The 1971 Tony Awards were, for me, arguably the great special ever on TV. Produced by Alexander Cohen and written by his wife Hildy Parks, they saluted the 25th anniversary of the Tonys' birth by bringing back the original stars from each of the previous 25 Tony Award-winning musicals, to sing their iconic song for the show. It was quite remarkable.
I have a few of them upcoming. (Many have been included in several DVDs promoted as Broadway's greatest hits.) Since I've showed several non-Zero Mostel versions of "If I Were a Rich Man" from Fiddler on the Roof, the award-winner in 1964 (presented in 1965), I figured it would be nice to start with the man himself, Zero Mostel singing the original version of "his" song. You get the sense watching it here that he relished the opportunity to re-create this before his peers. I suspect all the performers that night did, too, especially those from some of the earlier shows, but Mostel really seems to throw himself into it. And the audience seems just as much to revel in seeing him again.
From stories I've read, Zero Mostel was tremendous in the show and deserving of his fame for it, but he got bored easily and later on would phone in performances. Whether that's true or not, I don't know -- but it was the same story I heard when he agreed to do a revival tour of the show in the mid-1970s. I saw him do the show in Los Angeles during that tour, and if he phoned in some of the performances (or didn't), he certainly didn't that night. And he was exuberant as he was here in this video.
By the way, the role of Tevye, taken from the Sholem Aleichim stories, was originally envisioned for the musical as a small, thin man. When Mostel was hired, though, that concept went out the window and songwriters Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock had to re-envision some of their score. As part of that, they came up with a number that would take advantage of Mostel's larger-than-life vibrancy, and the result was "If I Were a Rich Man."
Harnick has said that in researching the show and that particular number, he was quite taken with the Yiddish chanting her heard from cantors and other singers in the Yiddish community. But he was unable to duplicate it himself, try as he might. So instead, the best he could come up with was, "Digguh digguh diddle dum." And so, that's what we have today.
For all the wonderful performers who came after, here's the original...
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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