When Fiddler on the Roof opened in Detroit in 1964, the role of Motel Kamzoil, the tailor, was played by Austin Pendleton, who had actually auditioned for the role of Perchik. When director/choreographer Jerome Robbins ended up offering him the role of Motel instead, he apparently told Pendleton that, “Since we cast you, we’re reconceiving the role of Motel. He’s this utter loser, but just absolutely tenacious—it’s you!” (Alisa Solomon, Wonder of Wonders, page 142). Kind words to start their Fiddler relationship, no? But interpersonal issues aren’t what I want to focus on in this post; rather, it’s Motel’s songs that have attracted my attention.
Going into previews and opening night in Detroit, Motel sang two songs in Fiddler: “Now I Have Everything” in the first act and “Dear, Sweet Sewing Machine” in the second act (Alisa Solomon, Wonder of Wonders, page 191). “Dear, Sweet Sewing Machine,” which was sung early in the second act, was “Motel’s paean to his ‘Dear, Sweet Sewing Machine.’” In it, “he promises, as if taking a matrimonial vow, to love and honor it, to keep it clean and oiled if, in turn, the machine will help him make a living, transforming ‘satin and silk’ into ‘butter and milk.’” According to Alisa Solomon, “the song had always been a favorite at backers’ auditions,” but “Pendleton’s singing scraped by [only] on spirit” even if “he was a terrific actor and his weedy voice fit Motel’s nebbishy character.” Further, audience reactions to the song during previews and on opening night were less than desired. During the first preview, the cast’s townspeople waited to “rush on[stage] as directed once the clapping had peaked” after Pendleton finished singing “Dear, Sweet Sewing Machine;” unfortunately, “there was barely any clapping that night. Almost none. Mostly an awkward silence until the Anatevkans realized they should go ahead and make their entrance” (Alisa Solomon, Wonder of Wonders, page 190).
To fix this problem, Robbins, Sheldon Harnick (lyrics), and Jerry Bock (music) told musical director/vocal arranger Milton Greene that the audience wasn’t “getting the lyrics,” so “the orchestra should play slower and more softly.” Even at the slower tempo, though, the audience at the second preview “greeted the song with indifference.” And, again, at the opening night performance, the audience “did not take to ‘Dear, Sweet Sewing Machine,’ despite the orchestra’s now playing new underscoring at the end instead of stopping and leaving a hole that should have been filled with applause.” With the only “easily available” review of the opening night performance coming in less than favorable—“Everything is ordinary about Fiddler on the Roof except Zero Mostel” (Tew in Variety, as quoted in Alisa Solomon, Wonder of Wonders, page 191)—Pendleton asked Robbins, in a bar, “‘So, Jerry. What are you going to do?’ … Robbins answered calmly: ‘Ten things a day’ … One of the first was dropping, ‘Dear, Sweet Sewing Machine’” (Alisa Solomon, Wonder of Wonders, pages 191-192).
The review in Variety suggested cutting what it called the “forgettable” song, but Robbins didn’t cut “Dear, Sweet Sewing Machine” because of that; rather, he cut it because “‘The audience doesn’t want to hear it. They want to go on.’” As he explained to Harnick, “Tzeitel and Motel’s romance [had] already been resolved by the time that song” came along, so “the audience [was] interested in what will happen with the other daughters and their suitors. ‘You can keep the first couple alive, but you can’t give them a major number,’ Robbins said.” Pendleton, when informed of the cut, “was relieved: ‘It’s no fun being in a number that doesn’t work.’ And anyway, he still had a song in the first act, ‘Now I Have Everything’” (Alisa Solomon, Wonder of Wonders, page 193).
As originally written, “Now I Have Everything,” which was sung in the first act, was Motel’s “exuberant response to Tevye’s accepting him as Tzeitel’s intended: ‘Did you see what I did / When he laughed in my face? / I stood there and stiffened my spine. / The nerve of a tailor to ask for a queen / Without having goods or a sewing machine. / A nothing turned into a Samson, no less, / And lo and behold! You are mine!’” (Alisa Solomon, Wonder of Wonders, page 193). While still in Detroit, though, Bert Convy, who originated the role of Perchik, “lobbied for ‘Now I Have Everything’ to be taken away from Pendleton and given to him. The song’s sentiment fit Perchik better, he argued, and he didn’t have to point out who was the superior singer” (Alisa Solomon, Wonder of Wonders, page 205).
Convy’s efforts, combined with “two inspirations: a note Robbins gave [Harnick] and Bock in a meeting telling them that in response to winning Tzeitel, Motel needed, musically, an outburst of exuberant happiness, and a line Stein had written for Motel in that moment: ‘It’s a miracle!’” From these inspirations came a song “made to order for Pendleton: the melody and chordal harmonies were simpler than those of ‘Now I Have Everything” and the range was tighter.” Pendleton’s Motel had been given the wonderfully joyous song “Miracle of Miracles.”
Perhaps it’s fitting that Pendleton—whom Robbins once thought “had fallen into a rut as Motel and … was simply not working hard enough,” whom Robbins once told, “‘Last night, during the wedding scene I had to leave the theater … I couldn’t bear the thought of that wonderful young woman being married to you’” (Alisa Solomon, Wonder of Wonders, page 204)—ended up with one of the best songs in Fiddler while Convy, who schemed behind his back to steal his song, ended up with one of the two songs most often cut from productions of Fiddler. It’s a miracle!
Motel (Alex Brick) Shows Off His New Sewing Machine to Tzeitel (Rachel Holmes) and other villagers in the 2014 production of “Fiddler on the Roof” done by Children’s Theater of Madison (2014). PHOTO CREDIT: Tom Klingele