Perhaps because I got to the Fiddler on the Roof party late, seeing the movie decades after its original release, and perhaps because my tolerance for musicals is low, no matter how meritorious the execution and/or subject matter, I’ve never fallen under the spell of this particular picture. Nonetheless, I’m keenly aware of how deep a place both the film and the original stage musical of Fiddler on the Roof hold in the hearts of millions of fans. Therefore, please consider these remarks to be, at best, the musings of a casual viewer rather than the insights of someone who knows this particular beloved classic well. That said, in order to underscore the film’s significance, it’s helpful to begin by listing some of the ways in which Fiddler on the Roof is unique. Not only does the movie tell one of the most unapologetically Jewish stories in Hollywood history, but it’s also a three-hour epic about politics and poor people—meaning that Fiddler on the Roof comprises several elements that conventional wisdom deems box-office poison. Nonetheless, the movie is so beautiful on so many levels, from acting to cinematography to music to underlying narrative themes, that the spirit of the piece wins the day.
Adapted by producer-director Norman Jewison and screenwriter Joseph Stein from a 1954 musical, which was based upon the 1894 Sholem Aleichem novel Tevye and His Daughters (originally published in Yiddish), the movie takes place in early 20th-century Russia, just prior to the Soviet revolution. Tevye (Topol) is the patriarch of a poor family in the town of Anatevka, which is divided into poor and wealthy neighborhoods. Since Tevye provides the audience’s window into the film’s story and themes, he begins the experience by singing “Tradition,” which explains the importance within his culture of adhering to old ways, and by commencing the first of his many conversations with an unseen God. Tevye is endearing right from his first entrance, for while he’s in many ways tethered to an obsolete past, his ability to weigh options (catchphrase: “On the other hand . . .”) reveals a complexity of morality and thought that precludes simple interpretations of his character. The same is true of the movie itself—by encompassing everything from marriage rituals to pogroms (which in modern parlance would be referred to as ethnic-cleansing raids), Fiddler on the Roof dramatizes the historical precariousness of Jewish life with a rich combination of anguish, levity, and wisdom.
While Teyve faces such challenges as reconciling his family’s need for improved social position with his daughter’s desire to marry for love, he wrestles with issues that straddle the personal, the philosophical, and the political. Thus, any attempt to marginalize Fiddler on the Roof as “merely a musical” is foolhardy, even though the movie bursts with the alternately joyous and melancholy strains of familiar tunes including “If I Were a Rich Man,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” and “To Life.” Jewison and his expert collaborators, including cinematographer Oswald Morris, treat Fiddler on the Roof as a proper epic, shooting locations for beauty and realism, and the actors were chosen for authenticity instead of notoriety. For instance, leading man Topol was hired instead of the boisterous Zero Mostel, who originated the Teyve role on Broadway and was, at the time of this film’s release, enjoying a big-screen comeback following the success of The Producers (1968). The casting was key to giving the film aesthetic integrity, not only because Topol is so humane but also because Mostel was almost pathologically averse to subtlety.
Fiddler on the Roof: RIGHT ON