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'Fiddler' Songwriters Discuss Putting Themselves In The 'Soul Of The Characters'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies sitting in for Terry Gross.


DAVIES: The musical "Fiddler On The Roof" is back on Broadway in a revival starring Danny Burstein as Tevye, a husband and father and a milkman in Anatevka, a small Jewish village in czarist Russia. The year is 1905. The role of Tevye was originally played by Zero Mostel.


ZERO MOSTEL: (As Tevye) A fiddler on the roof - sounds crazy, no? But in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn't easy. You may ask why do we stay up there if it's so dangerous? We stay because Anatevka's our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word - tradition.


MOSTEL AND UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As Tevye and characters, singing) Tradition, tradition. Tradition. Tradition, tradition. Tradition.

DAVIES: When "Fidler" opened on Broadway in 1964, it ran for 3,242 performances which was then a Broadway record. It's since been performed around the world. On today's FRESH AIR, we'll listen back to interviews Terry recorded with the show's lyricist, Sheldon Harnick, and the late Jerry Bock, who wrote the music. Bock died in 2010. Their other musicals include "Fiorello!" and "She Loves Me." They were on FRESH AIR in 2004 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of "Fiddler" while a previous revival starring Alfred Molina was on Broadway.



Jerry Bock, when you were writing the music for "Fiddler On The Roof," how - how Jewish did you want the music to sound? How much did you want it to sound like Klezmer music and how much did you want it to sound like Broadway music?

JERRY BOCK: It never entered my mind in either case. I knew the ambience was going to be Russian and that it took place in a shtetl. But I had no compulsion to research either early Klezmer or, particularly, Russian music at the turn of that century or just before the turn of the century. The music that I hadn't been able to write with all our shows was something that I had silently deposited in my creative mind. And the opportunity to now express myself with that kind of music just opened up a flood of possibilities for me.

SHELDON HARNICK: The only piece of music that I can think of that was definitely influenced by some Jewish music was "If I Were A Rich Man" because Jerry and I had gone down to see a Hebrew Actors' Union benefit. We went down looking to see whether there were any performers in that that would be useful for our show, and there was one. There was a man named Svie Schuyler (ph) who became our innkeeper. But as part of the entertainment, a mother and daughter came out and they did a Hasidic chant all in thirds and sixths with just syllables, no actual words. And Jerry called me the next day saying he'd been so taken with this that it inspired him to write something similar.

BOCK: And that was a collaborative thing again because what affected us was both the word chant as well as the accompanying music. It's only part - I don't want to put it down because I think it's a surprising part and an endearing part of the whole song, "If I Were A Rich Man."

GROSS: So let's hear Zero Mostel from the original cast recording doing "If I Were A Rich Man."


MOSTEL: (As Tevye) Dear God, you made many, many poor people. I realize, of course, that it's no shame to be poor. But it's no great honor, either. So what would've been so terrible if I had a small fortune? (Singing) If I were a rich man, ya-ha dee-a dee-a dee-a dee-a dee-a dee-a dum (ph). All day long, I'd biddy biddy bum (ph). If I were a wealthy man. I wouldn't have to work hard, ya-ha, beeble, beeble, beeble, beeble, beeble, bubble, bum (ph). If I were a biddy, biddy rich, yidle, diddle, didle, didle (ph) man, I'd dig a big tall house with rooms by the dozen right in the middle of the town. A fine tin roof with real wooden floors below. There could be one long staircase just going up and one even longer coming down, and one more leading nowhere just for show. I'd fill my yard with chicks and turkeys and geese and ducks for the town to see and hear, squawking just as noisily as they can. And each loud (imitating chickens squawking) would land like a trumpet on the ear as if to say, here lives a wealthy man. Oh, if I were a rich man, ya-ha, deedle, deedle, deedle, beeble, beeble, bubble, bum (ph).

GROSS: Sheldon Harnick, the yidle-deedle-digga-digga-do (ph) part, (laughter), did you actually write out the syllables that you wanted Zero Mostel to sing?

