Timed for the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof comes Alisa Solomon’s Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof: a book that seems to offer everything anyone interested in the musical would want to know, and more. Solomon, a professor in Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and director of the Arts and Culture concentration in the MA program, has written a comprehensive account of the play from its sources through to its spawn, and if there is something omitted, and there may be at least one thing, it is likely something her readers, Fiddler devotees, won’t much miss.
The book is divided into three sections.
Part I, “When America Commands,” deals with the source material, including a quick tour through the life and career of Sholem-Aleichem, the original creator of the stories that were bound together for the play, his literary success in Europe, and his own unsuccessful attempts to parlay that success in America during his lifetime. Solomon then goes on to describe how his work prospered in in popular tomes like The World of Sholem-Aleichem as an almost mythic interpretation for Americans of what Yiddish life was like in the shtetl.
Part II, “Tevye Strikes it Rich,” is the meat of the book, as Solomon takes readers through the history of the musical’s creation, from the gathering of its creative team, through the story of its development to the description of its magical opening. Her narrative is brilliant: whether she is describing the compulsive personality of director Jerome Robbins or dishing the dirt about some provocative behavior of Zero Mostel, she invests the story with the kind of detail and human interest that brings the substance to life.
Part III, “Tevye’s Travels,” illustrates what has become of the musical since its Broadway success. It samples the show’s offspring by looking at four of the more challenging adaptations that it inspired. She begins with the Israeli production, significant, she points out because of its challenge to Israeli ideas about life in the shtetl. This is followed by a discussion of a Brooklyn junior high school production staged during the height of racial tensions in the city, the motion picture version directed by Norman Jewison, and finally a production in Poland. The story of the Eiseman Junior High staging with a cast of African-American and Latino students and the Job-like problems it had to overcome is especially heartwarming. Indeed, as heartwarming as the play itself.
Still, for all the wonderful things said about Fiddler on the Roof, there have been those who find it wanting. And here’s my one quibble with Professor Solomon, while she does certainly talk about these negative critiques, they are given short shrift. The explanation of their complaints are rarely analyzed either completely or objectively. Reading her commentary, one can’t help but conclude that critics of Fiddler are carping intellectuals usually with some political agenda, and that really needs some further analysis. In a work as comprehensive as this, the reader has a right to expect a more extensive discussion of that criticism.
With that in mind by way of qualification, Wonder of Wonders is as wonderful a book as Fiddler on the Roof is a musical.
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