It’s impossible for me to write about Joseph Stein and Jerry Bock without talking about Fiddler on the Roof. It’s the way I knew them both. When I think about Fiddler, I think about the atmosphere of kindness in which that original production (and the piece as we have since known it) was created in 1964.
Some people might wonder how there could be an atmosphere of kindness in a production directed by Jerome Robbins. It’s true that Robbins was fierce—he was a great artist whose greatness expressed itself in a relentless dissatisfaction with himself and his own work. For me, the aching beauty of the show came from the tension between this fierceness in Jerry Robbins and a sort of radiant collective tenderness in its three authors: Joe Stein, who wrote the book; Jerry Bock, who wrote the music; and Sheldon Harnick, who wrote the lyrics. The mixture of these elements filled this musical with all the feelings that flood into the lives of decent people who live in turmoil and tragedy while maintaining their humor, their love and respect for one another, their pride, their unswerving decency, their anger and their balance—the balance that made Robbins think of the Chagall painting which gave him the title of the show.
We all worked for 16 weeks preparing that production: eight weeks of rehearsal in New York and eight weeks on the road, in Detroit and Washington—all of this before Equity demanded a day off for actors. Sixteen weeks, through most of which the show was under siege from poor reviews and rumors.
During all this time, there was never a moment that any of us in the cast saw any of the three authors so much as lose their temper. Joe kept tightening his scenes until they were as sharp as crystal, and Sheldon and Jerry just kept writing magnificent new songs—songs like “Do You Love Me?,” which showed up early one Sunday morning in Detroit, seemingly out of nowhere, and “Miracle of Miracles,” which showed up in Washington, just before we came in to open in New York—written, it seemed, overnight.
Through all of this, the faces that Joe Stein and Jerry Bock showed to the troubled and exhausted company were faces of brightness, wry humor, love, compassion—faces that gave a sense that everything was beautiful and would become even more beautiful, which in fact it was and it did.
Joe and Jerry said many sharp and funny things, but what I remember is those smiles. All three of them, Sheldon included, made all of us think, even know in moments, that we were indispensable to the whole event. Joe made you think you could act like Brando or Duse; Jerry and Sheldon made you think you sang like Caruso or Callas. The results of all this encouragement engulfed the stage.
None of this would have meant much, of course, if Joe, Jerry and Sheldon were not brilliant artists; their kindness would have been, in that case, distressingly beside the point. But because they were and are brilliant (Sheldon is still with us, and still sublimely crazy after all these years, and still, blessedly, doing wonderful work)—because of their brilliance, this kindness lit up the whole production, tempered and shaped by the unsparing and thrillingly demanding artistry of Jerry Robbins.
This is the way it should always be. And because of the example of these smiling, brilliant men, it can be, at least sometimes. At the very least, the world now has a work it can always treasure, and in which it can always find the deepest and toughest and loveliest sort of comfort and joy the theatre can provide.
Austin Pendleton originated the role of Motel in the original production of Fiddler on the Roof.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!