Did you know that “Fiddler on the Roof” was originally going to start with a song about Shabbat?
That’s right — an early version of the beloved song “Tradition” was called “We’ve Never Missed a Sabbath Yet,” in which Tevye and Golde’s five daughters try to help out with their mother’s frantic preparations for the Jewish day of rest.
“Mama mama you musn’t get so nervous / Mama mama for heaven’s sake relax,” the daughters sang in the original opening song, which obviously was written by men who do not know that you should never tell a nervous Jewish mom to relax. Golde replies, “Who can relax when there’s so much to be done/ keeping one eye on the soup and one eye on the sun.” (What a great line!)
“There’s noodles to make/ And chickens to be plucked/ And liver to be chopped/ And challah to be cooked/ Race with the sun/ So at the proper time/ The candles can be lit and blessed,” Golde lists off in the song, which was featured in “Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures,” featuring over 50 rarely heard songs from the “Fiddler” lyricist. And while yes, it’s a song all about domestic labor, I totally want to sing it next time I’m preparing for Shabbat. It’s delightful, but also so specific that it didn’t feel right for the 1964 Broadway musical’s director, Jerome “Jerry” Robbins (who, fun fact, will be played by Michael Urie in the upcoming Leonard Bernstein biopic “Maestro.”)
“We met and we met and we met, and each time he’d say, ‘But what’s it about? What’s it about?'” producer Hal Prince recalled Robbins saying about the song in an interview with NPR. “And finally, Sheldon — I’ve never heard him lose his temper before — said, ‘Oh, for God’s sake, Jerry, it’s about tradition!’ And Jerry said, ‘That’s it! That’s what [it’s] about. Write the opening number.'”
“Our original opening number for the show,” Harnick recounted in a TV appearance when the show was on Broadway, “was built around a very important Jewish custom, the celebration of the Sabbath. The sabbath was the high point of the Jewish week in many Orthodox homes.”
Harnick and composer Jerry Bock said that they wanted to make a song about community — they were inspired by the book “Life is With People: the Culture of the Shtetl” by Mark Zborowski to list those typical shtetl traditions beyond the holiest day of the Jewish week. Bock said that Harnick managed to condense “a thousand pages into the seven-minute song” which helped non-Jewish audience members to be able “to appreciate what our story was about.”
And it’s true, the fight between tradition and modernity is universal — that’s why the musical has been such a hit in places like Japan (seriously, you need to hear “Fiddler” in Japanese).
Yet some of the melody and cadence of that original song about Shabbat did make it into the musical, both in “Tradition” and as a little musical interlude while the home of Tevye and his family opens up on stage. You can watch the full evolution here:
“We Haven’t Missed a Sabbath Yet” is not the only song that didn’t make it into the musical. Seven of the songs that hit the cutting room floor can be heard on “Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures,” including the forgotten Lazar Wolf theme “A Butcher’s Soul,” which almost feels like a song for a rock opera. The tune was much loved by Jerry Robbins, but he decided that it unfortunately just wasn’t right for the particular scene it was meant to appear in, and was replaced with “To Life! (L’Chaim).” It’s hard to argue with that choice.
Listening to these songs, which includes a funny song about the messiah and an ode to a sewing machine meant to be sung by Motel the tailor and Tzeitel, the absolute brilliance of Bock and Harnick is just so palpable. Sheldon Harnick passed away earlier this summer, but the legacy of music that he has left us is such a great blessing.