“… Besides Zero Mostel, aspirants to the screen role included Rod Steiger, Danny Kaye and—in a scenario that can be contemplated only with difficulty—Frank Sinatra.” — Excerpt from the New York Times obituary for Topol, iconic for his role as “Tevye” in Fiddler on the Roof.
It’s been too long, how the hell are ya, pal? Or perhaps we’ve never met. (Honestly, I don’t remember. I meet a lot of people; I’m Frank Sinatra.)
Listen: I gotta play this Tevye cat.
I know, I know: Why does the most famous Italian American on Earth wanna play a poor Jewish milkman? First off, Italians, Jews? Tomato, to-matzo. Love the Jews. Dig their whole bag. Got lots of Jewish friends too, like my agent and my lawyer and my other lawyer just for dame stuff. Plus, Sammy Davis Jr. Also, I hear your director, Norman Jewison, is a Protestant, which is kinda like meeting a guy named Johnny Catholic who turns out to be a Buddhist (but who cares is my point—we’re all just people!).
The script’s a total gas, but there’s just a few small changes we’d need to make before the Chairman hops on Board:
LOSE THE FIDDLE: It’s a hobo instrument. No class. Make it hipper, a bari sax or an upright bass or some such. (Jazz trio maybe?) Somethin’ that cuts a spiffy silhouette on that roof, dig? My egghead agent tells me the Fiddler represents the eternal imbalance of a persecuted people, and that’s aces, but would it kill us to sprinkle in a little doo-be-doo-be-doo?
TEVYE’S DAUGHTERS: Five daughters? Really? What’s this jabroni rubbin’ on his frank-and-beans, Chanel Number 5? Make it sons. Five big galoots. All hate their dad. All love their dad. All wanna be their dad. To my achingly blue eye, the central message of this story is: the preservation of the patriarchy. So, a bunch of sons idolizing their pop? Platinum!
WARDROBE: Script says “peasant rags” but that ain’t Sweet Baby Franz: Pinstripe suit, silk tie, pocket square, black fedora, wedding-cake-white hat-band. No cufflinks, though. That way the audience still knows this Tevye fella’s dirt-poor.
TEVYE’S GIG: A rickety milk cart fits the Sultan of Swoon like a sandpaper corset, so here’s the twist: whole thing’s a racket. What’s really in Tevye’s “milk” jug? Moonshine. Tevye ain’t no dairy queen, he’s a gasoline attendant, sneakin’ in giggle-sauce right under the snoots of the Party Pooper Patrol. (Hey, who are these bad guys, anyway? Romanians, or Portuguese, or some such? History was never my bag, see…)
“IF I WERE A RICH MAN…”: Catchy, but the poor-guy-wishing-he-had-dough thing? It’s soft. How ’bout: “I’m Gonna Be a Rich Man and You Can Take That to the Bank, Jack!” Add some brass, a little ring-a-ding-ding, let it swing. Roof flies off the dump, cashish starts rainin’ down from above, Voice of God calls out, “Tevye, I dig your whole vibe, kiddo, so boom, you’re loaded!"
MOTEL KAMZOIL: You’re telling me what this young buck, twenty, twenty-two years old, wants most in life… is a sewing machine? The whole script’s lousy with broads, and who do ya give the fabric fetish to? A fella. Fix it so this pipsqueak wants dough, simoleons, and he knows there’s only one stud in town who’s got it: Me. Kid challenges Tevye to a knife fight, switchblades at sundown, and I win, but spare his life. Why? Because this crazy punk just earned my respect.
“DO YOU LOVE ME?”: Eighty-six this jingle, it’s a dud. A man who’s worried whether his dame digs him is the kinda man who dreams of owning a sewing machine.
ZINGERS: Do me a solid and add in a part for Donnie Rickles, maybe he can roast one of those Portuguese cops, call him a hockey puck (that bit always fractures me!). Flick needs more yuks and Donnie always delivers (but don’t you dare tell the cocky bastard I said that). Also, I lost a bar-bet with Telly Savalas (that bum can drink), so now we gotta squeeze his bald keister in here somehow, too…
“TRADITION”: This ditty’s Scramsville. Makes Tevye a lemming, a square. Replace it with my own smash, “My Way.” A song that’s got the cojones to say: “Whether I’m headed to the hot place or the cloudy one, I ain’t gonna change my tune, not for God, not for the devil, not for NOBODY.” I close every show with it. Corpses. Every. Night.
LOCATION: Can this whole clambake be set in New York, New York? I’m doin’ seven nights at the Copa indefinitely. (Plus, Anatevka? What a dump. Town so nice, they named it once.)
Other than that, no notes!
But listen, if we’re gonna play ball, I need to know pronto, because I’ve got another gig lined up: Enter the Dragon. They’re beggin’ me to play a Kung Fu whiz or some such, but I don’t know, Swoonatra in karate pajamas? Sounds like a stretch. (Unlike Tevye, which fits like a glove, baby!)
And so, as Tevye himself might say, “La-Hi-Um!” (or whatever that crazy moon-man talk is, it’s wacky, I dig it).