It seems astonishing that when Fiddler on the Roof first opened on Broadway in 1964, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins and starring Zero Mostel as Tevye, it was met with muted reviews. Variety noted that it had no memorable songs, the choreography was undistinguished and the New York writer and Broadway theatre critic, Walter Kerr described the musical as, “a very near miss…”
Despite its inauspicious beginning, it didn’t dent Fiddler’s tremendous popular success. Queues for tickets were the longest he had ever seen, recalls the show’s original producer, Hal Prince in Max Lewkowicz’s affectionate documentary, Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles.
The film, which is dedicated to Prince who died this summer, provides an historical overview of this quintessential, much-loved Jewish musical. Using an extensive number of talking heads from past cast members to academics and well-known fans such as Lin-Manuel Miranda, Lewkowicz explores Fiddler’s origins and the reasons why it is an ongoing global phenomenon with cross-cultural resonance. Since its debut 55 years ago, Fiddler on the Roof has been performed every day somewhere in the world.
Supported throughout with performance clips from different countries, from the latest Yiddish production on Broadway to versions in Japan and Thailand, Lewkowicz has also managed to include Fiddler memorabilia, such as a handwritten note by Robbins which stated that, “The play must celebrate and elevate the life of the shtetl and its peoples.” Robbins was, according to one contributor, highly demanding, sometimes cruel but singular in his vision about what he wanted to create and “bludgeoned” the show together.
Miracle’s greatest strength lies in its interviews with Fiddler’s creators and Lewkowicz centres his documentary on lyricist Sheldon Harnick who, at 95, is the only survivor (both librettist Joseph Stein and composer Jerry Bock died in 2010 but their inclusion via archival footage works seamlessly). Talking over the phone from New York, Lewkowicz explains that he wanted to make a film about Fiddler after meeting Harnick during a Broadway revival. Their initial conversations soon led to a broader understanding of the musical’s significance, he says. “As I was speaking to him, I realised it wasn’t just about making a Broadway show, it was about how art, and certainly theatre, overlaps our lives in terms of what is happening in the world.”
Many commentators point out that Fiddler’s themes of tradition, family, faith, assimilation, community and poverty contribute to its universal appeal. But, says Lewkowicz, the story also has political relevance across three specific time frames, on which he has based his film. “Firstly in 1905, when Sholem Aleichem was writing. Then in 1964 as there was a big period of change in America with the Vietnam war, women’s rights and the civil rights movement. And today. We have with the same issues of refugees, nationalism and antisemitism.”
The idea for Fiddler came from a book, Wandering Stars by Sholem Aleichem that Harnick had received. He gave it to his writing partner, Jerry Bock and, as they both thought there was a musical in it, they approached Joseph Stein. He disagreed with them but instead suggested Aleichem’s stories, Tevye the Milkman because of Tevye’s warmth, humour and deep humanity. Fiddler’s enduring success, Harnick told me in an interview last year, is largely due to Tevye’s character. “He is one of those central, towering, everyman figures, who I think just about everybody manages to identify with. He represents fatherhood and family.”
Harnick explained that he and Bock developed a particular way of working together. Once they knew what the story was, Bock would go into his studio and start to write music and at a certain point he would send Harnick a tape with several numbers on it. One of the film’s delights is to hear excerpts from one of Bock’s early recordings. He tells Harnick that he thinks the tune has possibilities, describing it as ersatz Chasidic. “It’s a little musical comedy but it might be a tour de force, without being cheap but just …bubbly and spirited and kind of kooky,” he says with a giggle before playing the melody of If I Were A Rich Man.
In 1971, the film version of Fiddler on the Roof was released. Directed by Norman Jewison (who is not Jewish despite his name) and starring Chaim Topol as Tevye, the Oscar winning production had enormous reach compared with the Broadway show. Paul Michael Glaser, who played Perchik in the film, comments that Topol brought a different perspective to Tevye’s character — an “Israeliness” that was more demanding of the film’s “why?” motif.
“This may be true, I suppose,” Topol responded to me via email. “When I started playing Tevye on stage [in London] in 1965, a mere 20 years had passed from the end of World War Two and the Holocaust. As an Israeli who had been born and raised in Israel and served in the IDF, I probably brought some of the Sabra roughness to the role.”
The Holocaust looms over Fiddler. In Miracle, Harnick recollects being worried while watching a performance when he witnessed a couple, “marked with suffering” who he suspected had been in a concentration camp.
During the pogrom scene, they appeared to be traumatised, apparently reliving their past through what they were seeing onstage. The experience, he says, was a frightening one.
Lewkowicz agrees that Fiddler is very much part of diaspora Jewry’s collective identity. “I think people look at Fiddler on the Roof as an element of their life, part of their growing up, especially if they are Jewish. People also love Fiddler for the different aspects that relate to their own lives, for example, women’s rights or being cast out by family.”
In Israel, even now, it is regarded as a document of historic importance, writes Topol, with a role of portraying and conserving [the memory of] Jewish life and culture in the eastern European diaspora.
Lewkowicz is incredulous at the response to his documentary. “It’s remarkable,” he says. “I’ve been to dozens of Q&As and afterwards people come up to me and say, ‘Thank you for reintroducing me to an old friend.’”
Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles is released in cinemas from December 13 http://fiddlerfilm.co.uk