When Fiddler on the Roof premiered on Broadway in 1964, Irving Howe panned it in Commentary, referring to Anatevka as “the cutest shtetl we’ve never had.” Philip Roth characterized it as “shtetl kitsch.” And behind the scenes, as Saul Jay Singer writes, there was a good deal of turmoil—Marc Chagall refused to design the set; the lead actor, Zero Mostel, repeatedly clashed with the director Jerome Robbins. In tracing the play’s colorful history, Singer points to possible reasons behind its enduring popularity.
The original working title for the show was The Old Country, and other rejected titles include Tevye and Not So Long Ago, Not So Far Away. It ultimately became Fiddler on the Roof based upon a painting by Marc Chagall. Jerome Robbins had met and admired Chagall for his renditions of his childhood ḥasidic community of Vitebsk, where dance and music stirred faithful devotion, themes which Robbins believed characterized the quintessence of Fiddler. Although Chagall declined an offer to design the set (he reportedly disliked the musical), it was nonetheless designed in his distinctive style and the play’s colorful logo was similarly inspired by the palette of Chagall’s paintings. . . .
Robbins went to great lengths to portray the characters and Jewish life in the shtetl with utmost authenticity, assigning various books about Jewish life in Eastern Europe to the cast as “homework.” . . . Robbins even went so far as to take the cast on trips to New York City to observe Orthodox weddings; Zero Mostel, who played Tevye and was often in conflict with Robbins, mockingly commented, “A couple of weddings in Williamsburg and that putz thinks he understands Orthodox Jews.”
As a very young child, Robbins’s parents took him to visit his widowed grandfather in [the shtetl of] Rozhanka, and he came to love his zeyde and the Yiddish songs he sang. When he detoured to Rozhanka years later, he learned that its entire Jewish population of some 120 families had been liquidated in the Holocaust, and he became inspired to bring the “Anatevka” of his childhood back to life on the Broadway stage as a way to celebrate the warmth of the now lost Jewish life he had experienced in the shtetl.
More about: American Jewish History, East European Jewry, Fiddler on the Roof, Marc Chagall