HARNICK: Well, it wasn't that I necessarily wrote them for Zero, but what happened was this. When Jerry played me the music he wrote, he did the whole song in that kind of a Hasidic chant, and we decided that it would be great fun to preserve part of the chant and not just to write wall-to-wall lyrics for the song. But my problem was I don't come from a background where I was comfortable chanting in that fashion. And I thought, OK, I'll have to create some kind of syllables which give the effect of that kind of chanting. And I came up with the didle-deedle-didle-digga-digga-deedle-didle-dum (ph), which I thought was kind of fun and sounded a little like the chanting. But when we played the song for Zero, he said, I come from a background - I don't want to do the syllables you've written. Is it OK with you if I do it the way I think it should be done? And I said, absolutely. I said, can't sing it that way. So Zero did it with his - stylistically, it sounded quite...

BOCK: Authentic.

HARNICK: Authentic, yeah.

BOCK: By the way, if Sheldon had said no, absolutely not, you must do the lyric, he would've done it his way anyway.


GROSS: Was he hard or easy to work with?

BOCK: Both.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HARNICK: In terms of music, he was - although he was not a singer, he was extremely musical so in that sense, he was very easy.

And, as a matter of fact, he did me a huge favor. After he started to learn if "I Were A Rich Man," I got nervous about it because I thought most of the song is rather droll. And then I went for a serious ending, and I began to worry whether I should change the ending and make the ending droll also. So I suggested that in a conference we had one day, I think Hal Prince was there and Jerome Robbins and Zero. And Zero looked at me, he said, Sheldon, don't change the ending. If you want to - this is the man. The jokes in the song are terrific, but this is the man that you've described, the one who wants a seat by the eastern wall, who wants to be able to pray. This is the real Tevye. So he saved - we kept the ending, and I'm glad we did.

BOCK: I'm glad too.

GROSS: The only song that actually has a Yiddish word in it - "L'chaim," which is a toast to life. So Sheldon Harnick, when you were writing the lyrics, it seems to me you intentionally avoided using anything Yiddish with the exception of this song.

HARNICK: Well, there is one other song. The "Dream" uses the word Mazel Tov.

GROSS: Oh, that's true - a blessing on your head, mazel tov, mazel tov.

HARNICK: Well, there was a reason for that. Not too long before we went into rehearsal, I went to see a comedian named Lenny Bruce. I'd heard that Lenny Bruce was controversial because he used a lot of profanity and obscenities in his act, and I was curious. So I went to see him and it turned out that the obscenities and the profanities were all done as characters that he portrayed and so that they sounded like things those particular characters would actually say. And I wasn't disturbed by the profanity or the obscenity at all. What did disturb me was that when he wasn't doing the characters and he was just talking, he would throw in Yiddish words and they would elicit laughter from a few people here and there, but many of the other people in the club turned to each other and said, what'd he say? What'd he say?

So I thought it'll be probably useful to use a couple of Yiddish words in our show, in the dialogue and in the lyrics - just a couple for flavoring. But if anyone laughs when they're used then they come out. And also when they're used, they have to be used in a way that the audience will know what they mean. So of course in "To Life" there's an explanation that goes along with those words.

BOCK: You can define it.

HARNICK: Right. To life, to life, l'chaim, l'chaim. Nobody could miss that. And the word mazel tov is usually used in a setting where it's pretty clear that it means congratulations, you know?

BOCK: Unhappily, after the show was running - the original show was running, our dear star Zero would occasionally go into a matinee and use more Yiddish than we ever could've dreamed of in certain performances to sort of make him a confidant of what he thought that kind of audience was. We all - we all thought that was naughty, to put it mildly.

GROSS: (Laughter). Did you yell at him afterwards?

HARNICK: Yes, yes. Joe Stein made a terrible mistake one day. We were in the audience when he used a kind of really naughty Yiddish word. And we went backstage and Joe said to him - he said, Zero, you were wonderful today. Buddy, I couldn't have done it better.


