When producer/director Hal Prince, who’s helped create such Broadway classics as West Side Story, Damn Yankees, Sweeney Todd, Evita, and Phantom of the Opera, was approached in 1964 by writers Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock to direct Fiddler on the Roof, he refused. “I didn’t get any of it,” Prince says, swiveling around in his leather office chair. “So I said, ‘I won’t do it. As far as I’m concerned, you should do everything in the world to get Jerry Robbins.’ When they asked Jerry, he said, ‘I’ll direct it if you get Hal Prince to produce it.’”
Fiddler turned out to be the longest-running musical of its time. “But all during the entire rehearsal process, I still didn’t get it,” Prince repeats. “Harnick gave me a book about the shtetl, and Bock made me look at Maurice Schwartz’s film version of Tevye, the Milkman [the story by Sholem Aleichem on which Fiddler was based]. I steeped myself in a lot of it, but it wasn’t coming from in here.” Prince knocks on his chest.
As the descendant of German Jews, Prince explains, his gut connections did not come from the poor Russian villages that Fiddler portrays. Yet somehow Prince and his collaborators managed to craft the definitive Jewish portrait—a show whose musical score, including “Sunrise, Sunset,” have become almost part of the religious canon. “I think one of the things you have to realize is it was a huge success because people thought it was about family,” Prince says, taking off the signature glasses that often sit perched on his forehead. “It was a hit all over the world. And when we finally reached nine thousand-whatever performances, I brought all the Tevyes to New York from all over the world—every actor who had ever played the role. And at the end of the show, they came out on stage in costume singing ‘Tradition’ [the show’s opening song], one after another after another—a Japanese Tevye, a German Tevye, a Mexican Tevye. There they all were.” Prince smiles at the memory.
“The show was a success because for non-Jews it wasn’t Jewish: It was about family.” However universal the appeal, however, some Jewish audiences were unhappy about it. “When Fiddler opened, Jerry Robbins gave his first dance teacher—an old, old man—the role of the rabbi. And he was a kind of befuddled, humorous, adorable character and Jerry loved him. The board of rabbis didn’t. They sent me a telegram threatening to boycott the show if we didn’t change that character. I wrote back and said, ‘We have no intention of changing that character; it’s created by Mr. Robbins and the authors with great affection.’” I ask what exactly the board of rabbis objected to. “They thought he was buffoonish,” Prince explains. “Yes, he was an addled little rabbi. But he was adorable. You know what the character’s signature gesture was? Anytime anybody in the village came to him for advice, he’d take the big book and leaf through it madly, looking for answers. And then he would do a Solomon-like thing: ‘You’re right and you’re right!’ “The New York board of rabbis started sending me a telegram regularly every few hours for delivery. It was harassment. I barked back, ‘If you continue this, I will publicize it. It’s narrow-minded foolishness; stop right now.’ And they did. But for a moment there, I said to myself, ‘Holy God, are they going to deliver telegrams every two hours forever?’”
Prince’s own Jewish affinity was ignited much more deeply decades later by a far less successful musical he directed called “Parade” It told the true story of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager who was falsely accused of raping a white girl in Atlanta in 1913 and ultimately hanged for it by an angry mob. “I felt Parade was as close as I could get to doing my Fiddler,” says Prince. “And when it was rejected in terms of popular entertainment, I was very hurt. Because I loved the show and still do. Its reception could have put it right where it belonged, but instead, it was completely unappreciated where it mattered.”
I ask how it connected him to his Jewishness. “What did it mean to me? Everything,” he says. “I related to Leo Frank. But see, that’s a southern family.” Prince has southern roots because his German ancestors migrated to El Paso, Texas, stopping in New York along the way. His mother’s great-grandfather, Adolph Rubin, was the second cantor of New York’s Temple Emanu-El—“ He wrote some hymns that they still use today,” Prince says.
Adolph Rubin’s daughter, Ella, married and moved to El Paso, “where her husband became the president of the Bank of Juárez, Mexico!” Prince clearly gets a charge out of this. “So you see, it’s kind of a weird Jewish family story!” Harold Prince is less enthusiastic when asked about his father, Harold Smith. “I never talk about him,” Prince says matter-of-factly. “My mother remarried when I was three years old, so I was raised all of my life by a guy named Milton Prince who was on Wall Street. My father was a guy I never cared much for, to be honest with you. And I never cared for his family.” I remark that “Smith” doesn’t sound Jewish. “I think it may have been Goldsmith before,” Prince explains.
Prince grew up in New York City—attending the Dwight School when it was called the Sachs School: “We were all Jewish there except for Truman Capote,” Prince says with a laugh. “He graduated a year ahead of me.” His family never went to Temple Emanu-El for services, but to this day, they have two seats that are always set aside for them. “They’re lousy locations, because they know I never come,” Prince says with a laugh. “But I tell you what: I did repay them once.” He’s referring to the time the head rabbi asked Prince to direct a show to celebrate the temple’s 150th anniversary. “There was a moment where I thought, ‘You owe them this.’ ” Prince smiles. “ ‘You haven’t been in the doors for decades, even though someone is singing your great-grandfather’s hymns every year; you owe them this.’ ” The rabbi said he wanted the celebration to be a revue in honor of three temple alumni. “I said, ‘Which three?’ ” Prince recounts, “And he said, ‘Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, and Richard Rodgers.’ I said, ‘You bet I’ll do it.’ It was a very sweet evening. And that’s the last time I set foot in the temple.”
When one is reminded of those Broadway greats—not to mention Stephen Sondheim, with whom Prince collaborated on such musicals as A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd—it raises the question of whether Jewishness might fuel creative talent. “Most people who are high accomplishers come from behind some psychological eight ball where they feel disenfranchised and they have to create something,” Prince says. “Certainly that’s true of me. It’s almost true of almost everybody I know. There’s that neurotic ‘you either sink or you swim, and swimming’s better.’ So I think what you’re talking about is grit and resilience, and yes, fantasy and escape. The art went to some place of escape. It is an advantage not to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth. It just is.”
I pass along what Sondheim told me, in our conversation for this book, that Jews are “smarter,” and how he challenged me to name a great gentile musical theater composer other than Cole Porter. “I’m so reluctant to ever go where Steve went, which is to say, ‘We’re the best.’ Somebody else better say it. Somebody who isn’t Jewish. Every once in a while you find yourself in a room full of accomplished Jewish people and they feel too superior. I don’t think anyone should feel superior.”
And yet he does connect the success of many Jews to their ethnicity. “I could say something very arrogant—though I don’t approve of it: It’s a hell of an elite club. I don’t take huge pleasure in saying, ‘Look at us on Broadway in the musical game: We’re Jewish.’ But the facts are there. And all I can ever think is so much of this has to do with how a race of people—or a religious group—dealt with deprivation. They actually took an isolation that was thrust on them and turned it into an advantage. And in that isolation, they saw to it that people were educated, that their priorities included medicine, law, literature, the arts. They were passionate about taking a disadvantage and turning it to a cultural advantage—their advantage—and that’s huge. Because there’s another way to deal with this kind of deprivation. There are other races and religions out there and they don’t always turn adversity into creativity. And we’ll let it go at that.”
Abigail Pogrebin is the author of Stars of David and My Jewish Year. She moderates the interview series “What Everyone’s Talking About” at the JCC in Manhattan.