Theatre yesterday and today



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With today marking the anniversary of the opening of Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway, fifty-three years ago, I thought I would share the following excerpt from my book Up in the Cheap Seats, a Historical Memoir of Broadway, which explains only a portion of why this musical will always hold a special place in my heart:

My Great-Aunt Helen introduced me to the lights of Broadway when, in 1967, she took me to see my first Broadway musical, I Do! I Do!, which starred Mary Martin and Robert Preston. I was only eleven-and-a-half, and after that evening, in poker terms I was “all in.” I couldn’t wait for the chance to see another show. I would have happily depended on the kindness of strangers.

I didn't have to ... thanks to Mrs. Leboff.

The Leboffs lived up the street from me in Great Neck. Their sons, David and Kenny, were friends, and Mrs. Leboff had invited me along to see Fiddler on the Roof for David’s birthday, just about a year after I had seen I Do! I Do! So it was at a pre-Christmas matinee that we climbed what felt like hundreds of stairs to the fourth to last row in the rear mezzanine of the Majestic Theatre, then foreign territory to me. When I reached the top, I was concerned about how far away things looked. I was seemingly a mile from the stage. Once the show began and the actor playing Tevye (Harry Goz) made his entrance, I was delighted how easy it was to see and hear him (and this in the days before a tiny microphone was attached to the skull of each and every performer).

Due to the cast recording, I knew all the songs by heart. But this was my first exposure to the world of Sholem Aleichem who, writing in Yiddish from his native Russia, had first introduced the character of Tevye in the late 1800s. I was thoroughly taken with the deft combination of humor and sorrow of the play’s storylines, as well as the vibrant physical production, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins.

The original out of town poster for Fiddler on the Roof (1964).

At intermission I blurted out to Mrs. Leboff, "These are great seats! How much did they cost?" Smiling, she handed over the ticket stub. $3.60 didn't seem at all unreasonable, though for a little perspective, in 1968 it cost only seventy-five cents for a child like me (under twelve, that is) to see a first-run film. This ticket, at roughly five times the cost of a movie, was still an extravagance.

Then Mrs. Leboff informed me that the seats behind us — the last two rows in the theatre — were a significant eighty cents less, costing just $2.80.

Now I knew I could make the numbers work for me!

This is the day my plan was hatched. It seemed that I might be able to see as many Broadway shows as I liked, giving that at the time, I was earning around $12 a week on my paper route. As a respectable wage-earner, I convinced myself on the spot that I was plenty mature to handle coming into Manhattan without adult supervision.

Besides the cost of the ticket, I could afford the train fare, subway tokens (yes, tokens), and lunch. And if David and Kenny came along there would be safety in numbers. As each second ticked by, my scheme became more of a reality.

“Do you want to see some more shows?” I asked them. They answered with a non-committal shrug (which I took for an enthusiastic yes) and I swept into action. I wrote down the titles of what was playing: Cabaret, Hello, Dolly!, Mame, Hair and Promises, Promises — all up and running in their original productions. And even if most of the first set of actors were out of these casts, this guy Harry Goz playing Tevye was pretty good, right?

When Fiddler was over (and to this day I don’t know why), I announced to David and Kenny we were going backstage. I guess it seemed a logical extension of our good time that afternoon and so, within minutes, the three of us were standing in the Majestic Theatre’s star dressing room, where Harry Goz looked up at us quizzically from his perch on a sofa. And by the way, many years later when I returned to the same theatre to visit a friend in The Phantom of the Opera (the Majestic’s sole resident since 1989), I was surprised to see that the large dressing room how houses costumes (“the Phantom,” resides one flight up).

Harry Goz couldn’t have been more welcoming. He dutifully signed my