Joseph Stein: Broadway librettist who wrote the book for 'Fiddler on the Roof'

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Joseph Stein was one of Broadway's finest librettists, whose work included such musicals as Mr Wonderful, starring Sammy Davis Jr, and Take Me Along, starring Jackie Gleason. But his most memorable "book" was for a show considered one of the masterpieces of American musical theatre, Fiddler on the Roof. Stein had long been an admirer of Sholom Aleichem, the famed Yiddish novelist who wrote stories of Jewish family life in Tsarist Russia as recounted by a milkman named Tevye, and he joined the songwriting team of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick to develop a musical based on the works. Many thought that a Broadway musical based on the exploits of a milkman in an impoverished peasant village would have too little appeal outside the Jewish market, but Stein did not simply adapt the stories. He created a fresh story that dealt with the gradual erosion of traditions – partly illustrated by the marriages of Tevye's daughters – and succeeded in translating Yiddish idioms into colloquial English.

Tevye himself was made wittier and more forceful than in the stories, and Stein used little of the original dialogue. "Some of it sounded too melodramatic in translation," he explained. "Also, some of it, such as Tevye's habit of misquoting the scriptures, meant little to people who did not know the original passages." Stein kept to the same idea by inventing misquotations that had a similar effect.

Starring Zero Mostel as Tevye, Fiddler on the Roof, brilliantly directed by Jerome Robbins, ran for eight years, becoming the longest-running Broadway show at the time, and it was also a great success in London, starring Chaim Topol. Its greatest song hits initially were "Matchmaker" and "Sunrise, Sunset", but over the years Tevye's signature song, "If I Were a Rich Man", has become best known.

Joseph Stein was born in New York City in 1912. His parents had emigrated from Poland and settled in the Bronx, where his father made handbags. Stein graduated from the City College of New York in 1935 with a BS degree, and earned a Master of Social Work degree from Columbia University in 1937. He then spent six years as a psychiatric social worker while developing his writing skills. A chance meeting with the actor-comedian Zero Mostel, who mentioned that he was looking for radio material, started a career in radio writing for such comics as Phil Silvers and Jackie Gleason.

Partnered with Will Glickman, Stein made his Broadway debut as a writer of sketches for the revue Inside USA (1948) starring Beatrice Lillie, followed by two more revues, Lend an Ear (1948) and Alive and Kicking (1950). Stein and Glickman also wrote a radio series, The Ethel Merman Show (1949), which proved short-lived. With the growth of television, Stein became one of the group of writers on the legendary series Your Show of Shows, starring Sid Caesar. Other writers included Mel Brooks and Woody Allen.

In 1955 Stein and Glickman wrote their first libretto, Plain and Fancy, when producer Richard Kollmar commissioned them to fashion a tale about the Mennonite sect of Pennsylvania known as the Amish or Pennsylvania Dutch. The pair wrote a story in which a couple of smart New Yorkers (played by Richard Derr and Shirl Conway) spend time in an Amish community, the ensuing amusing clash of cultures skilfully blended with a romantic tale of love blighted by Amish traditions. Barbara Cook, on the verge of major stardom, played a principal role as an impressionable Amish girl, and the musical ran for over a year.

In 1956 Stein and Glickman wrote a show expressly tailored for Sammy Davis Jr., titled Mr Wonderful. Recounting the tale of a night-club entertainer's rise from obscurity to fame, the libretto was not strong, but it fulfilled its purpose in showcasing Davis, and the show's title tune (by Jerry Bock and Larry Holofcener) was a big hit.