HARNICK: And Zero was furious and he said, what do you mean by that? And Joe said - he said, Zero, do you have to add those kind of words, especially the words that have the naughty implications? And Zero kind of did what he wanted so it was another two weeks before he would take those words out. Then when he thought, OK, I've done it enough, then he took it out. So that answers your question. Yes, he was difficult. But, audiences adored him, you know? Whatever he did, usually what he did was so funny that audiences just loved him.

DAVIES: We are listening to an interview with lyricist Sheldon Harnick and the late composer Jerry Bock. Terry Gross spoke with them in 2004. We'll hear more of their conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. The musical "Fiddler On The Roof" is back on Broadway in a revival starring Danny Burstein as Tevye the milkman. Let's get back to Terry's interview with the show's composer, Jerry Bock, and its lyricist, Sheldon Harnick. They were on FRESH AIR in 2004 while a previous revival starring Alfred Molina as Tevye was on Broadway.

GROSS: Now, I want to go to another song, and that is "Do I Love You?" And...

BOCK: "Do You Love Me?"

HARNICK: "Do You Love Me?"

GROSS: "Do You Love Me?"

HARNICK: No, no, do you love me?

BOCK: We're very flattered (laughter).

GROSS: All of Tevye's daughters, like, they want to fall in love. They don't want their father Tevye to decide who they're going to marry. They don't want the matchmaker to decide it. At this point, they want to fall in love, and at least one of them already has. And she wants to marry the man she loves. And this is leading Tevye to wonder, well, what about his relationship? Does his wife love him? What is love? And he sings this song, and it's a lovely song. Sheldon Harnick, can you talk about the lyrics?

HARNICK: Yes. During rehearsal, when we were in New York, I began to feel that there was a song that would develop out of Tevye's saying, do you love me? I always thought when Golda would say, do I what, because that was - love was not something that people married for generally in those days. They married for security. They married for economic reasons, you know, companionship - but not love. So when I pictured her saying, do I what, I thought, that's very funny. But I couldn't figure out where the song went from there. And when we got to Detroit - our pre-Broadway tour - I used to take long walks every day and try and figure out what they would say. And the lyric came very slowly and in a kind of unconventional form. When I finally finished it, after about a week, I gave it to Jerry very uncertain about what I had. And I said, I know that it's - it looks more like a scene than a song, so do what you can with it, and if I have to rewrite the lyric, I will. And I was absolutely delighted when Jerry set the lyric exactly as I gave it to him.

BOCK: I just wanted to add very quickly, Terry, that the difference between Zero's "Do You Love Me?" and Alfred's is astonishing. Zero did get laughs. He approached it as almost a kind of incredulous to ask and took advantage of every humorous possibility. Alfred does it most sincerely in terms of true and real questioning. He wants to know the answer. And as a result, it's a very moving moment rather than a humorous one.


ALFRED MOLINA: (As Tevye) Golde, (singing) do you love me?

RANDY GRAFF: (As Golde, singing) Do I what?

MOLINA: (As Tevye, singing) Do you love me?

GRAFF: (As Golde, singing) Do I love you? With our daughters getting married and this trouble in the town, you're upset, you're worn out. Go inside, go lie down. Maybe it's indigestion.

MOLINA: (As Tevye, singing) Golde, I'm asking you a question. Do you love me?

GRAFF: (As Golde, singing) You're a fool.

MOLINA: (As Tevye, singing) I know. But do you love me?

GRAFF: (As Golde, singing) Do I love you?

MOLINA: (As Tevye, singing) Well?

GRAFF: (As Golde, singing) For 25 years I've washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you to children, milked the cow - after 25 years, why talk about love right now?

MOLINA: (As Tevye, singing) Golde, the first time I met you was on our wedding day. I was scared.

GRAFF: (As Golde, singing) I was shy.

MOLINA: (As Tevye, singing) I was nervous.

GRAFF: (As Golde, singing) So was I.

