One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 79
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
Nearly 60 years after its theatrical premiere and 50 years following the release of its 1971 film adaptation, the musical Fiddler on the Roof remains as beloved, fresh and vital as it did when it first opened at Broadways’ Imperial Theater in New York City in 1964.
Let’s add “frequently performed” to that list, too, as Fiddler is currently in the middle of its latest national tour, a revival directed by Broadway mainstay Bartlett Sher that was initially derailed in 2020 by the pandemic. On the road again, recent months have seen it mounted everywhere from El Paso, Tex. to Birmingham, Ala., with an upcoming run scheduled to open at the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown, N.J. on June 17.
Meanwhile, there are a pair of recently released documentaries on the Fiddler on the Roof phenomenon that do a fine job up taking up the slack created by the pandemic delay.
The latest film, Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen, which was directed by Daniel Raim, focuses on the show’s 1971 Hollywood movie adaptation. It opens at New York City’s Angelika Theater on Friday, April 29 while also rolling out to Jewish film festivals across the country. And currently streaming on most major platforms is Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles, directed by Max Lefkowicz, which pays tribute to the genesis of the Broadway production and its subsequent versions, along with offering an expansive survey on the show’s enduring popularity over the decades.
As both documentaries detail, Fiddler on the Roof is based on the story Tevye and his Daughters and other tales by Sholom Aleichem, the central figure of early 20th century Yiddish literature. It tells of the lives of the poor dairyman Tevye and his family in the village of Anatevka in the Western region of the Imperial Russian Empire circa 1905.
Featuring music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and a book by Joseph Stein, Fiddler on the Roof’s legacy is the stuff of theatrical legend. The most successful English-language stage production ever about Jewish life in Eastern Europe, Fiddler was the first Broadway musical production in history to surpass 3,000 performances (in a nearly eight-year run). It won the 1965 Tony Award for Best Musical and eight other Tonys, including acting honors for stars Zero Mostel and Maria Karnilova for their portrayals of Tevye and his wife Golde.
The show has been revived on Broadway five times since closing in 1972, and that doesn’t even count 2018’s nearly two-year Off-Broadway run of an all-Yiddish version by the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene, directed by Joel Grey. (There were English language supertitles projected on either side of the stage.) Fiddler on the Roof has been performed in every metropolitan city in the world. And in an essay in 2003’s Key Texts in American Jewish Culture, Brandeis University professor Stephen Whitfield wrote that there are an estimated 500 amateur productions a year in the U.S. alone.
A look at the docs finds Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles brimming with recently filmed interviews and archival footage which bring the saga of the Broadway smash to life. The fine footage of the late artists Zero Mostel and director Jerome Robbins (gone for 50 and 25 years, respectively) actually plays second fiddle (no pun intended) to the insightful commentary offered by producer Hal Prince (who passed in 2019) and the creative triumvirate of Bock, Harnick and Stein (of whom Harnick is still alive and kicking at 97). All are lively and engaging in their discussion of the musical’s original conception, its spirited choreography and Marc Chagall-influenced production design, and Mostel’s frequently difficult behavior.
Others on tap to discuss the show’s strengths and influence over the years include Stephen Sondheim, former Broadway Tevyes Harvey Fierstein and Danny Burstein and Tevye offspring Josh Mostel and Michael Bernardi (son of Hershel Bernardi). Superfan Lin-Manuel Miranda (who also appears in Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen) turns up with home video footage of him singing the Fiddler song “To Life” to his new bride and friends at his 2010 wedding reception.
The worldwide appeal of the show is highlighted with cutaways to a New York high school version of the play and various international productions, including a Tokyo staging from 2017 that starred the popular Japanese performer Masachika Ichimura as Tevye. Mounted at the prestigious Nissay Theater and marking the 50th anniversary of the show’s premiere in Japan, Fiddler is the Toho Stage Company’s most popular and frequently revived musical. As Fiddler is a show about tradition and, clearly, the difficulties of maintaining traditions in modern times, it’s not hard to imagine that its tale of a father and his daughters in a fast-changing world would click with Japanese audiences.
Norman Jewison, director of the 1971 film version of Fiddler on the Roof (which he deems a “spiritual and creative quest”), leads the charge of interviewees and vintage footage and clips in Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen. The non-Jewish Canadian-born filmmaker, got his start helming live television in the Fifties and Doris Day movies in the early Sixties, before moving on to such substantial films as the Oscar-winning In the Heat of the Night (1967) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). As for Fiddler, he only has positive memories of the production, which was largely shot outside the city of Zagreb in the former Yugoslavia production and at London’s Pinewood Studios.
Jewison’s pleasant remembrances are seconded in other recent interviews with Israeli-born actor Topol, who portrayed Tevye, and actresses Rosalind Cash, Michele Marsh and Neva Small, who played his daughters. Cash has the most vivid recollections of the group, particularly as she recounts Jewison’s reaction to the time she and her celluloid sisters decided to “go Method” and groom themselves like early 20th century Russian women. (“Go shave those pits right now!” was Jewison’s bellowing on-set reaction.)
The film was a box office hit and nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director for Jewison, Best Actor for Topol, and Best Music and Scoring Adaptation for John Williams, who won his award, the first of his five Oscar victories over the years out of a staggering 62 nominations (many of them for films he scored for Steven Spielberg).
Jewison would be awarded an Oscar years later (an Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1999), but hopefully even more rewarding for him are the memories that came out of Fiddler’s production.
As Jewison has recounted many times over the years, in 1970, he was summoned to a meeting with United Artists studio chief Arthur Krim, who asked him if he would direct the film version of Fiddler on the Roof.
Jewison took a breath and responded, “What would you say if I told you I was a goy?”
After a moment’s hesitation, Krim told him that the offer was still good.
The punchline to that infamous exchange is that the not-quite-Jewish Jewison went on to further prove his diversity with his very next film project: 1973’s Jesus Christ Superstar.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.