'Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles': Film Review

Essential viewing for musical theater nuts.
8/23/2019

A richly detailed survey of the origins and evolution of the 1964 musical classic, and the universal themes that have earned it an enduring place in the pop-culture firmament.

Onscreen text at the end of Max Lewkowicz's loving tribute to Fiddler on the Roof informs us that the landmark show has been performed somewhere around the world every day since its 1964 Broadway opening. In Fiddler: A Miracles of Miracles, members of the original creative team, cultural historians and the directors and casts of both the 1971 film version and countless subsequent stage revivals contribute to an exhaustive, emotional testament to the musical's staying power as popular entertainment and its extraordinary thematic reach.

The documentary makes a persuasive case as to why this show — grounded very specifically in the lives of a persecuted Jewish shtetl community in 1905 Imperial Russia — continues to connect deeply with audiences across vast divides of religion, race, generation, personal experience and sexuality. Its layers of meaning to anyone who has ever felt ostracized alone have cemented its eternal relevance.

One observer, playwright and performer Harvey Fierstein, who played the musical's protagonist, the dairyman Tevye, on Broadway in 2005, adds the succinct point that Fiddler is a musical that speaks entirely differently to the rebellious child, the anxious parent and the older viewer who has lived through both those stages. That expansive resonance should help the Roadside Attractions/Samuel Goldwyn Films release find a responsive audience, with a long shelf life to follow for musical-theater aficionados.

The film opens and closes with Fiddler lyricist Sheldon Harnick on the rooftop of an Upper West Side Manhattan apartment building, picking out the introduction of opening number "Tradition" on a violin, of course. While both composer Jerry Bock and librettist Joseph Stein died in 2010, all three principal creatives are amply represented thanks to pre-existing interviews.

The other critical force in shaping the show — handpicked by producer Harold Prince and nudged to get on board by Stephen Sondheim, an early admirer of the score — was director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, who died in 1998. But Robbins is a vivid presence in the documentary, with biographers and collaborators, including Austin Pendleton and Joanna Merlin, the original lovebirds Motel and Tzeitel in Fiddler, sharing insights on his genius for invention as well as his famously prickly nature. (Bette Midler, who made her Broadway debut in that production, alas is absent.) Robbins' complicated feelings about his own Judaism made him initially reluctant to take on the project. But a 1958 return to the Eastern European village where he had visited his grandparents as a child, finding the whole town erased, apparently affected him greatly.

While the film contains several deep dives into the conception and placement of key numbers in the show, one of the most exhilarating sequences captures the inspiration behind the famed "Bottle Dance" at the wedding of Tzeitel and Motel. Robbins wanted naturalistic dances, not Broadway-style slickness. He took his cue directly from the wild dancing and "ecstatic communion with God" of men at Hassidic weddings, where he witnessed one participant perching a bottle on his hat. Bartlett Sher, who in 2015 directed the fifth Broadway revival, describes the idea as a perfect visual metaphor for the challenge of maintaining balance while entering into a life-changing relationship.

Fitting attention is given to the show's primary source, the short stories of revered turn-of-the-century Russian-Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem, with the world of his prose conjured in illuminating archival images and clips from early film adaptations. (Harnick freely acknowledges that the core lyrics to the musical's most famous song, "If I Were a Rich Man," were pretty much lifted from Aleichem.) And commentators like Fran Lebowitz and Fiddler scholar Alisa Solomon provide valuable historical perspective on a milieu often viewed through the distorting lens of nostalgia.

Lewkowicz also makes resourceful use of Tess Martin's animation, which mixes a naïve art style with the Marc Chagall influences that became so significant to the show's creation — not just in the defining image taken from the painting "The Green Fiddler," but also in Boris Aronson's set designs, beautifully illustrated in the late craftsman's original artwork. Martin's contributions are particularly effective as background for Bock's demo recordings of songs ultimately not used in the show, including the charming "The Little Town Where Papa Came From."

In terms of social context, the doc makes interesting points about this musical, and its depiction of a simple bygone way of life with few comforts beyond faith, being hatched in a cosmopolitan capital of culture, progress and wealth like New York in its heyday. And the early stirrings of the feminist movement are perceived as an influence on the depiction of daughters rejecting the traditional culture of arranged marriages and asserting their independence by making their own choices. Author Nathan Englander's breakdown of the historical reality behind a song like "Matchmaker, Matchmaker" will likely ensure that you never hear it the same way again.

