It’s hard not to hum “Sunrise, Sunset” (swiftly flow the years…) when reporting the death of Joseph Stein, the playwright who wrote the Semitic-kitsch musical classic “Fiddler on the Roof.” According to the BBC, Stein died at a New York hospital from complications after a fall; the writer had been in care suffering from prostate cancer. He was 98.
Stein earned a degree in social work from Columbia University in 1937 and worked for a decade as a psychiatric social worker, according to JTA. After a chance encounter with Zero Mostel, Stein began writing comedy sketches for radio personalities such as Tallulah Bankhead, Phil Silvers and Jackie Gleason, Broadway World noted. Stein later made his television debut while working with Sid Ceasar, when he joined Your Show of Shows and its impressive crew, including included Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and Larry Gelbart.
“Fiddler,” based on Sholom Aleichem’s “Tevye and His Daughters,” is his biggest success. The show opened on Broadway in September 1964 and ran for over 3,200 performances. Zero Mostel played the lead character, Tevye, a Jewish milkman in Tsarist Russia struggling to confront change both within and around his home and family. “Fiddler” enjoyed many Broadway revivals, most recently in 2004 when British thespian Alfred Molina played Tevye.
AP reported that producers initially “had doubts the story would prove universal enough to attract a large audience.” But director/producer Harold Prince finally mounted the show. “The title ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ was suggested by Chagall’s painting,” Prince wrote in his stage memoir, “Contradictions.” “Joe Stein then accommodated what we all thought was an intriguing title with a monologue at the beginning of the show.”
Stein’s first wife, Sadie Singer, died in 1974, and he is survived by his second wife, Elisa Loti, their daughter, and three sons from his first marriage, according to an obituary in the UK Guardian.