How Tevye the Dairyman Became an International Superstar

By Lisa Higgins

Tevye the Dairyman leaps off the pages of Sholem Aleichem’s collected stories with such exuberance that he seems destined for worldwide renown – like many other larger-than-life literary characters. But even the indomitable Tevye could have remained locked in history and near obscurity if Fiddler on the Roof had never moved beyond its status as one of the world’s most unlikely musicals.

Sholem Aleichem, born Sholem Rabinovitz in Ukraine in 1859, was a highly regarded writer of Yiddish stories, novels, and plays prior to making his way to America in 1907.  His first few plays in his new country were “both artistic and financial failures…rejected by the New York Yiddish theater establishment.”1

Nonetheless, Aleichem pursued adapting his Tevye stories and monologues into a play for the stage. In a letter to a fellow playwright he wrote: “The play contains both tragic and comic situations, jokes, songs, breathtaking scenes, and singing, but the main thing is that from the first act to the last curtain, Tevye pulls out all the stops, the audience laughs and gets to love him more and more.”2  He predicted that the role would bring him and the actor who played the role fame and fortune. In 1919, three years after Aleichem died, Tevye took the stage  — and the play remains “a classic of the Jewish stage to this day.”

The role of Tevye in the musical Fiddler on the Roof did indeed bring fame and fortune to many actors, first and foremost was Yiddish actor and comic genius Zero Mostel, who originated the role on Broadway. Other great Broadway character actors such as Herschel Bernardi, Theodore Bikel and more recently Alfred Molina and Harvey Fierstein received acclaim for their portrayals. Israeli actor Chaim Topol, who portrayed Tevye in the London production and the 1971 Academy Award winning film, subsequently played the role in revivals and tours.

Before Fiddler on the Roof became an international phenomenon the team that adapted Aleichem’s Tevye stories into the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof knew that they would have hard sell to investors and audiences. Joseph Stein, a Broadway veteran whose book won the Tony Award said: “I couldn’t conceive of going to a producer and saying, ‘We have this idea of a show about a lot of Jews in Russia. They have a pogrom and get thrown out of their village.’”

Stein, along with Lyricist Sheldon Harnick and Librettist Jerry Bock – all successful Broadway artists – chose Jerome Robbins, the choreographic genius responsible for West Side Story, to direct and choreograph the new musical. In Broadway Song and Story, Harnick recalls:
“Robbins kept asking and hammering at us for months: ‘What is this show about?’ If we gave him an answer like, ‘Well, it’s about this dairy man, and he has three daughters,’ he would reply, ‘No…. We have to find out what it is that gives these stories their power.’ I don’t know (who) finally said it: ‘Do you know what this play is about? It’s about the dissolution of a way of life.’
‘If that’s what it’s about,” Robbins said, ‘then we have to show more of the way of life that is about to dissolve. We have to have an opening number about the traditions that are going to change. This number has to be like a tapestry against which the entire show will play.’ And that was the beginning of ‘Tradition.’”

After previews in Detroit and Washington, D.C., Fiddler opened on Broadway in 1964 and was the first musical ever to surpass 3,000 performances (a record that held for almost 10 years). According to the New York Times, “By 1971, when the production became Broadway’s longest-running musical… it had already been produced in 32 countries in 16 languages.” Nominated for ten Tony Awards, winning nine, including Best Musical, Score, Book, Direction and Choreography, Fiddler has since spawned four Broadway revivals and a film adaptation that won three Academy Awards.

PSF Director Dennis Razze reflects that: “Tevye’s trademark is his humorous discussions with God throughout the play and his ability to see issues on ‘one hand and the other hand.’ Tevye talks with God as he talks with an old friend with familiarity and reverence at the same time.

“Tevye is an everyman with whom we can easily identify —a man who has five daughters, an irascible wife, and a partially lame horse.

“We all see part of ourselves in Tevye. When things go wrong, when we hit a rocky road, we say ‘why me?’”

Razze knows Tevye and the musical well: he directed Fiddler at American University in 1983, and he later directed it for DeSales University’s Act 1 in 1990. Now 24 years later he is thrilled to being directing Fiddler once again: “Every time I direct something I directed previously it’s different because I’m different – I have a lot more life experience to draw from. With the superb cast of professionals we have assembled, supplemented by stellar local talent and students, I expect this to be a deep, rich production.”

The production will feature the largest cast ever PSF has put on stage – 35 actors, singers, and dancers.

All professional productions are required to reproduce Jerome Robbins’ original choreography – “which is a great thing because it’s some of the finest choreography ever created for a musical,” Razze says.  The famed “To Life” number where the Jewish villagers of Anatevka face off against a group of Russian Cossacks is one of the strongest displays of stamina and athletic dancing in the show and represents two cultures pitted against each other. Robbins’ famous choreography will be taught to the large cast of dancers by the talented Steven Casey, who choreographed last season’s Oklahoma!

Fiddler on the Roof will be a great opening to our 24th season,” says Casey Gallagher, PSF managing director. “With the creative team we have working on it and under Dennis’ leadership, I think it will be a production our audiences will enjoy when they see it – and enjoy again in their memories for years after.”


  1. Weitzner, J. (1994). Sholem Aleichem in the Theater. (1st ed., Vol. 0, p. 5). Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.
  2. Ibid., 75.