MOLINA: (As Tevye, singing) But my father and my mother said we'd learn to love each other. Now I'm asking - Golde, do you love me?

GRAFF: (As Golde, singing) I'm your wife.

MOLINA: (As Tevye, singing) I know. But do you love me?

GRAFF: (As Golde, singing) Do I love him?

MOLINA: (As Tevye, singing) Well?

GRAFF: (As Golde, singing) For 25 years I've lived with him, fought with him, starved with him. Twenty-five years my bed is his. If that's not love, what is?

MOLINA: (As Tevye, singing) Then you love me.

GRAFF: (As Golde, singing) I suppose I do.

MOLINA: (As Tevye, singing) And I suppose I love you to.

GRAFF AND MOLINA: (As Golde and Tevye, singing) It doesn't change a thing. But even so, after 25 years it's nice to know.

GROSS: I have to ask you the "Sunrise, Sunset" question. It's a song that became a terrible cliche for quite a while because everybody was doing it at those emotional moments when your child is finally grown up. Did you...

BOCK: My favorite cliche.

GROSS: Yes, exactly, and probably one of the most lucrative cliches, too. Did you ever think when you were writing it the kind of life the song was going to have?

HARNICK: No. Jerry had written the music first. He sent it to me on a tape, and I thought, gee, that's a lovely song, I think that would be perfect to sing at the wedding. And the lyric kind of crystallized on the melodic curve of the song. When we finished it - Jerry was living in New Rochelle at the time - we called his wife down to the studio and we played it for Patti. And when we looked at her at the end of the song, she was crying.

BOCK: Tears in her eyes, yes.

HARNICK: And then I played it for my sister shortly after that and she was crying. And we thought, ooh, now, this song probably - this has more effectiveness than we imagined.

BOCK: Mind you, we didn't know whether they were tears of joy, or, that's awful.


GROSS: Jerry Bock, what did you listen to when you were writing the show? Did you listen to much music?

BOCK: Not really. Somehow, as I said, I had unknowingly, unwittingly stored a lot of the sound of it without having been able to express myself with it. I love Russian music. I love Romanian music. Minor is my major key.


BOCK: And so with all that in mind, I think Sheldon and I probably wrote maybe 3 to 1 for every song that was used. We wrote at least three, and if we were asked to write 10 or 15 more, we probably could have because it was the kind of show that allowed us to express ourselves as we had never expressed ourselves before.

GROSS: I want to thank you so much, not only for talking with us, but thank you for all the great songs you've given us. Thank you so much.

HARNICK: Oh, thank you.

BOCK: Thank you Terry.

DAVIES: Composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick speaking with Terry Gross in 2004. Jerry Bock died in 2010. A revival of "Fiddler On The Roof" opened last month on Broadway. Coming up, some songs which were written for "Fiddler" but didn't make it into the show. We'll hear the demo recordings. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. The musical "Fiddler On The Roof" is back on Broadway in a revival starring Danny Burstein as Tevye. We just listened to Terry's 2004 interview with the show's lyricist Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, who wrote the music. Bock died in 2010. Harnick was back on the show two years ago to talk about an album he'd just released from his private collection, featuring demos and performances of Harnick himself singing his songs. Some never made it into the shows they were intended for. Others he wrote for reviews early in his career. The album's called "Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures 1949-2013." We aired the interview on Harnick's 90th birthday. He'll be 92 in April. Let's begin with a demo recording of "Sunrise, Sunset" from "Fiddler On The Roof," featuring Harnick accompanied by Jerry Bock.


HARNICK: (Singing) Is this the little girl I carried? Is this the little boy at play? I don't remember growing older. When did they? When did she get to be a beauty? When did he grow to be so tall? Wasn't it yesterday when they were small? Sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset, swiftly flow the days. Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers, blossoming even as we gaze. Sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset...


GROSS: Sheldon Harnick, welcome back to FRESH AIR, and happy birthday. It's so wonderful.

HARNICK: Oh thank you, thank you very much.

