On the night of, June 17, 1972, Fiddler on the Roof became the longest running show in Broadway history. It had broken the record as the longest running musical close to a year earlier when it surpassed Hello, Dolly! but producer Harold Prince wasn’t content with that. He set his sights on overtaking Life with Father, the play that held the overall record (and still does for a play) since closing in 1947!
Newsworthy: the front page of the New York Times June 18, 1972.
That a Jewish musical that entirely took place in a Russian shtetl became the longest running show in Broadway history is significant, but so was the historic eight-year run of Life with Father. Also mind-boggling in that it managed to keep that record for twenty-five years after the night it closed. During those years, not even Oklahoma! or My Fair Lady managed to run longer and overtake it. And the only straight play to even come close (and it wasn’t that close) was a little play called Gemini, by Albert Innaurato. It played the Little Theatre (now the Helen Hayes) for 1,819 performances. That’s 1,405 performances less than Life with Father, about three years shy of Father’s run.
Opening night Playbill November 8, 1939.
The market no longer exists for a play to duplicate the endurance of Life with Father. A musical, for sure, but not a play. And what kind of a show was it that it insured such devotion in its audiences year after year? It’s hard to figure all that out in terms of how we live today, but what made Life with Father rack up such a remarkable turn was that it was still of its time, even though it was set in a time and place fifty years prior. The situation in Europe in 1939 being what it was, the play gave audiences a wholesomeness they were craving. Its depiction of a large family attempting to keep things together as the world was changing all around them was both pertinent and nostalgic at the same time: a winning combination. And yet, no modern-day producer has attempted (or been tempted) to find out if it might have something to say to more modern audiences. It’s never been revived on Broadway in the more than seventy years since it closed.
Dorothy Stickney and Howard Lindsay in Life with Father (1939).
But back to the night Fiddler on the Roof moved beyond Life with Father’s record-breaking run with performance #3,225 of its own. At the curtain call, that same number of balloons dropped onto the stage (one for each performance) and the Tevye’s of Tel Aviv, Mexico City and the Netherlands productions joined Paul Lipson, the current Broadway Tevye, on stage. And, as it turned out, Life with Father was lovingly represented on this night as well. Dorothy Stickney (the wife of one of the play’s co-author’s, Howard Lindsay) and Anna Erskine Crouse, the widow of Russell Crouse was there to pass the torch. Not symbolically either — a literal torch (and to add some extra poignancy, Ms. Stickney was also the original star of Life with Father, which she played opposite her husband). Talk about keeping it in the family.
Also present was actor Tom Patrick Dineen, who had only joined the ensemble three weeks earlier in the role of Zev, the Drayman (it was director Jerome Robbins’s idea that every actor and actress had a character to play and were thus identified in the Playbill, which was a rare thing for 1964 when the show premiered). As mentioned the following day in the New York Times story, Dineen’s being on stage with Ms. Stickney and Ms. Crouse was especially meaningful: Prior to Fiddler, Dineen had only been in one previous Broadway show, Life with Father, when he was eight years old. As the Times stated, he was there in time “to cross the finish line again.” How’s that for symmetry?
Of course, today a run of over 3,000 performances is positively quaint. As most everyone knows, the record for Broadway’s longest running show is held by The Phantom of the Opera, which was still going strong in its 32nd year with exactly 13,370 performances before Broadway went into lockdown in March.
The one-night only Playbill featuring all seven of the Broadway Tevye’s.
And as for symmetry again, it needs to be noted that the director of Phantom was, of course, none other than Harold Prince — an artist genuinely fond of, and truly born to break records. When I interviewed him in 2013 for Up in the Cheap Seats and I mentioned that I had attended the performance on the night of July 21, 1971, some eleven months prior to when Fiddler became the longest running musical of all time, he smiled and asked me to remind him of what went on that night. I mentioned that after the curtain call, balloons also dropped, and Zero Mostel came out to make a speech which was followed by a party on stage. I gave particular mention that it had been catered by Nathan’s Hot Dogs and eating one on the stage of the Broadway Theatre will always be an indelible memory for me. Upon mentioning this, I will always treasure Prince’s response: “Wow! We had Nathan’s!”
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