Stein received solo credit for Juno (1959), a musical version of Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock, set in Dublin during the 1921 struggles between the IRA and the British, starring Shirley Booth as the patient Juno, wife of the strutting ne'er-do-well "paycock" (Melvyn Douglas). Stein's book was praised as moving, richly humorous and true to its source (Stein had prolonged discussions with O'Casey), but the musical, which changed the original's setting from a single room to various parts of Dublin, had a pervasive aura of tragedy, its score by Marc Blitzstein was not readily accessible, and neither Booth nor Douglas were strong vocalists. Though a personal favourite of Stein's, Juno ran for only 16 performances, but his next show had more success. Producer David Merrick had planned to turn Eugene O'Neill's warmly nostalgic comedy of small town life, Ah, Wilderness!, into a musical in 1956, but when his choice of librettist, John La Touche, suddenly died, he abandoned the project until 1959, when Bob Merrill wrote the songs for a hit version of O'Neill's Anna Christie (titled New Girl in Town). He then signed Merrill to do the score for Ah, Wilderness!, with Stein and Robert Russell providing the book, based on O'Neill's vision of the idyllic family life he had himself been denied. Impeccably cast, the show, titled Take Me Along, had Walter Pidgeon as the paterfamilias, Una Merkel as his wife, Robert Morse as their lovesick adolescent son and Eileen Herlie as the unmarried aunt, in love with the feckless Uncle Sid (Jackie Gleason). Gleason was the major box-office attraction because of his television appearances, and the libretto had to accommodate that fact, prompting New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson to comment, "By casting Jackie Gleason as the likeable but ineffectual Uncle Sid, the management has transformed a secondary character into the pivot of the show, and destroyed the values of the O'Neill source book." Stein's libretto nevertheless captured the novel's charm; the show ran for a year.

In 1961 Stein and his songwriting team, Bock and Harnick, had the idea of turning some of Sholom Aleichem's stories into a musical. "The stories are isolated tales connected only in the sense that they are told by the author as monologues by Tevye," said Stein. "One of the reasons we developed it ourselves was that I couldn't conceive of going to a producer and saying, 'We have an idea of this show about a lot of Jews in Russia. You know, they have a pogrom and get thrown out of their village'." Harnick said, "Joe accomplished something remarkable. A lot of dialogue from the stories, when spoken aloud, lost its quality. It was literary. Joe had to invent material – particularly the malaprops and the whole style of speech for Tevye."

Fiddler on the Roof had no overture, opening with a fiddler precariously posed on a rooftop, and Tevye explaining that the people of his village also live precariously. The show had its detractors – when it was playing a tryout engagement in Detroit, the usually canny trade paper Variety famously described it as "disappointing". But its Broadway opening was a triumph, with unanimously favourable reviews, though some quibbled that occasionally a touch of Broadway interfered with its overall mood. The show won nine Tony Awards, including one for Stein.

He worked for the first time with the composing team of John Kander and Fred Ebb on Zorba (1968), based on the book and film Zorba the Greek. Starring Herschel Bernardi as the hero who lives "as if I will die the next minute", it was a modest success. Stein said that he believed in the philosophy of Zorba, and that the show changed his life. Other Stein shows included So Long, 174th Street, based on Stein's play Enter Laughing, a revival of Irene starring Debbie Reynolds, for which Stein and Hugh Wheeler fashioned a revised version of the original libretto, The Baker's Wife, based on the French film La Femme du Boulanger, and Carmelina, based on the film Buona Sera, Mrs Campbell.

His last Broadway show was Rags (1986), an ambitious period piece about immigrants working on the Lower East Side, but it ran for only four performances. In 2007 he wrote the book for All About Us, a Kander-Ebb musical based on Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, which has still to play in New York, and at the time of his death he was working with his step-daughter, writer Jenny Lyn Bader, on a new musical, Heaven Can Wait. His first wife died in 1974, and he is survived by his second wife, the actress Elisa Loti, whom he married in 1975.

Fiddler on the Roof was filmed in 1971, but unfortunately lost much of the humour in a self-conscious transcription that was over-produced and too long (at three hours) to sustain its simple, if universal, story. But that universality keeps the show alive – it has been revived four times on Broadway, and was recently revived in the West End. "It seems to touch people in a special way," said Stein. "We were in Japan for the opening there, and I thought that culture was as far as we could get from the material of the show. Then at the run-through, the Japanese producer said to us, 'Tell me, do they understand this show in America?" I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'It's so Japanese!'"

Joseph Stein, librettist: born New York City, 30 May 1912; married first Sadie Singer (died 1974, three sons), second 1975 Elisa Loti; died New York City 24 October 2010.