GROSS: One of the pleasures of this new double CD is that there are songs that you wrote for "Fiddler on the Roof" that were taken out of the musical that were never used.

HARNICK: Many of them.

GROSS: Yeah. And it's you performing them. And "Fiddler on the Roof" is set in 1905 in a Jewish village in Czarist Russia, where the Jews are under attack and eventually forced out. So let's hear one of those songs. And this was supposed to be the opening number for "Fiddler on the Roof." It's called "We've Never Missed A Sabbath Yet." Tell us about what your intention was in writing this song and why you decided to not use it.

HARNICK: The intention was to start the show with an exciting musical number. And the excitement came from the fact that the sun was going down, the Sabbath was almost here and the mother and the five daughters still had so much work to do, so the mother's urging the girls on to help clean up, get ready for the Sabbath. And it just - it made for an exciting musical number.

It wasn't used because when Jerome Robbins became our director, we had many, many meetings before we went on to rehearsal. And at each meeting, he started with the same question - what is this show about? And he would say there's something that gives this show its power, and we don't know what it is. And finally, at one of those meetings one of us said hey, you know what this show is about? It's about changing of the way of life of a people in these Eastern European communities, these little towns, these shtetls. And Robbins got very excited about that. He said if that's the case, then what you have to write is a member about traditions because we're going to see those traditions change. And that's so important in the show. Every scene or every other scene will be about whether a tradition changes or whether a tradition remains the same. So instead of a song with the mother and the daughters getting ready for the Sabbath, he wanted us to write a song about tradition because he thought that's what the show is really about.

GROSS: And this song actually includes musical lines that were used in other songs for "Fiddler." Do you want to give us an example?

HARNICK: When the song was cut, some of the melodic lines wound up as underscoring for other scenes. And one theme in the song "We've Never Missed A Sabbath Yet," the theme is (singing) de, dum, pum, pa, pa, pa, da, pum, pum, pum. While we were in rehearsal, we cut a song that was written for the three older daughters because we had the three older daughters - one was an actress, one was a dancer and one was a singer. They could all sing well enough to sing a simple song, but we wrote a difficult song, and the actress and the dancer had trouble with it so the song was cut and we had to write a new song. So we wrote a song, "Matchmaker," which was much simpler. And what Jerry Bock did was he took the theme from "We've Never Missed A Sabbath Yet" - (singing) dum, pum, pa, pa, pa, da, pum, pum, pum - and he made it into (singing) de, de, de, de, de, de, de, de, de, de. He was very economical. He never wasted anything.

GROSS: And also, you took a line that was originally written for the Sabbath song and used it in "Tradition." But instead of the lyric for "Tradition," it's like, (singing) there's noodles to be made and chickens to be plucked. What's the lyric...

HARNICK: Oh my God, you pick that out. That's right, yes.

GROSS: So what's the line that you actually used in "Tradition" instead of there's noodles to be made and chickens to be plucked?

HARNICK: As far as I remember, there was no actual lyric written to that. But what Jerry did, he took the melody for that. At the very beginning of "Fiddler on the Roof," there's a violin solo, an unaccompanied violin solo. And he took that melodic line from "We've Never Missed A Sabbath Yet" and gave it to the violinist. So he starts by playing, (singing) bum pa, dum, pum, pum, pum pa, dum, pum, pum. I don't believe that I ever put a lyric to that. There was a lyric put to it. Our publisher, Tommy Valando, said why don't you take that, write a lyric to it so we can publish a song called "Fiddler on the Roof?" So I did. I wrote a special lyric...


HARNICK: And I know that - I remember the first words was (singing) a way above my head. And it went on from there, I don't remember the lyric. But I wrote a lyric that was meant to be a commercial lyric so we could have a song called "Fiddler on the Roof."

GROSS: Oh, so you'd have a title song.

HARNICK: So we'd have a title song. Yeah. Even...

GROSS: And the song was never actually in the show.

HARNICK: But it was in the sheet music.


