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A Tale of Two Fiddler Songs

A Tale of Two Fiddler Songs

By Peter Filichia —

As we celebrate the 47th anniversary of Fiddler on the Roof this week (on Sept. 22, to be precise), let’s take a look at its most famous song — and one of its least famous songs.

In 1964, when Fiddler debuted at the Imperial, Broadway was still in the era when a hit musical automatically seemed to include at least one hit song. The previous few years had seen “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” and “Put on a Happy Face” (Bye Bye Birdie) , “If Ever I Would Leave You” (Camelot) , “As Long as He Needs Me” (Oliver!) and, needless to say, the title song from Hello, Dolly!

Even shows that weren’t big hits would occasionally yield a winner: “Hey, Look Me Over!” (Wildcat), “Make Someone Happy” (Do Re Mi) and “Once upon a Time” (All-American).

That Louis Armstrong’s “Hello, Dolly!” hit Number One the week of May 9, 1964 (in the era when the Beatles were white-hot.) was impressive. It would help the show break the long-run record that My Fair Lady set almost a decade before.

But Dolly! wasn’t the longest-running musical that opened in the ‘60s. Fiddler was. For while Dolly! mustered 2,844 performances, Fiddler ran 3,242 – or almost a year longer. And the funny thing is that Fiddler also yielded the Biggest Hit Song from a ‘60s musical.

True, big hits were later to come via the title song of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and Promises, Promises. (The latter show would also score with “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.”) Mame would trot out “If He Walked into My Life” and Man of La Mancha would dream “The Impossible Dream.” The Roar of The Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd would produce three well-played hits: “The Joker,” “Feeling Good” (which is still being used in a TV commercial right now) and “Who Can I Turn To?” And let’s not forget Hair, that groomed such hits as “Aquarius,” “Good Morning, Starshine,” “Let the Sunshine In” and the title song.

Despite all these, Fiddler had the biggest hit song from a ‘60s musical — and I don’t mean Kate Smith’s rendition of “Now I Have Everything.” For when you think of it, isn’t its “Sunrise, Sunset” the most enduring song of all of the above? In the last four decades, have you ever been to a wedding where the band hasn’t struck up this tender song?

It wasn’t meant to be a hit, but “just” a Jerry Bock melody and Sheldon Harnick lyric well-wedded to Joseph Stein’s book. Tevye (Zero Mostel) and Golde (Maria Karnilova) shared their inner thoughts as they saw their daughter Tzeitel (Joanna Merlin) marry the tailor Motel Kamzoil (Austin Pendleton). “Is this the little girl I carried? Is this the little boy at play?” Tevye sang, before Golde mused, “I don’t remember growing older; when did they?” Which parent can’t relate to that universal truth? Parents throughout history always will. So, in between many future sunrises and sunsets, we’ll continue to hear this song.

Now for the far less famous Fiddler song: “When Messiah Comes.” It may not sound familiar to even the most devoted Fiddler devotee, because it was dropped during the Washington tryout. But in Steven Suskin’s Show Tunes – which lists songs from famous musicals and/or famous composer/lyricists – he asterisked the songs that he found particularly worthy. In his Fiddler section, he put a nice star next to “When Messiah Comes.”

The title may suggest that it’s going to be as reverential in tone and tempo as Fiddler’s “Sabbath Prayer.” No – at least not at first; the song starts out charming and wry. It came near show’s end, when Mendel (Leonard Frey), the rabbi’s son, said to his father, “We’ve been waiting for the Messiah all our lives. Wouldn’t this be a good time for him to come?”

Tevye then stepped forward and sang, “When Messiah comes/ He will say to us / ‘I apologize that I took so long / But I had a little trouble finding you / Over here a few, and over there a few. You were hard to reunite – but everything is going to be all right.’” (How endearing!)

The first recording of “When Messiah Comes” came in 1966. Herschel Bernardi, the third Broadway Tevye, was so acclaimed in the role that he was asked to record his own album of the show by Columbia Records. While Bernardi didn’t include five songs from the score, he made room for this cut-out. (Perhaps we’ll get this recording out of the vaults.)

In 1967, when I heard the song, I wrote Harold Prince, Fiddler’s producer, to ask why it was dropped (and also to ask how that Sondheim-Goldman musical about old showgirls was coming along). He wrote back, “‘When Messiah Comes’ was dropped because it was theatrically too lugubrious and the shape of it too long to sustain at that point in the story.” (He also wrote, “I am not involved in the Sondheim-Goldman musical.” Lucky for all of us that he changed his mind and eventually produced and co-directed the show that would be called Follies.)

In 1971, Sheldon Harnick himself performed “When Messiah Comes” in an evening dedicated to his work. (It’s since been added to Fiddler on the Roof’s Broadway Deluxe Collector’s Edition.) After Harnick sang, “When Messiah Comes / He will say to us / ‘I apologize that I took so long,’” he could not go on because the audience roared with laughter. He even had to chuckle himself. Then, after he sang the Messiah’s next lines – “‘But I had a little trouble finding you / Over here a few and over there a few’” – again, the crowd roared.

The audience would laugh some more – although the laughter lessened when Harnick told of so-called royalty and the troubled and migratory history of the Jews: “Many men said to us, get thee out. Kings they were. Gone they are. We’re still here.”

But the song does become more and more reverential (if not lugubrious, as Prince alleged). Still, it’s so enchanting a song that one wonders if it should have stayed in. Decide for yourself through Fiddler on the Roof’s Broadway Deluxe Collector’s Edition – although you may go through many a sunrise and sunset before you make up your mind.

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia;. His new book Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959-2009 is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com.

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