Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2010

Joseph Stein

Joseph Stein, who died Oct. 24 at 98, said he decided long ago that he didn't want to pen purely commercial projects. Ironically, his most successful work was the one he considered his "least commercial show," because, as he put it, "Who's interested in a show of a bunch of old Jews in Russia?"

Enough people, apparently, to make Fiddler on the Roof, whose original 1964 production ran for more than 3,200 performances, a record breaker. Based on the Yiddish stories of author Sholem Aleichem, the acclaimed show about a Jewish milkman and his family in 1905 Russia was rich and moving, thanks to Stein's book, Sheldon Harnick's lyrics, Jerry Bock's score, Zero Mostel's performance as Tevye and Jerome Robbins' choreography. Stein, who won a Tony for the musical, also wrote the screenplay for the 1971 film version.

Fiddler on the Roof is a deeply touching drama with a truly vital sense of humor. Before bursting into "If I Were a Rich Man," Tevye addresses God: "I realize, of course, that it's no shame to be poor, but it's no great honor either!"

Mostel was the first to deliver the line, and back in the 1940s, he was also the first to pay Stein for material. And the Bronx-born writer, employed for years as a social worker, kept the jokes coming. In the '50s, he worked with Sid Caesar and other comic luminaries on TV's Your Show of Shows. Funnyman Carl Reiner was a cast member, and his book Enter Laughing was the basis for Stein's 1963 Broadway play of the same name.

Over a theater career spanning six decades, Stein scripted numerous musicals. He co-wrote Plain and Fancy, which took as its unlikely subject the Amish in Pennsylvania, and collaborated with composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb (the team behind Cabaret) on Zorba, based on the novel and movie Zorba the Greek. But Fiddler was Stein's biggest hit — and productions of it remain a worthy tradition.

Alexandra Silver

This text originally appeared in the Nov. 8, 2010 issue of TIME Magazine.