We are now onto the third of my new weekly musical theatre podcast series ShenTens. This week I count down my top ten favourite Sondheim songs — at least my favourites right now.
I’ve launched a brand-new weekly podcast, called ShenTen, in which I will countdown my personal top tens in different theatrical categories.
Programme cover from the first London production
As the BBC Proms feature Fiddler On The Roof, here is my interview with lyricist Sheldon Harnick, discussing the show.
JB: Sheldon, you’re one of the few people who has created a musical that has gone on to become a global sensation and which, until 1979, has held a record for being the longest running show on Broadway.
At what stage in “Fiddler”‘s development did you have any idea of the scale of what you were creating, as far as to how it was going to be received?
SH: We started our pre-Broadway tryout in the city of Detroit and we were worried sick when we went there, because Hal Prince had gotten us the theatre, but the man who owned the theater said, “You have to be in Detroit for 5 weeks, but we only have a subscription for 3 and a half weeks.” So, for the last week and a half, there was not a ticket sold!
When we got to Detroit, we also found out that there was a newspaper strike and of course, the show was just starting out and there was a lot wrong with it. We could have died in Detroit, but Jerome Robbins, the choreographer, knew what he wanted to do with the show and every day, he fixed about 8 or 9 things, so the show got better and better. But, we had no reviews. We had no idea what the future of this show was going to be.
Our next stop was the city of Washington, DC. To our astonishment, when we got to Washington, DC, and went to the theater to rehearse, we saw a long line of people waiting to buy tickets. We thought: How on earth did this happen? We said the only way we could account for it was that the people in Detroit had called their friends in Washington and said, “This is a show you’ve got to see.”
The same thing happened when we went from Washington to New York. We get to New York and there’s a long line of ticket-buyers waiting. We thought, My goodness. We must have something special here. Those were the first times that we suspected we had something.
JB: Where did the original idea for the show, to take the stories of Sholom Aleichem and convert them into a musical, come from?
SH: A friend of mine and I cannot remember who it was, sent me a novel by Sholom Aleichem called “Wandering Stars”. It’s a big, almost like a Dickensian novel. A big, fat novel about a Yiddish theatrical troupe in Eastern Europe. It was a wonderful book. I sent it to Jerry Bock, he read it and said, “Yes. Let’s make this into a musical.” We thought, Who would be the right person to do the book for this? And we thought, Joe Stein, who we’d worked with.
So, we sent it to Joe. Joe read it and he called us and he said, “Well, it’s a wonderful book, but”, he said, it is simply too big for the stage. One of the things that makes it a wonderful story is the characters in this theater troupe, but,” he said, “there are about 40 of them and that would just be too big for Broadway. Also, the whole show, the whole story is too big.” “But,” Joe said, “since we love the writing, let’s see what else we can find by Sholom Aleichem.”
So, we began to read other works by Sholom Aleichem and we found the Tevye’s Daughter stories. As it happened, we couldn’t get the rights to them as they were owned by a man named Arnold Perl, a playwright. He had bought the rights and had adapted the stories into a play that was in 3 acts. Each act was about a different daughter.
But, what the stories are about was the changing of tradition. How when Tevye got married, he had a matchmaker as did most of his compatriots, who arranged the marriages. But, his daughters were living in a new world, where the young people were getting more independent and drifting away from traditions and they chose their own suitors. By and large, that’s the conflict in the show. That and the fact that, what was happening in Russia at that time was leading to the expulsion of the Jews from certain areas.
So, the original stories, when we read them, we just found them beautiful and funny and human and we couldn’t wait to start adapting them. Joe Stein did a remarkable job, because what he discovered was that almost none of the dialogue in the stories would work on stage. It was literary dialogue. It was funny, it was charming, it was beautiful, but it was not stage dialogue. So, almost 90% of what’s on the stage had to be invented by Joe. He always had to keep in mind that what he wrote had to sound as though Sholom Aleichem had written it.
JB: Tell me about that interaction between you as the lyricist, and Joe, who’s writing the book.
SH: That process is pretty much the same in every musical I’ve done. You get together with the book writer, the composer, the lyricist. You talk about the nature of the show you’re doing. Then, I have to wait until whoever is doing the book begins to send me scenes, because I cannot write lyrics until I see what the dialogue sounds like. We cannot have lyrics that sound like they’re being sung by a different person than the person who was speaking dialogue. They all have to come out of the same characters.
JB: You made a reference earlier to a “new world” and there is a line in the show when Tevye says to his wife, “It’s a new world, Golda.” That is one of so many lines that are so relevant even today.
SH: Yeah, my wife and I saw a production in Japan earlier this year. It’s been a very popular show in Japan. When we inquired as to why it was so popular, they said that after World War II, the young people who had been brought up before that in very strictly traditional ways, after World War II they began to break away and it was extremely difficult for their parents to deal with this. Since that’s what “Fiddler”’s about, the show was very meaningful in Japan.
