Harry Stein Summer 2014
Joseph Stein’s comic circle and the transformation of American popular culture
My father, playwright Joseph Stein, was so vital for so long that when he died in October 2010, at 98, some people were actually taken by surprise. Nearly half a century after his greatest success, Fiddler on the Roof, he had been hard at work on a new musical. At the service, I began my eulogy with an anecdote from a few years earlier. My father and stepmother were en route from New York to Westport, Connecticut, where one of his old shows was being revived, when he began feeling ill. They called ahead, and by the time they arrived at the theater, an EMS crew was waiting.
“How do you feel?” asked the head EMS guy.
“I don’t feel so good.”
“What hurts you?”
“It hurts me that George Bush is president.” The line drew a roar from the huge crowd at Riverside Memorial Chapel, as I knew it would. These were his people, New York theater folk, as reliably left a bunch as you’re likely to find anywhere outside a university campus. It was my parting gift to a man I’d loved greatly and—over the previous decade or so, since moving to the right—had argued with incessantly. Though anyone with a passing acquaintance with my father knew that he was almost preternaturally good-humored, someone able to wring a laugh from even the direst of circumstances, this was something he just couldn’t wrap his head around.
It was a situation surely familiar to others in families sharply split along ideological lines, though the generational divide generally runs in the opposite direction. My father simply couldn’t fathom how any thinking person, let alone someone who’d imbibed politics at his knee, could have ended up a . . . well, he never actually used the word, at least not directly. The closest he ever came was reporting the reaction of a friend, one of Broadway’s better-known composers, who had come across something I’d written: “When did your son become a Fascist?” For my part, I understood his worldview far better—a Communist in young adulthood, he’d been a proud progressive ever since—but I found him no less frustrating. In other respects thoughtful, even wise, how could he not see the damage that today’s aggrieved and self-righteous Left was inflicting on the country we both loved? To the contrary, having lived to see Barack Obama elected and his health-care plan bludgeoned to passage, my father was delighted with the drift of things. Indeed, a few months before he died, he confided, only partly joking, what few others on his side of the political spectrum would be honest enough to admit, assuming that they were astute enough to grasp it: “I never moved, the Democratic Party came to me.”