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New York - Fiddler on the Roof' Writer Stein, 98, Dies in NY

Published on: October 26, 2010 09:22 AM
By: AP
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Joseph SteinNew York - Playwright Joseph Stein, who turned a Yiddish short story into the classic Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof” and later wrote the screenplay for its successful movie adaptation, has died at age 98.

His wife, Elisa Stein, said he died at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan on Sunday from complications of a fall. He had been hospitalized for treatment for prostate cancer, his relatives said.

“He was, I think, the most ebullient, optimistic and happy man I’ve ever known,” said a son, Harry Stein, reached by phone on Monday. “He was constantly good humored, even in difficult times.”

Stein’s wife said he was a “very funny man” who “kept people in the hospital in stitches.”

Stein, who won a Tony Award for his work on “Fiddler,” also supplied the book, or story, for nearly a dozen other musicals, including “Zorba,” ‘‘Mr. Wonderful” and “Plain and Fancy.” He also wrote for radio and for television during its early golden age, working for such performers as Henry Morgan, Sid Caesar and Phil Silvers.


But it was “Fiddler,” based on Sholom Aleichem’s “Tevye and His Daughters,” that proved to be his biggest hit. Featuring a score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick and direction and choreography by Jerome Robbins, the show opened on Broadway in September 1964 and ran for more than 3,200 performances.

It starred Zero Mostel as Tevye, the Jewish milkman forced to deal with a changing world — not to mention a changing family life — in early 20th-century Russia.

“Fiddler” has had several Broadway revivals, the last in 2004 in a production that featured Alfred Molina as Tevye. Topol starred in the 1971 film version.

Initially, some producers had doubts the story would prove universal enough to attract a large audience.

It was Harold Prince who finally produced the show. In his stage memoir “Contradictions,” Prince recalled, “The title ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ was suggested by Chagall’s painting. Joe Stein then accommodated what we all thought was an intriguing title with a monologue at the beginning of the show.”

Yet Stein’s theater career was remarkable for its longevity — some six decades. Starting in 1948, when he and writing partner Will Glickman contributed sketches to the revue “Lend an Ear,” featuring a young Carol Channing, he was still working 60 years later.

At age 96, he was on hand for the 2008 off-Broadway production of “Enter Laughing,” a buoyant, retitled version of his flop 1976 musical “So Long, 174th Street,” which, in turn, was based on a play Stein wrote, also called “Enter Laughing.” The comedy about a young man determined to enter show business opened on Broadway in 1963 and showcased a rising new actor named Alan Arkin.

After “Lend an Ear,” Stein and Glickman wrote the short-lived comedy “Mrs. Gibbons’ Boys” (1949) and then contributed sketches to the musical revue “Alive and Kicking” (1950).

The two had their first big success with the book for “Plain and Fancy” (1955), a charming musical that found worldly wise New Yorkers confronting life in a Pennsylvania Amish community. That was followed by “Mr. Wonderful” (1956), the musical that introduced to Broadway Sammy Davis Jr., playing a nightclub performer vaguely similar to Davis himself.

Stein (along with Glickman) first collaborated with Bock and Harnick in 1958 on “The Body Beautiful,” a musical about boxing, which lasted a scant 60 performances. The book writer is usually one of musical theater’s unsung heroes, often getting the blame when a musical doesn’t succeed and receiving little of the credit when a show is a hit.

And Stein had his share of short-lived musicals including “Juno,” an ambitious retelling of Sean O’Casey’s “Juno and the Paycock” with a score by Marc Blitzstein; “King of Hearts” (1978), based on the Philippe de Broca film, and “Rags” (1986), another musical about the immigrant experience.

“Take Me Along” (1959), a musical version of Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness!” starring Jackie Gleason and Walter Pidegon, proved more durable. So did “Zorba,” adapted from the Anthony Quinn movie “Zorba the Greek,” first seen on Broadway in 1968 with Herschel Bernardi in the title role and later (1983) in an even more popular revival starring Quinn.

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Read Comments (10)  —  Post Yours »


 Oct 26, 2010 at 09:57 AM Chaim Says:

BD"E he brought great art and joy to many people.


 Oct 26, 2010 at 11:01 AM bucherel Says:

Tradition! Tradition!
And of course don't forget about the song in the dream Mazel Tov, Mazel tov...

Should he rest in piece!!!


 Oct 26, 2010 at 11:26 AM Anonymous Says:

BDE. "How much more can we be joyful when there's something to be joyful for?"


 Oct 26, 2010 at 12:36 PM Babishka Says:

This was a much beloved musical play, which was performed to audiences all over the world.


 Oct 26, 2010 at 01:35 PM Anonymous Says:

We are require to serve Hashem with semicha. Since he has given many Yid simcha may HASHEM give him smicha in the world of emes


 Oct 26, 2010 at 01:59 PM Anonymous Says:

I got suspended from yeshivah for a week when i told my rebbe I watched the movie.. go figure..


 Oct 26, 2010 at 02:22 PM benvin Says:

BDE. Thank you Mr. Stein for your great work.


 Oct 26, 2010 at 06:26 PM from-here-to-there Says:

growing up with the Zero Mostel soundtrack - I still can't get use to the Topol movie version...

during the revivial in the 70's I saw it on Broadway with the great late Zero Mostel.

RIP Joe and thanks!


 Oct 26, 2010 at 09:51 PM Yanky Says:

He should rest in peace (though he was, by the way, the kind of secular, liberal Jew usually scorned by commentors here). But for everyone above who thanked Mr. Stein for the great songs in Fiddler, please be aware trhat he had nothing to do with the songs -- the music and lyrics were by Jerry Block and Sheldon Harnick. Mr. Stein simply adapted Sholom Aleichem's story into a book for the Broadway production. (By the way, Sholom Aleichem was also the kind of Jew usually derided by frum Yidden as an apikores.)


 Oct 27, 2010 at 07:41 AM Anonymous Says:

BDE for the jew that died. Thank g-d that generation is dwindling away. I don't think there are many hiers that are shomer mitzvos from that clan. I think these are the fruits of the "kids off the derech" from polish jewry.


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