JB: That brings me to the next question. What do you think has created the incredible appeal of the show to people outside of the Jewish audience?
SH: Well, that was what we worried about originally. However, Joe Stein and Jerry Bock and I, we found universal values in the Sholom Aleichem stories. We tried to stress those values. We couldn’t eliminate the fact that these are about Jewish people, but we thought the story values that we emphasized, were universal values. And, it paid off.
I remember, in New York, once the show opened on Broadway, that we had to give a performance for the people who are working in other shows, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to get to see it. So, within the first few months there’s what they call an Actors Fund benefit. The theater is filled with actors from other shows. They’re wonderful audiences.
Anyway, I was at the Actors Fund and an Irish friend of mine, a performer named Florence Henderson, at the intermission, came running up the aisle, and she said, “Sheldon. This show is about my Irish grandmother.” That’s the kind of thing I love to hear, because that’s what we were trying to accomplish. Trying to make it a show that could reach out to everybody, not just Jewish people.
JB: Of course, “Fiddler on the Roof”, with its pogrom and, ultimately, the dispersal of the Jews from Anatevka, signalled the darkening clouds over Europe and the show was written barely 20 years after the end of the Second World War.
SH: I know. On that tour I mentioned, where my wife and I first saw it in London and then we went to Amsterdam. It was a rather spooky feeling. We were told that the seats we were sitting in had been occupied by Nazis not all that long ago.
JB: To what extent was there any referencing of the 20th century’s Holocaust when you were writing the show?
SH: I must say, we did not try to foreshadow the Holocaust. In the original, one of the original Sholom Aleichem stories, there is a pogrom, so we thought, okay, The pogrom is there and we will have the pogrom on stage at the end of Act 1. But, we didn’t make any more of it than that.
However, somebody recommended a 1952 book called “Life is With People”, which all 3 of us read, that documented many chapters of life from Eastern European Jewry before the Second World War. We read that book and found that there was a lot that we could use. Many of the people that were interviewed said one of the things they remembered about pogroms was that pillows would be destroyed and that there would be feathers flying all over the room. So, we took that idea and used it in the show.
I remember seeing the show in New York once. My wife and I were sitting opposite from 2 people on the other side of the aisle. They were elderly, gaunt people. They looked like they had, at one time, been in a concentration camp. During the pogrom, I thought they were both going to have heart attacks. They were looking at the stage, you could see that they were riveted to the stage and we thought, Oh my God, they are reliving an experience. It was a really spooky feeling.
JB: On that subject, have you ever found yourself at productions of “Fiddler on the Roof” that have made you cringe?
SH: Oh, yes. My wife and I went on a “Fiddler” tour. It was being done simultaneously in London, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Helsinki. We just went from one to the other. The one in Copenhagen, was terrible. We were told there had been a kind of battle between the two directors with this theater company that both wanted to do it. One of them was given the assignment and then he went on vacation to prepare for his production. While he was away, the other director did the show. He didn’t understand it and he did awful things to it. My wife and I couldn’t believe what we saw. It was just awful. We cringed.
JB: Where did the title of the show come from?
SH: We had long list of titles. As a matter-of-fact, the title that originally we wanted to give it was “Where Papa Came From”, because Joe Stein’s father and Jerry Bock’s father and my father all came from different places in Europe. That was one of the titles we had, but we made a long list of titles. One of us had seen the Marc Chagall paintings (The Green Violinist and Le Violiniste) with the fiddle-player who looks, actually, he’s not standing on a roof, he’s actually suspended a little bit above it. But, it looks like he’s standing on the roof. So, that was also one of our titles.
Then one day, Hal Prince who was producing the show, came to us and he said, “Guys, I need a title.” So, we showed him the list. He ran his finger down the list and when he got to “Fiddler on the Roof”, he said, “Aha! This suggests music and I want people to know the show is a musical.” So, that’s the title he chose.
And, by the way, Joe Stein and I, we have very different memories of that particular story. Joe insists that when Hal Prince saw the list, he said, “What’s number 7? Whatever number 7 is, that’s going to be the title of the show.” I said, “Joe, Hal would never do that!”
Le Violiniste by Marc Chagall
JB: You’re one of the Broadway greats. What are your thoughts about why so many of the great musical theatre composers are or were Jewish?
SH: My thought about that is that those of us who were brought up in a, more or less, orthodox synagogue are very much used to a very emotional kind of singing that takes place in those services. So, we grow up with that in our head.
The other thing is that, at the end of the 19th century, the beginning of the 20th century, there were many professions that were barred to Jewish people. There were things they wanted to do but they weren’t allowed to. But, they were allowed to entertain. Once people like Irving Berlin established themselves, they were beacons for other people to follow. Other people who had talent that – okay, if I can’t be this,if I can’t be that, maybe I can go into the entertainment business. I think that that was one of the reasons that so many shows were written by Jewish people.
