Joseph Stein
Joseph Stein
Joseph Stein will now and forever be known as the book writer for Fiddler on the Roof. But he's written the libretti to many other Broadway musicals -- including Plain and Fancy, Take Me Along, and Carmelina -- all of which were featured in the York Theatre Company's 2006 Musicals in Mufti Fall Series.

Those shows went over so well that York artistic director James Morgan decided to do four Stein titles for this fall's Mufti series, which launches on September 14 with Zorba, starring Jeff McCarthy, Beth Fowler, Crista Moore, and Emily Skinner. It will be followed by Enter Laughing: The Musical (originally titled So Long, 174th Street in 1976), The Body Beautiful, and The Baker's Wife. We caught up with Stein at his post Park Avenue penthouse. -- that's what writing Fiddler gets you -- and found him amazingly fit and wonderfully talkative for a man of 95.

THEATERMANIA: How did Zorba originally happen?

JOSEPH STEIN: Herschel Bernardi was playing Tevye in Fiddler, and he told me he was dying to play Zorba in a musical. I mentioned it to Hal Prince (Fiddler's producer), and he said "Take a crack at it." I based it on the book, and not the screenplay, because the book is much richer. Hal offered it to Kander and Ebb, and we were off and running.

TM: One thing's always surprised me: Lila Kedrova played the aged courtesan in the Zorba the Greek film in 1964, and she was in Prince's London production of Cabaret just before Zorba happened. I'm surprised no one thought of putting her into Zorba then. She proved 15 years later in the revival that she could do it.

JS: We were all in love with Maria Karnilova from Fiddler, so we wanted her for the role. To tell the truth, while she was very good, she wasn't as good as Lila, who had a vulnerability that melted you and broke your heart. Maria was just too strong, and you couldn't feel as sorry for her when she was abandoned.

TM: Before Enter Laughing: The Musical, there was the play Enter Laughing, which you adapted from Carl Reiner's novel of the same name. How did that all start?

JS: Carl and I were working on Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows. I read his novel, and said, "This could make a good play." And he said, "Be my guest and do it." Then Mel Brooks said to me, "Are you crazy? That won't work."

TM: Apparently, you weren't crazy.

JS: Well, there were things in that book -- about a boy wanting be an actor -- that struck me as a strong basis for a musical. That he went to this fleabag theater struck a chord, because I went to that very theater where young David Kolowitz went to act. I'd go there when I was in college and had an hour free to catch an act of a matinee. It was in a basement somewhere in the '20s, run by a second-rate Shakespearean actor and his daughter. They'd put on ersatz Shakespeare or Noel Coward because he was veddy English, even though he wasn't English. But he wanted to be, and that's how I wrote him.

TM: It's often been said that, even in 1976, Robert Morse was too old to play David. Do you agree?

JS: He was. We wanted a young unknown, but our producer, Frederick Brisson, wanted a star. So he and the director, Burt Shevelove, picked Bobby. Under those circumstances, I wrote a scene with him as an adult, being interviewed before he was getting an award, and then had him flash back to what happened to him as a young actor. But as you were watching the show, you were conscious that this was a middle-aged man who was pretending to be a boy, and that didn't help us one bit. Fortunately, the show's been done a number of times since, but never with that device. Now they always cast a young man, so we don't need it.

TM: The Body Beautiful deals with boxing -- not a subject that many musicals have embraced. Did you write it because you were such a boxing fan?

JS: No, I've always said that the show was written by three short Jews who never saw a boxing match: Me, Jerry Bock, and Sheldon Harnick. Richard Kollmar, the producer of Plain and Fancy, was a boxing fan, and he asked me to write a show about it, and I brought Jerry and Sheldon along. It was in the early days of my career when I would write about anything, so Will Glickman and I dreamed up this story line. But the show really isn't about boxing; it's a musical comedy romance. We weren't trying to make any important philosophic points, but just be entertaining. We all knew it wasn't a masterpiece. It closed during a week where we had a terrible snowstorm that crippled the city. We've always said, "The show ran six weeks, but if it weren't for that snowstorm, it could have run seven."

TM: One line in your libretto fascinates me -- when the main character says, "They act as if I came from another planet." That became an idiom, much, much later. Did you actually invent that now oft-said line?

JS: It's very possible. I've written a lot of dialogue, so I guess something like that is bound to happen.

Alice Ripley and Max Von Essen in The Baker's Wife
(© Jerry Dalia)
Alice Ripley and Max Von Essen in The Baker's Wife
(© Jerry Dalia)
TM: You were on the road with The Baker's Wife with the notorious producer David Merrick. Did you two get along?

JS: In some ways we got along, but he was a monster when it came to contracts. I hate getting involved with them and have always had agents and lawyers do that. But David would call me up directly and say, "Do you know what your agent is trying to do to me?" If he were here today and wanted to work on it again, believe me, neither Steve (Schwartz) nor I would be working on it -- and we're in love with the show.

TM: I've heard that the idea for the musical was originally Neil Simon's.

JS: It was, but after he really started working on it, he found it wasn't his cup of tea. I did read what he wrote, and can see it wasn't for him. I knew the movie, and I loved the essence of it. What's funny is that we didn't have an opening number when we opened in San Francisco, but a monologue instead. I called Jerry Robbins to look at the show, and he said what he always did: You've got to tell the audience where you are very clearly. And that's when Stephen wrote Chanson, this wonderful waltz that starts the show. We're doing the same version at the York that we did at the Paper Mill Playhouse in 2005 in New Jersey. We're even trying to get much of the same cast (which included Alice Ripley, Max von Essen, Gay Marshall, and Lenny Wolpe).

TM: How did you feel about having Topol as the original star?

JS: Merrick insisted on Topol, who was a name because of the Fiddler film. The character needs to be someone gentle, and that's not Topol, who's very macho. Sometimes he's too strong, as he sometimes was when he played Tevye. Then Paul Sorvino came in, and he was all wrong, too. This all happened on a cross-country tour and it did very well financially, but neither Stephen nor I were proud of the show then. And because contractually, we had a right to close it before it came to New York, we decided to do just that.

TM: Merrick had to be furious with you.

JS: Curiously, not really. Merrick was a funny fella, and he admired that we made the move. He said, "That's something like I would do."

TM You're still working, aren't you?

JS: Sure. All About Us, the musical of The Skin of Our Teeth was in Westport this spring. And I'm working on a new musical version of a movie -- don't ask me, I won't tell you -- with young writers I admire. It involves a clash of cultures, which is the type of thing I love to write. It is why I so enjoyed writing Fiddler, Zorba, and Rags.

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For tickets and information to Musicals in Mufti, call 212-935-5820 or visit www.yorktheatre.org.