GROSS: Like another era (laughter). Well, OK, so now we have to hear "We've Never Missed A Sabbath Yet," the song we've been talking about that was cut from the show that was meant to open the show, "Fiddler on the Roof." And we'll hear Sheldon Harnick singing with Jerry Bock at the piano.


HARNICK: (Singing) Mama, Mama, we finished what you told us. Mama, Mama, could we go out and play? No. I rubbed and I scrubbed and the table's nice and clean. And I scrubbed all the chairs up and down and in between. Mama, Mama, can we go out? Mama can we go out? Mama can we go and play? There's still too much to do today

Did you change the towels? Uh-huh. Then put on the Sabbath tablecloth, set the table and don't go away. (Singing) Mama, Mama, you mustn't be so nervous. Mama, Mama, for heaven's sake relax. So who can relax while there's so much to be done, keeping one eye on the soup and the other on the sun? Mama, Mama don't be nervous. Mama, we'll be ready long before the sun has set. We've never missed the Sabbath yet.

(Singing) Somehow the house will be clean, floors will be swept, soup will be cooked, beef will be boiled. Oh, there's noodles to make and chicken to be plucked and liver to be chopped and challah to be baked. A race with the sun, so at the proper time the candles can be lit and blessed. There's noodles to make and chickens to be plucked, liver to be chopped and challah to be baked. Race with the sun, so at the proper time the challah can be baked and blessed.

DAVIES: We're listening to an interview Sheldon Harnick recorded with Terry Gross in 2014. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're listening to Terry's 2014 interview with Sheldon Harnick, the lyricist for "Fiddler On The Roof," which is back on Broadway.


GROSS: So in the show "Fiddler on the Roof," there's a song called "Anatevka," which the Jews in this small town sing when they're forced out of their village, Anatevka. And it's a very - the song that's used in the show is both about well, it's just a place. It's not an important place, but it's also very nostalgic song for the place that they are being forced to leave, the place that is their only home. But initially, in "Fiddler On The Roof," there was a song called "Letters From America." So tell us what the intention was with "Letters From America" and why it became "Anatevka."

HARNICK: Well, we felt we needed, it's traditional kind of to have an up-tempo song opening the second act to get the second act of to a good start and we thought we needed that. So Joe Stein remembered that his father had told him while he was still in Europe, when people went to America, they would write letters describing the life in America that made everybody's mouth water. They just wanted to immediately to move to America, although some of the letters were very funny. Like one correspondent said, you know, we only work half a day here, 12 hours.


HARNICK: So we wrote the song and part of it was very active. I think you'd call it a kazatsky, a Russian kazatsky (singing) yum pum pa dum. Yum pum pa dum. Ya va da ta dada. Yum pum pa dum. Anyway, it was Hal Prince, our producer on the show, who pointed out to Jerry Robbins - because Robbins wasn't sure what we were working on. He just wasn't sure that it was a right way to open the act. So he did - he showed what he had created to Hal. And Hal said guys, this is not your usual Broadway show. We don't have to start with the villagers gambling on the green. It's just not the way to start. So what we did was have Zero Mostel come out as Tevye and bring the audience up to date on what had happened since the end of act one.

Then as we worked on the show in our pre-Broadway tour, Robbins came to Jerry Bock and me one day and he said, you know, I want to end the show - or just shortly before the end, I want to have a song for our principals where they're about to be expelled from this village where they've lived all their lives. I want a song for them which will describe how they feel about having to leave this village, Anatevka. And he said I think if we take that song from "Letters From America" that had been fast and if we slow that down - (singing) yum pum pa dum. Yum pum pa dum, he said I think that will have the melancholy quality that we need. And Jerry and I bought that idea immediately. So then I set to work to write a nostalgic song. It goes – a song - premature nostalgia as these principal actors, Tevye and his wife Golda and the butcher and the matchmaker, as they try to imagine what life will be like when they're no longer living in their beloved little Anatevka.

GROSS: So let's hear the demo version that you made of "Letters From America," the song that was cut. And then we'll segue into a little bit of the song that you wrote instead, "Anatevka," the song that was actually used in "Fiddler on the Roof."


