Last week we talked about TEVYA, the 1939 film version of the play TEVYA DER MILKHIKER by Sholom (or Sholem, depending on your source) Aleichem.
Yes, TEVYA with an “A,” not Tevye with an “E” as we’re used to seeing it in Playbills and liner notes for FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.
The Yiddish-language film’s subtitles told us that Tevya, after being ordered to leave his little village, muttered to himself “Get thee out” a couple of times. Biblical scholars will tell you Genesis 12:1 said that these three words were among the many God spoke to Abram.
For me, “Get thee out” reminded me of the three words that appear in the middle and end of a song that had been originally slated for FIDDLER: “When Messiah Comes.”
Sheldon Harnick, its lyricist, has often said that this song received a great response at backers’ auditions and helped raised the $376,000 that got FIDDLER up and running in late summer 1964.
And yet, “When Messiah Comes” was cut during the second tryout engagement in Washington, DC. This surprised and disappointed not only Harnick and his composer Jerry Bock, but also producer Hal Prince, director-choreographer Jerome Robbins and especially star Zero Mostel, who said it was his favorite song in the show.
I was first aware that FIDDLER originally sported “When Messiah Comes” before I ever saw the show. Back then, I inferred that “Sabbath Prayer” had replaced it.
I assumed that during the first tryout engagement in Detroit, the original Friday night service showed Tevye, Golde and their five daughters requesting God to make their lives easier by having the long-awaited Messiah arrive. The reason it was dropped, I guessed, was that a more religious song that made no demands on the Deity was required.
However, when I finally saw FIDDLER, I immediately knew otherwise. For near show’s end, after Mendel, another evicted Anatevkan, said, “Rabbi, we’ve been waiting for the Messiah to come all our lives. Wouldn’t this be a good time for him to come?” Tevye had undoubtedly stepped forward and sung “When Messiah Comes.”
The song didn’t reach the general public until 1966, after Herschel Bernardi had recorded an album of ten FIDDLER songs and had chosen “When Messiah Comes” as one of them. Bernardi, who some months earlier had become the third Broadway Tevye, did a glorious rendition that made the song sound eminently worthy and – dare I say it? – on par with the other excellent songs that were then being sung at the Imperial Theatre eight times a week.
I was so moved by the song – and puzzled at its excision – that I wrote Hal Prince and asked him what had happened. (I also added that I was looking forward to seeing his next production: THE GIRLS UPSTAIRS with a score by Stephen Sondheim and a book by James Goldman.)
Prince wrote me and said that Mostel’s rendition was too “lugubrious,” a word that sent me to Webster’s, where I learned that it meant “sad and dismal.”
(By the way, Prince took the opportunity to say he would NOT be doing THE GIRLS UPSTAIRS, which turned out to be only partly true; no, he neither produced nor staged a musical by that title, but he did direct and raise the money for the next iteration of the show, which by that time had been renamed FOLLIES.)
(And what am I bid for this letter?)
Seven years after FIDDLER’s premiere – while, not so incidentally, it was still running on Broadway – Harnick sang “When Messiah Comes” when he and his work were celebrated in the LYRICS & LYRICISTS series at the 92nd Street Y. Luckily for those of us who weren’t there, it was recorded live. Thus the song can be heard on Masterworks Broadway’s Deluxe Collector’s Edition of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, where it’s included as a bonus track. On its own terms, “When Messiah Comes” is a magnificent song, and you’d be wise to become acquainted with it.
It certainly gets off to a fine start. “When Messiah comes,” Harnick sang, “He will say to us ‘I apologize that I took so long.’”
How many songs stop the show from its first line? It happened here, as the attendees immediately roared with laughter and even applauded. Perhaps they too, when hearing the title of the song for the first time, assumed as I had that it would be somber prayer and were pleased to find otherwise.
That laughter and applause lasted a full ten seconds. Harnick was so delighted that he chuckled.
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 as they did after “You were hard to reunite, but everything is going to be all right.”
On those last seven words, composer Jerry Bock provided a sprightly series of notes that underlined the comedy. Those notes were also set to Harnick’s later observation for Messiah: “What a day and what a blow! How terrible I felt, you’ll never know.”
“When Messiah comes, he will say to us, “I was worried sick if you’d last or not, and I spoke to God and said, ‘Would that be fair, if Messiah came and there was no one there?’”
More laughter, more applause and even a “Whooo!” Yes, a “Whooo!” can be heard six or seven times during a performance of a 21st century Broadway musical, but such an overreaction was virtually (and literally) unheard of then.
And yet, Alisa Solomon, in WONDER OF WONDERS, her magnificent study of FIDDLER, saw a problem here – that the lyrics referred, albeit “obliquely, to the Holocaust.”
The audience would laugh some more – and was also quieted for a few serious moments – but returned to laughter at the end when Messiah urged his followers “So be patient and devout…. and gather up your things and get thee out!”
Twenty-three seconds of applause! In fact, there may well have been more, but the recording’s engineers faded the handclapping to silence.
Did it get that much applause in Detroit? Probably not, for as Harnick has observed, “in the context (of the show), the song didn’t work.” “Mostel hollered,” Solomon reported. Harnick also said “From the stage he couldn’t see that” it didn’t land.
As Solomon succinctly wrote, “The song had to go, the authors understood, because at a moment of pathos the audience could not accept a wry comic number.”
Makes sense. If you were suddenly thrown out of your home and were going to an unfamiliar place, possibly one where people didn’t speak your language, and where you had no home in sight, you might not be in the mood to make a series of funny remarks. You’d probably be more inclined if someone started characterizing the Messiah in very human terms “This is no time for jokes!”
As any veteran of Broadway musicals will tell you, a very worthy song is often dropped from a show not because it’s terrible (although, Lord knows, that’s occasionally been the case) but because it’s wrong for the moment. So to answer Mendel’s question – “Rabbi, wouldn’t this be a good time for the Messiah to come?” the answer is “No, this is the time to end FIDDLER on the appropriately serious note as people must leave their homes for the unknown.”
But any time at ALL would be a good time for you to experience all of “When Messiah Comes.”
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.