New York – Playwright Joseph Stein, who turned a Yiddish short story into the classic Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof” and later wrote the screenplay for its successful movie adaptation, has died at age 98.
His wife, Elisa Stein, said he died at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan on Sunday from complications of a fall. He had been hospitalized for treatment for prostate cancer, his relatives said.
“He was, I think, the most ebullient, optimistic and happy man I’ve ever known,” said a son, Harry Stein, reached by phone on Monday. “He was constantly good humored, even in difficult times.”
Stein’s wife said he was a “very funny man” who “kept people in the hospital in stitches.”
Stein, who won a Tony Award for his work on “Fiddler,” also supplied the book, or story, for nearly a dozen other musicals, including “Zorba,” ”Mr. Wonderful” and “Plain and Fancy.” He also wrote for radio and for television during its early golden age, working for such performers as Henry Morgan, Sid Caesar and Phil Silvers.
But it was “Fiddler,” based on Sholom Aleichem’s “Tevye and His Daughters,” that proved to be his biggest hit. Featuring a score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick and direction and choreography by Jerome Robbins, the show opened on Broadway in September 1964 and ran for more than 3,200 performances.
It starred Zero Mostel as Tevye, the Jewish milkman forced to deal with a changing world — not to mention a changing family life — in early 20th-century Russia.
“Fiddler” has had several Broadway revivals, the last in 2004 in a production that featured Alfred Molina as Tevye. Topol starred in the 1971 film version.
Initially, some producers had doubts the story would prove universal enough to attract a large audience.
It was Harold Prince who finally produced the show. In his stage memoir “Contradictions,” Prince recalled, “The title ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ was suggested by Chagall’s painting. Joe Stein then accommodated what we all thought was an intriguing title with a monologue at the beginning of the show.”
Yet Stein’s theater career was remarkable for its longevity — some six decades. Starting in 1948, when he and writing partner Will Glickman contributed sketches to the revue “Lend an Ear,” featuring a young Carol Channing, he was still working 60 years later.
At age 96, he was on hand for the 2008 off-Broadway production of “Enter Laughing,” a buoyant, retitled version of his flop 1976 musical “So Long, 174th Street,” which, in turn, was based on a play Stein wrote, also called “Enter Laughing.” The comedy about a young man determined to enter show business opened on Broadway in 1963 and showcased a rising new actor named Alan Arkin.
After “Lend an Ear,” Stein and Glickman wrote the short-lived comedy “Mrs. Gibbons’ Boys” (1949) and then contributed sketches to the musical revue “Alive and Kicking” (1950).
The two had their first big success with the book for “Plain and Fancy” (1955), a charming musical that found worldly wise New Yorkers confronting life in a Pennsylvania Amish community. That was followed by “Mr. Wonderful” (1956), the musical that introduced to Broadway Sammy Davis Jr., playing a nightclub performer vaguely similar to Davis himself.
Stein (along with Glickman) first collaborated with Bock and Harnick in 1958 on “The Body Beautiful,” a musical about boxing, which lasted a scant 60 performances. The book writer is usually one of musical theater’s unsung heroes, often getting the blame when a musical doesn’t succeed and receiving little of the credit when a show is a hit.
And Stein had his share of short-lived musicals including “Juno,” an ambitious retelling of Sean O’Casey’s “Juno and the Paycock” with a score by Marc Blitzstein; “King of Hearts” (1978), based on the Philippe de Broca film, and “Rags” (1986), another musical about the immigrant experience.
“Take Me Along” (1959), a musical version of Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness!” starring Jackie Gleason and Walter Pidegon, proved more durable. So did “Zorba,” adapted from the Anthony Quinn movie “Zorba the Greek,” first seen on Broadway in 1968 with Herschel Bernardi in the title role and later (1983) in an even more popular revival starring Quinn.