat riveted for three hours (with a ten minute intermission) as I heard the many memorable songs: Tradition; Matchmaker, Matchmaker; If I Were a Rich Man; To Life; Sunrise, Sunset; Miracle of Miracles; and the closing number, Anatevka. I must admit that my eyes were tearing as I left the theatre. Yes, it is still powerfully moving. So may I suggest that you order or rent a copy of the film and spend three happy hours immersed in this wonderful story.

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