JB: Sheldon, thank you very much for your time.
Taken from an interview first published in February this year
The London Festival of Cabaret opens this week and runs for a fortnight across the city. Featuring a line-up from both sides of the Atlantic you can expect legendary names getting up close to a microphone, singing songs that they love (and may also have composed) and reaching out beyond the spotlight to share stories with an audience.
Unlike a staged musical the atmosphere couldn’t be more relaxed – and over a cocktail or glass of wine, maybe with a bite to eat too, listening to an inspirational performer either singing beautifully or sharing a sparkling anecdote makes for a charming evening.
As the final preparations were being drawn up for Tuesday’s opening night, I caught up with Festival Patron and Oscar-winning lyricist Don Black to talk about his love for the art-form.
JB: Don, what drew you to supporting the Festival?
DB: I’ve always, for as long as I can remember, loved cabaret. When I was managing Matt Monroe, all those years ago, I used to go to those northern clubs and cabaret clubs which were rife in the ’60’s. Places like Talk of the Town, I used to love the atmosphere.
When I started going to America a lot, I used go to all the cabaret places in New York. Lots of things drew me to these places.
You would get singers there who sang the different songs, special material, witty songs. Songs you hear very often. No one in cabaret sings My Way or those out and out popular songs. You get some very, very interesting and intriguing artists.
In New York I used to go and see a guy named Oscar Brown Jr., wherever he appeared. In fact I was discussing him only the other day with Van Morrison, who is a huge fan of his, so is Paul Jones, and many people.
I used to go and see Matt Dennis who wrote great songs like Angel Eyes and Let’s Get Away From It All.
I just like that closeness, the intimacy of the cabaret room. I’m delighted that so much is going on in London, in cabaret. I go to the Crazy Coqs quite often along with the St. James and I go to The Pheasantry too. The other night at The Pheasantry I saw Charles Strouse, the man who wrote Annie and Bye Bye Birdie. Now, you tell me where you can go see a guy, nearly 87 years old, talking for 2 hours and sharing anecdotes about Jule Styne and Hal Prince singing his songs?
Also, I really like the idea of them not being great singers! I like watching the song writers, like Strouse, who’s not a great piano player, not a great singer. You get so much heart and so much emotion in those couple of hours. It’s a different kind of evening. Cabaret really is a great love of mine.
I recently saw Anne Reid at the Crazy Coqs. Now Anne is a great example of someone and she won’t mind me saying this, who really is not a great singer. But she’s a great actress, and therefore a great story-teller.
JB: What are your thoughts on the younger cabaret artistes, as compared to those who do cabaret on the back of longer established careers?
DB: What you get from young artists, that you may not get from the older people, is new material. You do get the younger people, they’ll find a song from a failed musical. You think, “Oh isn’t that beautiful.” They can be full of surprises.
But of course the more seasoned a performer is, the more they’ve got more to draw on and of course you can feel for them too. You are close up. So when you see a person in their 60’s and 70’s singing a song about years gone by or missed opportunities, you cannot help but be moved. It is very touching when you see Anne Reid, who’s I don’t know nearly 80 now, singing a Barbara Cook song. You get the goosebumps. And as I said about Charles Strouse, when he went into The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow, I mean, god almighty it was phenomenal!
I saw Mitch Winehouse at the Hippodrome a few weeks ago, Amy’s dad. He really put through with about a 12 piece orchestra, and he was terrific. So interesting and of course lots of anecdotes about Amy. It was very personal and also very touching.
JB: So – is it about the songs or the story-telling?
DB: Being a lyric writer I’ve always gone for the story teller. It’s interesting because Tony Bennett’s favourite singer and he’s often said this and it says a lot, is Louis Armstrong. Sinatra’s favourite singer was Fred Astaire. These people aren’t known for singing but they are known for storytelling. You hang on every word when these people sing. That’s what I like about cabaret, you don’t have to be the greatest singer, but you just have to get your story across. That’s why with people like Lorna Luft, you hang on every comma.
JB: Don, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, and enjoy the Festival!
Aside from cabaret, Don also spoke at length about his song-writing career and part 2 of this fascinating conversation will be published shortly.
The London Festival Of Cabaret – Celebrating Song opens on 28th April and continues at venues across the capital until 11th May. Confirmed artists appearing include Kerry Ellis, Barb Jungr, Janie Dee and Scott Alan (amongst many others) and you can also watch some of today’s younger stars such as Jamie Parker and Caroline Sheen branching out onto the capital’s cabaret circuit.
There is an array of all-American talent squished onto the Menier Chocolate Factory stage that is both formidable and incomprehensible. From Mandy Patinkin, arguably the finest Sondheim interpreter of his generation, to Broadway back-catalogistas like Judy Kaye and John McMartin, this is the stuff of dreams for many producers. Such a pity, then, that they […]
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