On a more amusing note, we get quick snippets of "If I Were a Rich Man" covers in a range of styles, and while Gwen Stefani's "Rich Girl" sampling is missing, there's a funkadelically cheesy Temptations version from their 1969 G.I.T. on Broadway TV special, and the 2005 metal-punk take by Australian band Yidcore is so wrong it's right.

The 1971 Norman Jewison feature film adaptation yields some terrific material, not least an anecdote recounted by the director about his first meeting with United Artists chairman Arthur B. Krimm about boarding the project, during which Jewison posed the full-disclosure question: "What would you say if I told you I was a goy?" He talks about resisting pressure to cast Broadway's original Tevye, Zero Mostel, and successfully pushing for a first-generation Jew of Russian descent, Chaim Topol. The Israeli actor becomes visibly moved in some of the most touching interview segments, choking up while recalling Tevye's silence as his departing daughter sings "Far From the Home I Love." And lovely footage from the shoot shows Jewison behind the camera, tearing up as he sings along to "Anatevka."

While editor Joseph Borruso handles with assurance the daunting challenge of assembling such a wealth of material into a fluid narrative with plenty of entertaining digressions, the doc could perhaps have been more decisively structured.

Early on, the camera follows actor Danny Burstein, who played Tevye in the Sher revival, up the subway steps and through the stage door of the Broadway Theatre, suggesting that to some extent he will be our guide. But although Burstein and his co-star Jessica Hecht, who played Golde, provide useful insights into their characters, a more prominent role in the doc is occupied by Michael Bernardi, whose father Herschel was a famous Tevye on Broadway, while his son was Burstein's understudy in the part. The connection is undeniable, especially in a show where themes of family are so vital. But the amount of screen time given to Bernardi seems disproportionate, especially when he travels to Ukraine to visit the Jewish refugee village named for Fiddler's fictional setting.

But such quibbles don't detract from the stirring depth of feeling of the filmmakers and their interview subjects for the material, and the compelling case they mount for why it has remained such a global touchstone — demonstrated in clips of productions from Japan to Thailand to the Netherlands. Just hearing an African-American teen discuss playing Golde in her 2017 Brooklyn middle school production speaks volumes, as does the triumph of an all-black and Hispanic school staging in 1970, despite the objections of Jewish faculty, bomb threats and vandalized scenery. As Solomon observes, the show in that case and always was about outsiders protecting their community.

Sadly, no footage is included from Joel Grey's revelatory current production of Fiddler for the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, which became a sensation at Lower Manhattan's Museum of Jewish Heritage last summer and has since transferred to a hit commercial run. But Grey and his remarkable Tevye, Steven Skybell, are among the many eloquent, impassioned speakers in this captivating celebration of a unique American cultural treasure.

Production company: Dog Green Productions
Distributor: Roadside Attractions/Samuel Goldwyn Films

With: Sheldon Harnick, Harold Prince, Austin Pendleton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Joel Grey, Chaim Topol, Harvey Fierstein, Fran Lebowitz, Calvin Trillin, Nathan Englander, Marc Aronson, Michael Bernardi, Danny Burstein, Gurinder Chadha, Ted Chapin, Jeremy Dauber, Paul Michael Glaser, Rosalind Harris, Jessica Hecht, Jan Lisa Huttner, Norman Jewison, Adam Kantor, Samantha Massell, Joanna Merlin, Melanie Moore, Joshua Mostel, Itzhak Perlman, Bartlett Sher, Alexandra Silber, Steven Skybell, Neva Small, Alisa Solomon, Stephen Sondheim, Ted Sperling, Harry Stein, Amanda Vaill
Director: Max Lewkowicz
Writers: Max Lewkowicz, Valerie Thomas
Story consultants: Alisa Solomon, Jan Lisa Huttner
Producers: Max Lewkowicz, Valerie Thomas
Executive producers: Ann Oster, Patti Kenner, Rita Lerner
Director of photography: Scott Shelley
Music: Guy Mintus, Kelly Hall-Tompkins
Editor: Joseph Borruso
Animation: Tess Martin

Rated PG-13, 97 minutes