By EW Staff
June 18, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

A fiddler on the roof-sounds crazy, no?” muses the patriarch Tevye at the beginning of Fiddler on the Roof. And the answer, when the show opened on Sept. 22, 1964, had to be undeniably yes. No one expected a musical about a poor Russian Jew who sang of becoming rich and of marrying off his five daughters to become one of the biggest hits in Broadway history. But on June 17, 1972, Fiddler on the Roof had the last mazel tov, holding its 3,225th performance, surpassing records for both play (Life With Father, 3,224) and musical (Hello, Dolly!, 2,844). A full 3,225 balloons were released in the audience that night, with Hizzoner John Lindsay himself attending. Lyricist Sheldon Harnick, now 69 and living in Manhattan, remembers that most Broadway insiders wouldn’t have bet a single kopeck on Fiddler’s success; it was considered ”too ethnic” for a general audience. ”There were complaints that people who didn’t understand Yiddish wouldn’t get it,” he says. ”Our hope was that maybe it would run a season.” (Harnick, who won a Grammy in 1963 for She Loves Me, received a Tony for Fiddler in 1965-one of nine the show collected that year.) They needn’t have worried. Fiddler’s touching tale of family, spirituality, and, of course, ”Tradition” struck a chord with critics and audiences alike. Its star power didn’t hurt either. The dynamic Zero Mostel brought to the Everymensch role of Tevye a grizzled self-effacement; Jerome Robbins’ direction and choreography were dazzling; and Bea Arthur, who perfected her wiseacre persona later on Maude and The Golden Girls, was the irresistibly meddling matchmaker, Yente. Audiences also adored the score, which featured ”Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” ”If I Were a Rich Man,” and the haunting ”Sunrise, Sunset.” Ironically, Fiddler became a victim of its own success. In 1971, Topol had starred in a film version, which won three Oscars. So many people had seen the movie, Harnick says now, ”that in the end, it was undone by its own popularity.” So on July 2, less than a month after its gala, Fiddler packed its Broadway bags to leave the village of Anatevka for the last time. A Chorus Line would later kick its way to the top of the heap (6,137 performances), but nothing on Broadway has surpassed the spiritual toast left by Fiddler: ”L’Chaim!”

TIME CAPSULE June 17, 1972 Cannes Jury Prize winner Slaughterhouse-Five was playing the big screen, and radio was sweet on Sammy Davis Jr.’s ”The Candy Man.” But the import of another event would not be known until later: Five burglars were caught that morning breaking into Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate.