As an art form, theatre exists on a spectrum. All the way in the left, we have the perhaps-too-"Artistic"/introspective-to-comprehend-without-extreme-analysis works of exploration and experimentation which are filled with thoughtful questions that are maybe never answered or maybe never even clearly posed to us as spectators who are generally sitting in a gerbil-cage type basement or garage or perhaps (perhaps) a studio (See yesterday's entry for lefty-pro August Strindberg). All the way in the right, we have the show-business-flashy lights-easy-pleasing-light-flakey large productions, usually musicals, lately usually movies-turned-musicals, perhaps with a famous songwriter as composer and most definitely something coming to a theatre near you. True writers on the right, the far, far right, will be commissioned for one show (Mary Poppins, maybe) and lose the time they would have spent working on their own stories. The two sides are fierce competitors. But there is a happy middle. Rare and revered, those who balance square in the middle of the spectrum see successes over and over again because writing a large show that is valuable both commercially (Broadway dollers) and intellectually (timeless genius) takes a particular kind of brilliance. Joseph Stein (May 30, 1912 – October 24, 2010) was one of said writers. Today, in memorandum, we honor his birthday and, with it, all of his epic theatrical accomplishments.
You best know Stein from his work writing the book for three-time Tony award winning Fiddler on the Roof (1964). I am only stating my displeasure in watching musicals to highlight the fact that Fiddler is an exceptional example of one because it optimizes the medium more than most of the pieces that have premiered in the past twenty years. Fiddler balances music with narrative. One is never more important than the other. The music in the show conjures an entire world, culture, organismic structure in the small Jewish town of Anatevka, Russia. Set in 1906, the characters live through this culture, supported entirely by the music, to bond with one another during the Tsarist eviction of the Jews. Such a beautiful marriage of musical composition and narrative style is rare but it is incredibly satisfying. Stein also penned the book for the movie (1971) which, if you haven't seen it, is an absolute treasure.
Though perhaps his most successful, Fiddler wasn't Stein's first success. He's written over 10 timeless Broadway shows including Enter Laughing (1963), Zorba (1968) and The Baker's Wife (1989). His first major success was a show called Plain and Fancy (1955). After his Broadway debut with the revue Lend An Ear (1948), Stein was asked to write a show that would promote Pennsylvania the same way that Oklahoma! promoted its namesake. Stein delivered. Plain and Fancy, a show about the ups and downs of Amish living, still runs every year today in a local theatre in Indiana and in 2010 surpassed 3000 productions. It's likeable. It's a likeable show. Amish people like it because it is clean and family-friendly. Stein approached the show with pretension and still with incredible integrity. He wrote a great show without having to walk along any edges and, at the end of it all, that's what made Stein such a gem among writers: He wrote thoughtfully but not dogmatically, intense but never humourless, and he focused on story, story, story as if it were that easy.
Today, on his birthday, we celebrate the memory of Joseph Stein and thank him for years of dedication to the center of our theatre spectrum.