If I Were a Rich Man (song)
"If I Were a Rich Man" is a show tune from the 1964 musical Fiddler on the Roof. It was written by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock. The song is performed by Tevye, the main character in the musical, and reflects his dreams of glory.
The title is inspired by a 1902 monologue by Sholem Aleichem in Yiddish, Ven ikh bin a Rothschild (If I were a Rothschild), a reference to the wealth of the Rothschild family, although the content is quite different. The lyric is based in part on passages from Sholem Aleichem’s 1899 short story "The Bubble Bursts." Both stories appeared in English in the 1949 collection of stories Tevye's Daughters.
The Oxford Companion to the American Musical wrote that the song has "cantor-like chanting", and is "the most revealing of the many character numbers". The Broadway Musical: A Critical and Musical Survey explained that the song contained the most number of Jewish "commonplaces" than any other number in the score; it added the song does twofold: it "offers such a strong dose of idiom early in the show [which] is good for the overall unity", and the "important dramatic function" of introducing the central character of Tevye through song. History of the Literary Cultures of East-Central Europe argues the song is based on a poem entitled "If I were Rothschild", in reference to a famous and wealthy Jewish entrepreneur. Leading Your Family to Water notes that given a wealthy existence, interestingly Tevye says he would use the time not spent working to "learn more about his faith". The Grammar Devotional likens the phrase "if I were a rich man" to the Cowardly Lion's "if I were king of the forest" in The Wizard of Oz in the context of imagining a scenario. The song is inspired by a Hasidic folk song.
Lyrics and style
The song is broken into four verses, with a bridge between the third and fourth and a chorus sung at the beginning of the song, and after the second and fourth verses.
Musically, it is written in a Jewish klezmer style.
Through the first two verses, Tevye dreams of the material comforts that wealth would bring him. Sung boisterously and comedically, Tevye first considers the enormous house he would buy and the needless luxuries he would fill it with, including a third staircase "leading nowhere, just for show," then the poultry he would buy to fill his yard.
Tevye switches his attention to the luxuries in which he would shower his wife, Golde, in the third verse. He talks of servants to alleviate her workload, fancy clothes for her pleasure, and mountains of food. The song is sung in the same boisterous, comedic style.
The music and vocals intensify during the bridge, when Tevye starts lamenting his place in the community as a lowly milkman, and considers the esteem and importance that wealth would bring him.
In the final verse, Tevye softens as he further considers his devotion to God. He expresses his sorrow that the long working hours he keeps prevents him from spending as much time in the synagogue as he would like, and how wealth would allow him to spend less time working and more time praying and studying the Torah, and finally asking God if "it would spoil a vast eternal plan" if he were wealthy.
A repeated phrase throughout the song, "all day long I'd bidi-bidi-bum," is often misunderstood to refer to Tevye's desire not to have to work. However, in an interview with Terry Gross, Sheldon Harnick said he basically made up syllables that he thought would give the effect of Chassidic chanting. The first person to play Tevye, Zero Mostel, then replaced the syllables Harnick had written with ones that Mostel thought would be more authentic.
Cover versions and translations
- The Hebrew version lyrics (first released in 1965) are taken directly from the original Sholem Aleichem story. The title and chorus are "לו הייתי רוטשילד" Lu hayiti Rotshild: 'If I were Rothschild'.
- In 1966, Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass recorded an instrumental version for their album What Now My Love.
- In September 1967 Bill and Boyd's version peaked at No. 24 on the Go-Set National Top 40 in Australia.
- In 1967, Chaim Topol recorded a version, billed as Topol and also credited as 'From the London cast production "Fiddler On The Roof"'(CBS 202651), it entered the U.K. singles chart on 20 April 1967 where it remained for 20 consecutive weeks peaking at 9.
- In 1967, Ronnie Hilton recorded a version.
- In 1967, Roger Whittaker recorded a version.
- In 1967, Rolf Harris recorded a version.
- In 1967, Herschel Bernardi charted with his version (Billboard "Bubbling Under The Top 100", Record World "Non-Rock" surveys).
- In 1968, Sergio Franchi recorded this song in his show-stopping English/Hebrew version in a medly with "To Life/Le Chaim" on his RCA album Wine and Song.
- In 1968, the song was covered in "Ah! Si j'étais riche," by Ivan Rebroff, and "Si j'avais des millions," with lyrics by Charles Aznavour and sung by Dalida.
- In 1968, Lasse Mårtenson covered the song in Finnish: "Rikas mies jos oisin".
- Big Boss and Winsome made a new French version: "Ah! Si j'étais riche", which was different from Ivan Rebroff's version.
- In 1970, Romanian rock band Mondial released a cover of the song on an EP featuring singer Gică Petrescu, together with "The Impossible Dream" (previously recorded by Jack Jones in 1966) and another two covers. Only the chorus and first couplet can be heard on this recording, mainly because of the timing limitations a single disc carries.
