Review: Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen

Daniel Raim’s lo-fi documentary on the film version of the Broadway play Fiddler on the Roof is about exploring a world lost to time, but twice removed. On the one hand, the musical itself, based on stories by the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, depicts a lifestyle—the Jewish shtetl of Imperial Russia—that had all but vanished by the eve of World War I. But the documentary itself depicts a world of popular culture that is also gone. The film version of Fiddler was made in 1971, when Broadway was still dominated by conventional narrative-arc musicals that were considered, as Pauline Kael so memorably put it, “square” to more progressive theatrical sensibilities of the day. In that regard, Fiddler not only represented the last gasp of classical postwar American musical theater, but, as a film version of an extremely popular work of imagination, a kind of unicorn in the entertainment realm. As narrator Jeff Goldblum explains in almost mystical awe, Fiddler shouldn’t have been a hit in the first place. Based on stories almost 70 years old about an Old World community that only very few were likely to identify with even indirectly, it nevertheless found a huge audience due to the universality of its theme–the fragility of family. Tevye, the poor dairyman, has to marry off three of his five daughters, and in the process comes face-to-face with a world whose changes he doesn’t understand but must abide by. 

The central figure in the documentary is director Norman Jewison, whose credentials in musical film were impeccable, having worked in Canadian and American television on many music programs with people like Judy Garland and Harry Belafonte. However, as he explains so clearly (in footage that seems to range over several decades, thus indicating Raim’s doc is more or less an assemblage of stock interviews) he didn’t want to make a standard Hollywood musical, which in the 60s were mostly filmed on back lot sets. Though location musicals, like Paint Your Wagon, had been flops as movies, Jewison insisted on finding a place as close to the Ukrainian setting he could, and ended up in a village in Yugoslavia, which he points out is also gone. Much of the film is taken up with showing how this dedication to some kind of verisimilitude was both anathema to the concept of musical theater and challenging in its own right as a film production. But the real wonder of the doc is the way it approaches casting. Jewison (who also points out repeatedly that he is a “goy” nevertheless obsessed with Jewish culture growing up in Toronto due to his surname) was dead set against using Zero Mostel, who originated the part on Broadway, as Tevye because Mostel stole the show every night with his broad comic interpretation. Such a performance style was right for the theater but wrong for a movie, which was more intimate. Though many A-list actors, including the Italian Catholic Frank Sinatra, wanted the part, he chose the Israeli actor Topol, who played Tevye in the London stage production, and it made all the difference in the world. But even the other actors were virtual unknowns, and Raim spends a lot of time with the three women, now elderly, who played the three marriageable daughters. Though Fiddler made them famous for a short while, none really benefited from it in a big career way, because the parts were only iconic in the moment. The only possible exception in the cast was Paul Michael Glaser, who went on to stardom in Starsky and Hutch.

But there’s so much more of a techical nature that shows how, before CG and other filmic tricks, the making of a large-scale movie musical was a daunting task, and how resourceful the various staff were. John Williams, now the most successful composer in Hollywood, adapted the score for the movie, and his descriptions of syncing notes to visual cues is fasincating. Kael also said that the base appeal of Fiddler, especially for Americans, is the way it deals with the loss of home and community, but Raim’s documentary itself imparts a melancholy nostalgia that is difficult to shake, especially right now since the Japanese release takes place only a few weeks after the death of Topol.  

Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608).

Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2022 Adama Films LLC

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