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Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof

by Alisa Solomon

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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Alisa Solomon's richly detailed Wonder of Wonders ; A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof (New York : Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, 2013), tells the tale of how the now iconic Broadway musical grew from stories by Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem (born Sholom Rabinowitz in Pereyeslav, Russian Ukraine, in 1859) about Tevye the Milkman and his daughters in their village in nineteenth-century Czarist Russia, living with the continuing challenge of maintaining religious and cultural traditions. From the first story, 'Tevye Strikes It Rich' (1894) to the opening of the musical itself in 1964, and several revivals (1976, 1981, 1990), the shaping of Jewish tradition within tradition is the triumph of this book. ( )
  chuck_ralston | Dec 31, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
The story of Tevye, the milkman from Anatevka, is known all over the world, but not many know that he first became well known decades before "Fiddler on the Roof" hit the Broadway stage or the big screen. In "Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof" by Alisa Solomon, we learn of his origins in the simple yet beloved stories written by Sholem-Aleichem (meaning "Peace unto you" or, more colloquially, "How do you do?"), the pen name of Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich (1859-1916). His upbringing in his Ukrainian shetl provided many of the characters he would go on to write about. This is not the story of "Fiddler on the Roof", instead it is a captivating and informative look at Jewish theater, Yiddish heritage, and how one man almost singlehandedly provided a culture with immense pride of a history that was in danger of slipping away.

Tevye is a good and proud man, he loves his family, and he is especially gratified by the rich history of his ancestors. Unfortunately, all that may be lost due to war and bigotry. His daughters defy him and some in his village consider him old-fashioned. He loves tradition but knows that in order to move forward, some things must change. All of this is what endeared the character of Tevye to the readers of the Jewish weekly newspapers beginning in 1883. He was a part of the old brought into the new and that sense of belonging that was missing in their daily lives. Sholem-Aleichem was looking for a way to not only put food on the table and a roof over the head of his family, but also a way to preserve the past. If it also made people laugh, then even better. His stories made him famous and relatively rich. He toured the U.S. telling his Tevye stories to much acclaim. Around 1910 he had the idea of creating a play that featured his hero. His plays continued to be performed into the late 1950's to packed houses.

In 1961 three men, music writer Jerry Bock, lyricist Sheldon Harnick, and playwright Joseph Stein, met to discuss the possibility of a musical based on the Tevye stories. That inauspicious meeting was the beginning of what became the phenomenal "Fiddler on the Roof". The director Jerome Robbins was chosen to bring the story and songs to life. Although he had reservations about the story it ultimately meant more to him than he could ever know. Robbins is shown to be a somewhat maniacal director, micromanaging set and costume design, choreography, and storyline to the point of madness and in spite of this the first Broadway production is a rousing success.

The author spends little time discussing the movie adaption of the play and, seemingly instead, spends a great deal of time showing how the Broadway show and at least one amateur production across the country have caused such social discord that law enforcement was sometimes required. Not many people think of "Fiddler" as a social and political hot potato but through the authors extensive research, it appears that it really is. As a predominantly African-American school in Brooklyn prepared their production, a local (and hastily organized) Jewish group became outraged that "their" story was being told by non-Jewish actors (even though they were pre-teen at the time). That's how much this show means culturally even to this day.

So many different aspects of this simple story are covered in this book that it is almost impossible to list them. Who knew that Tevye could be so universal and complicated?

"Wonder of Wonders" is an excellent look at not only the history of Jewish theater as it relates to Jewish culture and how important it is to keep any traditions alive. Highly recommended to anyone interested in musical theater, Jewish social and cultural history via the writings of Sholem-Aleichem, and the many, many fans of "Fiddler on the Roof".