- In 1970, Turkish version Ah Bir Zengin Olsam lyrics written by "Y. Taşer" and performed by Tanju Okan.
- In the 1980s Frankie Vaughan recorded his version for his album Love Hits and High Kicks.
- In 1999, Lady Saw covered the song.
- In 2001 the Australian punk band Yidcore recorded the song for their self-titled debut album.
- Indie band The Magnetic Fields covered the song on the Fiddler on the Roof tribute album, Knitting on the Roof.
- In 2013, French baritone David Serero recorded a French version which he modernized on a videoclip.
- In 1991, it was sampled on Massive Attack's song Daydreaming, from their debut album Blue Lines.
- In 1993, it was interpolated for the song "Rich Girl" by Louchie Lou & Michie One. This version would later be remade in 2004 by Gwen Stefani and Eve under the same name for Stefani's debut solo album Love. Angel. Music. Baby..
- The song was parodied in an episode of The Man Show, which featured Jimmy Kimmel as a little person, accompanied by a song titled “If I Were a Midget.”
- Allan Sherman sang a satire on the song as "If I were a Tishman" about building structures in the big cities, from his album "Together".
- In the parody musical A Shoggoth on the Roof, based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft, the character Obed Marsh sings a parody of the song titled "If I were a Deep One".
- In the Animaniacs episode "Pigeon on the roof", which is exactly a spoof of the film, the song was parodied by Pesto Goodfeather, entitled as "If I Were The Godpigeon".
- In a World AIDS Day benefit, the original cast of Avenue Q and the cast of a recent Broadway revival of Fiddler On The Roof presented a 10-minute performance that was essentially a spoof of Fiddler and Avenue Q called "Avenue Jew"; Shprintze falls for Jewish-American Princeton, but Tevye forbids their union because he is a puppet, even when he tells Princeton he likes him. Princeton only says "I know, I know. If I were a human..."
- The January 1973 issue of Mad Magazine featured a parody of the then-recent film adaptation of Fiddler titled Antenna on the Roof and recasting the characters as the affluent Jewish descendants of the original characters, living in a modern American suburb. The patriarch recites "If I Were a Poor Man", describing in ironic terms the problems of wealth.
- Sesame Street spoofs the song as "If I Were the Letter B".
Appearances in other media
- In 1983, Matthew Smith used it as the background music in the seminal ZX Spectrum game Jet Set Willy.
- In a season 4 episode of the 1980s sitcom Perfect Strangers, Balki Bartokomous, in his hopes of winning, sang part of the song after buying a lottery ticket.
- An easter egg on the DVD of the 2004 film Spider-Man 2 features Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) singing the song. Molina had played the role of Tevye on Broadway.
- In the Seinfeld episode The Limo, George Costanza can be heard absent-mindedly whistling the song in a limo full of members of the Aryan Union.
- The song was heard in the King of Queens episode "Hi-Def Jam".
- Part of the song is also heard being hummed by some guards in the first game of the series Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell.
- John Safran sings the song to various Palestinians including leaders of Hamas and the Palestinian Liberation Organization on the third episode of his show John Safran's Race Relations.
- In a season 3 episode of 'Til Death, a Jewish man sings the song to Brad Garrett's character Eddie Stark.
- "Fiddler On The Roof - Tradition Lyrics". www.lyricsmania.com.
- Tevye's Daughters, by Sholom Aleichem, translated by Frances Butwin (1949). "The Bubble Bursts" appears on pages 1–15, "If I Were Rothschild" on pages 16–19.
- Hischak, Thomas (2008). "The Oxford Companion to the American Musical". google.com.au. Oxford University Press.
- Swain, Joseph (2002). "The Broadway Musical: A Critical and Musical Survey". google.com.au. Scarecrow Press.
- Wolitz, Seth (2006). Cornis-Pope, Marcel; Neubauer, John, eds. "Ashkenaz or the Jewish Presence in East-Central Europe". History of the Literary Cultures of East-Central Europe: Junctures and disjunctures in the 19th and 20th centuries, Volume 2. John Benjamins Publishing.
- "Leading Your Family to Water". google.com.au.
- "The Grammar Devotional". google.com.au.
- "Soundtrack Available". google.com.au.
- "tefilla - Meaning of "bidi-bidi-bum" - Mi Yodeya". stackexchange.com.
- "'Fiddler' Composer Jerry Bock, 1928-2010". NPR.org. 5 November 2010.
- Nimmervoll, Ed (6 September 1967). "National Top 40". Go-Set. Waverley Press. Retrieved 29 March 2014.
- Rice, Tim; Rice, Jo; Gambaccini, Paul; Read, Mike (1985). Guinness British Hit Singles (5th ed.). Guinness Superlatives Limited. ISBN 0-85112-429-1.
- http://www.discogs.com Archived 2012-04-21 at the Wayback Machine. Sergio Franchi
- on 's channelYouTube
- David Serero - Ah! Si J'étais Riche. YouTube. 5 August 2014.