Monday, October 25, 2010

RIP: Joseph Stein

Joseph Stein, a veteran of the Sid Caesar writing room and the writer that adapted Fiddler on the Roof into both an award-winning stage musical and motion picture, has died at the age of 98.
“Fiddler on the Roof,” based on Sholem Aleichem’s short stories about a Jewish milkman and his family who face terrifying change in a small Russian village in 1905, opened on Broadway in 1964. Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics and Jerry Bock’s score captured the high notes of the praise, but Mr. Stein’s book hardly went unnoticed.

“It goes beyond local color and lays bare in quick, moving strokes the sorrow of a people,” Howard Taubman wrote in his review in The New York Times, which also described the book as “marvelously right.”

Between memorable songs like “Sunrise, Sunset” and “If I Were a Rich Man,” Mr. Stein’s dialogue had its own kind of poetry. As Tevye’s daughter Hodel prepares to join her future husband in Siberia, she tells her father, “G-d alone knows when we shall see each other again.” He responds, “Then we will leave it in his hands.” And just before the show’s first big number, Tevye speaks to G-d: “I realize, of course, that it’s no shame to be poor, but it’s no great honor either.”

In 1965, the show won nine Tony Awards, including the one for best musical and Mr. Stein’s for best author of a musical. By 1971, when the production became Broadway’s longest-running musical (that record has since been broken several times), it had already been produced in 32 countries in 16 languages. The show closed the following year, but it has since been revived on Broadway four times, most recently in 2004.

Mr. Stein was already an old Broadway pro when “Fiddler” came along. Just the year before, he had won glowing reviews for his book of “Enter Laughing,” a comedy, based on a book by Carl Reiner, about a Jewish boy who wants to become an actor.[...]

Joseph Stein was born on May 30, 1912, in the Bronx, the son of Charles Stein, a handbag maker, and the former Emma Rosenblum. He received a bachelor’s degree from the City College of New York in 1934 and a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University in 1937.

Mr. Stein had a career as a social worker for several years before he happened to meet the comedian Zero Mostel through a mutual friend. Mr. Mostel mentioned that he was looking for comedy material for a radio show, Mr. Stein threw out an idea, and Mr. Mostel paid him $15 for it. His writing career had begun. (Mr. Mostel went on to play Tevye in the original Broadway production of “Fiddler.”)

In 1948, Mr. Stein made his Broadway writing debut, creating a single sketch with Mr. Glickman for “Lend an Ear,” a musical revue that starred Carol Channing and was choreographed by Gower Champion. And he became part of the writing staff of Sid Caesar’s classic 1950s comedy-variety series “Your Show of Shows.”
May he rest in peace.

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