As an interesting side note: Through reading more about Sholem-Aleichem, I discovered that his granddaughter, Bel Kaufman, wrote "Up the Down Staircase". The tradition of writing continued! ( )
  TheFlamingoReads | Dec 1, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
The musical, Fiddler on the Roof, is much beloved by audiences the world over for its humor, wisdom and bathos. So ominpresent has it become, and so much has it entered into our general cultural currency, that we're barely cognizant when we hear snippets of music or dialogue in our daily lives. Musical theater lovers will find much here to delight. The origins in Sholem Aleichem's Tevye stories, the development of lyrics, music and script, its reception the world over. I especially loved the author's use of the telling quote from original source material such as letters, playbills, and interviews. The prose is lovely and even, at times, lyrical. This is a magesterial work, containing ample detail. Unfortunately, even for this enthusiastic reader, sometimes the detail became a bit overwhelming. Mine was a review copy, which did not have an index. I suspect this lack may have played into it. Future readers, I'm sure will delight in dipping into varius points of the book sampling here and there as their delight takes them. Recommended for lovers of theater and musicals, and those intersted in the history and impact of Jewish humor and stories in America.
  michigantrumpet | Nov 21, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
In the fascinating and well-researched book, Alisa Solomon tells the comprehensive story of the Broadway music, "Fiddler on the Roof," from Sholem Aleichem's decision to become a Yiddish writer to the present day popularity of the show. The book is full of details about Yiddish literature and Yiddish theater as well as to process of creating a successful musical. Solomon discusses everything from casting decisions and set design issues to songs that didn't make it through the previews and the cultural connotations of Fiddler on the theater-going world today. Solomon writes well -- her style is informative, clear and, often, humorous.

As the 50th anniversary of this musical approaches, I recommend this book to history aficionados and fans of Fiddler. ( )
  Writer_Librarian | Oct 21, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
As author Alisa Solomon states quite clearly in her introduction, the musical 'Fiddler on the Roof' has become a cultural phenomenon. Not only is it loved and repeated throughout the world, but its characters and themes have become shorthand for the Jewish experience, parenthood, and scores of other subjects. In Wonder of Wonders, she takes a look at why.

Wonder of Wonders begins by exploring the original stories of Tevye the dairyman and their author, Sholem Rabinowitz (Sholem-Aleichem). This enlightening section segways directly into the repeated appearances of Sholem-Aleichem's works on stages around the world, before the conception of the Broadway musical. An in-depth history of the show, from first proposal, through painful previews, to the finished product make riveting reading as director Robbins and company try to pull the project together. As a big fan of the musical, I was amazed to see how many of the songs and sequences I love so much did not become part of the show until weeks into previews, and nearly were not in at all. The last segment of the book looks at how the show has been revived, re-imagined, and reused in the intervening 50 years, with some quite personal results.

It is difficult to describe exactly why 'Fiddler on the Roof' is so important. Solomon does a good job of finding at least some of the reasons why it fall so close to the heart. As case in point, simply reading about some of these scenes made my start to cry. That means something.
  Magus_Manders | Oct 16, 2013 |
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For Marilyn,
miracle of miracles
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INTRODUCTION
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A Little Bit of This,
A Little Bit of That
Glenn Beck was welling up as he neared the conclusion of his Restoring Courage rally in Jerusalem in August 2011.
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But from its opening in 1964 until today, sometimes by design and often by accident, Fiddler takes on an inordinate cultural utility that no other musical sustains. (p. 230)
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0805092609, Hardcover)

A sparkling and eye-opening history of the Broadway musical that changed the world

In the half-century since its premiere, Fiddler on the Roof has had an astonishing global impact. Beloved by audiences the world over, performed from rural high schools to grand state theaters, Fiddler is a supremely potent cultural landmark.

In a history as captivating as its subject, award-winning drama critic Alisa Solomon traces how and why the story of Tevye the milkman, the creation of the great Yiddish writer Sholem-Aleichem, was reborn as blockbuster entertainment and a cultural touchstone, not only for Jews and not only in America. It is a story of the theater, following Tevye from his humble appearance on the New York Yiddish stage, through his adoption by leftist dramatists as a symbol of oppression, to his Broadway debut in one of the last big book musicals, and his ultimate destination—a major Hollywood picture.

Solomon reveals how the show spoke to the deepest conflicts and desires of its time: the fraying of tradition, generational tension, the loss of roots. Audiences everywhere found in Fiddler immediate resonance and a usable past, whether in Warsaw, where it unlocked the taboo subject of Jewish history, or in Tokyo, where the producer asked how Americans could understand a story that is “so Japanese.”

Rich, entertaining, and original, Wonder of Wonders reveals the surprising and enduring legacy of a show about tradition that itself became a tradition.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:37:43 -0400)

A revelatory history of the influential Broadway musical production explores its considerable international impact and how it has become a powerful cultural landmark on both professional and amateur stages throughout the world.

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