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Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, "Fiddler On The Roof"

Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick
"Fiddler On The Roof"
RCA (1964)

1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die

An advanced warning that you'll get used to (especially when we get to "Sondheim" in Moon's book): I don't like musicals. I've already established this with "The West Side Story." Admittedly, it's tough to make a plot not seem contrived when it's delivered almost entirely in song, which is why I also hate "Glee." I had mixed feelings regarding Sheldon Harnick's lyrics during "A Fiddler On The Roof," but Jerry Bock's score made this play a lot of fun.

The first thing that doesn't make sense in Harnick's tale is the title. The vocal intro tries to explain how everyone living in the fictional town of Anatevka is balancing on a precipice, which never really gets established, like a "fiddler on the roof." Perhaps it's a colloquialism. I don't know. The soundtrack never makes it clear and my girlfriend (someone who DOES like musicals) couldn't tell me. If the title does nothing else worthwhile, it establishes a need for a fiddler in the score. The fiddle serves as the theme throughout, leading into the rousing opening number "Tradition," and serving sadder purposes at the end of "Sunrise, Sunset."

The fun in "Fiddler On The Roof" however comes from strings aside from the fiddle. As the play takes place in an Eastern European Jewish community, it only makes sense that Klezmer music appears frequently. Even if you've never heard the term "Klezmer," you know it based on all media representations of Jewish weddings. Imagine glasses being broken and people shouting "Mazel Tov." No doubt you'll hear some swirling violins and "oom-pah" blasts from a trumpet? That's Klezmer music.

Bock builds the party into his score. The play's most fun points, such as the famous "If I Were A Rich Man" and the upbeat bridge of "The Dream" feature Klezmer moments. Harnick does deserve some credit for his songwriting in "Rich Man." The syllables that protagonist Tevye issues following the song's title phrase might seem like garble, but it's actually a form of Hebrew prayer called Davening. Zero Mostel's accented baritone makes him the perfect actor for Tevye, and the star of these recordings.

On the downside, the soundtrack doesn't quite add up to a plot, by itself at least. Obviously there are some gaps where there would be normal conversation onstage, but the last several tracks suggest a sad ending to the play (although "Finale" ends things on the upswing). I may be completely wrong, but I certainly expected a happy ending. I guess the point is that although Moon recommends just the soundtracks to musicals, it may be best to just see the whole damn thing.

INTERESTING FACT: Mostel is acclaimed for his portrayal of Tevye, but his difficulty as an actor often pushed directors to go with other actors for the role. Mostel would frequently improvise lines out of boredom and even stop performances to deliver sports scores.

If I Were A Rich Man by Fiddler On The Roof on Grooveshark

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