HARNICK: (Singing) Here in Anatevka, 90 percent are behind in the rent and we're hungry to a man. Once a Rothschild saw our town, crossed himself and ran.

HARNICK: (Singing) However, who needs America? Who needs a new community changing our ways to I don't know what? Who needs America? Maybe there's opportunity. Maybe I'd like America, but in Anatevka, Anatevka, thoroughly orthodox Anatevka, where else could Sabbath be so sweet? Anatevka, Anatevka, obstinate, orthodox Anatevka, no pigs me wanders through the street. Where is the rabbi more widely renowned or revered?


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Yente) Well, Anatevka hasn't exactly been the Garden of Eden.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Tevye) That's true.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As Golde) After all, what have we got here? (Singing) A little bit of this, a little bit of that.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Yente) A pot.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Lazar) A pan.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Mendel) A broom.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As Avram) A hat.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Tevye) Someone should've set a match to this place years ago.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Mendel) A bench.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As Avram) A tree.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As Golde) So what's a stove?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Lazar) Or a house?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Mendel) People who pass through Anatevka don't even know they've been here.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As Golde) A stick of wood.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Yente) A piece of cloth.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) What do we leave? Nothing much. Only Anatevka. Anatevka. Anatevka. Underfed, overworked. Anatevka. Where else could Sabbath be so sweet? Anatevka. Anatevka. Intimate, obstinate Anatevka. Where I know everyone I meet. Soon I'll be a stranger in a strange new place. Searching for an old familiar face. From Anatevka. I belong in Anatevka...

GROSS: So we heard two recordings back to back there, "Letters From America" - that was the demo version made by the songwriters Jerry Bock and my guest Sheldon Harnick. And then we heard the song that they used instead after they took "Letters From America" out of the show and that song was from the cast recording, the original cast recording, of "Fiddler on the Roof." The song is "Anatevka."

You know, when I hear some of the songs from "Fiddler on the Roof," I get tears in my eyes, in part because my parents had very few albums when I was growing up. But they had "Fiddler on the Roof," and they played it over and over and over and over. And it really started to drive me crazy.


GROSS: But when I hear it now, you know, my parents passed, you know, like several years ago. And when I hear it now, I think about my parents and I think not only about how good the songs are but I think what those songs meant to them and what it was like for them in the 1960s to go to Broadway and see a show about Jews on a shtetl in Eastern Europe because their parents had been Jews in shtetls in Eastern Europe. And I'm sure you know how much this musical meant, you know, has meant to so many people.

HARNICK: Yes. Well, one of the things - when Jerome Robbins became our director, he told us this story. He said when he was 6, his parents took him to that part of Poland where their ancestors came from. And even at the age of 6, he remembers it as being a very emotional experience.

Then during World War II, as he read about the extermination of these little village by the Nazis, he was certain that the village that he'd visited when he was 6 was one of those villages that had been obliterated. So when we gave him the opportunity to direct "Fiddler," he said I want to put that culture back on stage. I want to give it a theatrical life of another 25 years. He was being modest because now it's almost 50 years and it's still going strong.

But he was like a man obsessed with restoring that culture. He did enormous research. And I think Jerry more than anyone else is responsible for the success that "Fiddler's" had. Not that Joe Stein and Jerry Bock and I didn't do good work, but it was what Robbins brought to it with this obsession to put that culture back on stage that made the show what it is.

GROSS: Sheldon Harnick, thank you so much for talking with us. It's just been a treat to hear some of the stories behind some of your songs. And I wish you a great 90th birthday and a great 90th year.


HARNICK: You have made this a wonderful birthday already.

DAVIES: Sheldon Harnick speaking with Terry Gross in 2014 on the occasion of his 90th birthday. Harnick wrote the lyrics for fiddler on the roof, which is back on Broadway, starring Danny Burstein. Coming up, critic-at-large John Powers considers "Billions," the new Showtime series about Wall Street corruption. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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