"L'chaim! To the best musical of all time!"
Most people either simply adore musicals, or think they are ridiculously contrived. Even aware of the risk, I can say without fear of mockery that the 1971 film adaptation of the classic musical Fiddler on the Roof is not only one of the best musicals of all time; it is also one of the best movies ever made.
I understand that a five-star rating is a bold move, so I’m starting with a full disclosure: I am one of those ‘silly’ people who love musicals! The only musical I won’t watch is Grease, but I blame this on the insufferable popularization of this musical among those who know nothing else about the genre. (Ironically, the original Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof, which opened in 1964, held the record of the longest-running musical for 10 years, until it was surpassed by Grease.)
However, the real reason I bestow a crown of five stars upon Fiddler on the Roof has less to do with my adoration of lyrical storytelling, and more to do with this specific film’s ability to win over even the most ardent skeptic of musicals—the male.
Joseph Stein did so well writing the play and screenplay for Fiddler on the Roof that Mr. Tough Guy will forget himself for three hours and one Entr’acte to smile or cross his eyebrows as the Jews of Anatevka, at the turn of the Twentieth Century, balance on their little piece of Russian land and cling to tradition, as they are battered by modern ideas and the will of the Tsar.
It’s difficult to choose which aspect of the film is most responsible for its universality: the humanity of the characters; the seamless, purposeful integration of the songs into the storyline; the authentic and beautiful depiction of Jewish life; or the timelessness of its theme of generational evolution articulated within such an affective cultural and historical context.
Though the casting of Tevye, the Jewish peasant who narrates and plays the lead, was controversial—as the film’s director Norman Jewison (who, interestingly, is not Jewish) chose Chaim Topol over Zero Mostel, who made the role famous on Broadway—it couldn’t have been more perfect. Topol personified Tevye in the most likeable way: with humor and resonance; showing humility and pride; religious, yet questioning. Throughout the film, Topol talks and sings directly to the audience or to God with the poignant sincerity of an unlearned, but world-wise man. After seeing Topol’s passionate rendition of Tevye’s, “If I Were a Rich Man,” whence he chides God, like a best friend, over his Fate as a poor man, the stage version of Fiddler on the Roof will never be enough. (It is rumored that Topol had a severe toothache during the filming of the "If I Were a Rich Man" number.) Perhaps Jewison had seen Topol completely dominate the role of Tevye in the London production of Fiddler on the Roof and knew that this gamble would pay off. Surprisingly Topol never won an Oscar for his performance in Fiddler on the Roof, but he did win the 1971 Golden Globe for “Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy.” As of 2009, Topol was still performing the role in regional theater. (For the record, Gene Hackman won the coveted Best Actor award in 1971 for his portrayal of the world-weary cop in The French Connection.)
Norma Crane, played Tevye’s wife, Golda, very convincingly. Though many are likely to overlook her portrayal of this no-nonsense woman, it is she who tries the hardest to keep her family walking along the Jewish tradition. There is a lot of work to be done before the Sabbath, for example, and her ‘nagging’ is well understood. Tevye and Golda were “blessed,” according to Tevye, with five daughters; the three eldest, Tzeital, Hodel and Chava, were played by Rosalind Harris, Michele Marsh and Neva Small, respectively. Golda, like the mother in Pride and Prejudice, is somewhat obsessed with securing husbands for her daughters that can provide them stability, rather than romance. One of the most memorable scenes in Fiddler on the Roof is the three eldest daughters’ sarcastic plea, in the song “Matchmaker”, for Yente, the village matchmaker, played by Molly Picon, to hurry and find husbands for them.
Early in the movie, the eldest daughter, Tzeital, bravely bypasses the traditional ‘matchmaking’ process and pledges herself to be married to a poor tailor and her childhood friend Motel Kamzoil, played by Leonard Frey. Frey played the minor part of Mendel, the rabbi’s son, in the London production, but won an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor as Motel in the film version. Frey successfully balanced Motel’s weakness of constitution with his strength of character so that Motel remains a loveable hero, rather than an invisible character who could easily be written off by the audience.
Though this five-star film fell short in the acting categories at the Academy Awards, it justifiably won three Oscars for Best Song Score Adaptation, Best Sound and Best Cinematography. In fact, the notorious American composer Jon Williams won his very first Oscar (of five) for his score in Fiddler on the Roof. Granted, Williams was endowed with a banquet of songs, by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, from the play; but Williams arranged them so powerfully when scoring the film that the Academy felt him worthy of the Oscar.
The song “Tradition,” introduced in the film’s prologue, is repeated throughout Fiddler on the Roof as a desperate battle cry against the infiltration of the modern world into the Jewish household and the Anti-Semitic challenges to the Jews’ right to even have a Home. “Sabbath Prayer,” a beautiful and solemn duet by Tevye and Golda sung around the Sabbath dinner table, reinforced the seriousness of the themes, which, at other times, evolved lightheartedly. The over-the-top, theatrical musical numbers “To Life,” “Tevye’s Dream” and “Wedding Celebration” incorporate song, dance, costume and spectacle without feeling like an unwelcome imposition on the storyline. None of the songs in Fiddler on the Roof seem awkwardly spontaneous; and herein lies this musical’s success.
Director of Photography Oswald Morris earned the Oscar for Best Cinematography partly because of his wild creativity. In order to render a brown, earthy tone he decided to shoot the entire film with a woman’s stocking over the lens. To achieve the washed out look of “Tevye’s Dream” sequence, Morris shot the musical number in sepia, rather than in full color. The natural beauty of the scenery also added to Fiddler on the Roof’s cinematic win. Though the production company couldn’t gain permission to film in Communist Russia, in part because of its open criticism of Russian pogroms, President Tito of Yugoslavia (what is now Croatia), a huge movie fan, allowed filming to take place in his country. There were a few scenes that had to be filmed in Pinewood, on the outskirts of London, due to inclement weather.
Fiddler on the Roof provides non-Jews with a window into the rarely seen habits of Jewish daily life. Production designer Robert Boyle took great care to ensure that Jewish customs were portrayed as accurately as possible. For example, Boyle studied the plans of over 100 turn-of-the-century Ukrainian synagogues before designing the one that appears in the film. That being said, Fiddler on the Roof can be a very educational film for those of us who may never have the pleasure of being invited to a traditional Jewish dinner or wedding.
Fiddler on the Roof is suitable for all audience, as it is Rated G.
This post appears courtesy of our sister site, Beaufort County NOW, with their expressed permission.