Some might find it surprising that when “Fiddler on the Roof” opened its tryout run in Detroit in 1964, the reviews were tepid at best, and the critics expressed reservations even when it had its Broadway premiere, though by that time the iconic opening number “Tradition”—which encapsulated the theme of the narrative, drawn from Sholem Aleichem’s stories about the family and neighbors of long-suffering milkman Tevye, living in the Ukrainian shtetl of Anatevka in 1905—had been added to the score.
Yet “Fiddler” ran in New York for nearly eight years, spawned a long series of international productions as well as regular Broadway revivals, and has been widely mounted in local and amateur versions over the decades. Indeed, it has become one of the best-loved musicals ever written, and a faithful screen adaptation—though decidedly uneven in many respects—remains a staple.
How all of this happened is the stuff of Max Lewkowicz’s affectionate documentary, whose subtitle—taken from the lyrics, of course—indicates that it is a sort of hagiography, not of a saint but of a show.
Broadway buffs will naturally embrace the film, offering as it does sort of play-by-play account of the creation of the original production, replete with reminiscences (some from archival interviews, others from new ones) with the creators—writer Joseph Stein, composer Jerry Bock, lyricist Sheldon Harnick, producer Harold Prince—and cast members like Austin Pendleton. All pay tribute to the show’s original director, the late Jerome Robbins, whose choreographic contributions are especially celebrated. There are also archival clips with the original star Zero Mostel (performing on the Dick Cavett show); his son Josh is also interviewed and the Tevyes from other productions (one doing a duet with Danny Kaye on his variety show) and revivals appear briefly as well.
Other interviewees comment on the effect the show had on them—including Joel Grey, who directed a recent revival of the show in Yiddish, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, who actually incorporated a number from the show into his wedding ceremony. And there are sequences about unusual performances, like an early one at a high school with roles taken by African-American and Hispanic students, sparking some complaints from Jewish teachers—and even some vandalism. The student performers, as we see, became very protective of their work, because the travails of the characters reflected the difficulties in their own lives.
The basic point being made, of course, is that the musical, while specifically about a small Jewish community at the beginning of the twentieth century, carries a universal theme about people who are persecuted and displaced, and about families and communities torn apart by bigotry, politics, and—sometimes—antiquated traditions.
Yet the story also retains its sense of particularity about what European Jews suffered in the last century—and, given a recent rise in anti-Semitism around the globe, the threat they continue to face today. The point is perhaps made most poignantly when Michael Bernardi, the son of Herschel (who also played Tevye on Broadway), visits a Jewish refugee village in Ukraine named Anatevka, where a moving performance of some of the show’s music is presented.
The making of the movie is also considered, with director Norman Jewison and star Topol, among others, offering their recollections, some very funny.
Comprising a remarkable array of archival material and newly-shot footage by Scott Shelley (including some clever animation by Tess Martin, which recalls the style of Marc Chagall that also influenced Boris Aronson’s original set design), the documentary can seem scattershot at times, but Joseph Borruso’s editing keeps the occasionally bumpy ride moving along nicely, while the score by Guy Mintus and Kelly Hall-Tompkins adds to the air of mixed joy and melancholy.
When “Fiddler” opened fifty-five years ago, Broadway critic Norman Nadel remarked that you didn’t have to be Jewish to like it. One might add that you don’t have to love “Fiddler on the Roof” to like this tribute to it, either. It’s a loving salute to a show that has understandably retained its place in the public’s affection for more than half a century.