When developing “Fiddler on the Roof,” lyricist Sheldon Harnick and composer Jerry Bock worked separately, with Bock sending Harnick recorded melodies, or as he called them, “melodic guesses” as to what was called for in the scene.
In one such tape recording, as revealed in the new documentary “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles,” Bock introduces a plunky piano melody with an optimistic laugh.
“It’s fun, and it’s a little musical comedy, but it might be a kind of tour de force without being cheap,” he says on the tape.
And with the musical groundwork laid, Harnick began writing the lyrics to what would become “If I Were a Rich Man,” one of the most well-known songs in musical theater.
Since its 1964 Broadway debut, “Fiddler on the Roof” has had five Broadway revivals, as well as international productions, a film and amateur productions in countless schools and community theaters. All told, the show has been performed every day, somewhere around the world, since it opened, according to the documentary.
Harnick spoke with Broadway News, ahead of the documentary’s release on Aug. 23, about the continued resonance of the musical and how the creative team arrived at the final version.
Broadway News: How does it feel to still be talking about ‘Fiddler’ more than 50 years after its Broadway premiere?
Harnick: Because the show constantly seems fresh to me, I never mind talking about it. We loved writing it, and I love seeing it these days. We’ve seen many different productions, and I’m always interested to see what a director finds that will be new and exciting. Whenever there’s a production that’s available to me, if I can possibly get to see it, I will go see it.
BN: When you were working on the musical, did you think it would have this kind of lasting impact?
Harnick: No, we certainly didn’t because it was a musical based on a Jewish family. We were very worried about it. We had no idea what kind of an audience there would be for it, but from the very first production we discovered that there was a large audience for it. That was a wonderful surprise.
BN: What was the first tryout of the show in Detroit like?
Harnick: It was like a tryout of any new show, where you see what works, what doesn’t work, and it’s always sad when you have to throw out something that you love. We had songs that worked very well at our backer’s auditions, but in the context of the show itself they didn’t work.
BN: One of those cut songs, which you mention in the documentary, was called “When Messiah Comes,” a satirical song in which God apologizes to the people of Anatevka. This was later replaced by the song “Anatevka.”
Harnick: It’s a song that I love, but it’s essentially a comedy song and we had it in a spot where dramatically what was going on was very sad. So the fact that Tevye was attempting to sing a comedy song, it turned out made no sense at all. We saw that very quickly and we had to cut it. The audience certainly didn’t buy it as a comedy song; there was no laughter.
BN: The film also mentions members of the creative team drawing inspiration from Hasidic weddings. Did you attend a wedding?
Harnick: Whenever possible, we went to a Hasidic wedding. I think Jerry Robbins took more from those than we did, because the dancing was surprisingly vigorous. There was one man who walked around with a bottle on his head. And Robbins was fascinated by that. And of course he used that to create a dance in “Fiddler,” the bottle dance.
Broadway News: Are you still an active theatergoer?
Harnick: I’m a Tony voter, so I’m required to see all of the Broadway shows. What’s painful is that we don’t get to see nearly enough Off-Broadway shows. But I see all the Broadway shows.
Broadway News: What do you make of the past decade of theater?
Harnick: It’s like the last 50 years. It’s uneven. There are good things, there are bad things. But there’s always enough to make it worthwhile to go to the theater.