Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles

stories by Sholem Aleichem

Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles is a documentary about the making of the Broadway production, and the subsequent movie called… yes, you guessed it. Fiddler on the Roof is one of my Top 5 favorite musicals, so when the story about it hit the Spectrum Theatre, my wife my daughter and I had to see it.

It is really good.

The narrative contains several strands. How do you take stories by Sholem Aleichem of Tevye (the Dairyman) and his Daughters and turn them into a compelling musical narrative? “He wrote in Yiddish between 1894 and 1914 about Jewish life in a village in… Imperial Russia at the turn of the 20th century.”

Earlier iterations had been staged: a play in Yiddish in 1919 was made into a movie in the 1930s. An off-Broadway production, Tevye and his Daughters, was created in the late 1950s.
How would this time be more commercially successful?

Watching the process between Jerry Bock, who wrote the music, and lyricist Sheldon Harnick was fascinating. Jerry would send Sheldon music snippets on reel-to-reel tape, and Sheldon would say some of them fit perfectly.

I was really glad to see the late Hal Prince, who was the producer and who brought in director/choreographer Jerome Robbins. Prince’s death was so late in the filming process that the death notice was clearly tacked in early in the opening credits. Robbins and the writers came up with the musical’s title, based on paintings by Marc Chagal.

Still, it was a struggle. Zero Mostel, who played Tevye, fought with Robbins. Other cast and crew also had issues with the director. Yet Prince thought Robbins’ contributions were worth the grief.

Once the classic opening number “Tradition” was created, the narrative began to solidify. Still, the out-of-town tryouts in Detroit weren’t successful, in large part because of a too upbeat penultimate number, When Messiah Comes, that was thankfully cut.

Ultimately, Fiddler shows the universality of the musical, which plays well in Thailand and with New York City black schoolkids, in Japanese, and in Yiddish. The documentary uses interviews with participants of recent productions, plus archival footage, in telling the story. Fiddler on the Roof is certainly a story about oppression and optimism. Is it also a feminist tale? One can make that case.

The documentary, which the last time I checked had 100% ratings from both the critics and the fans on Rotten Tomatoes, is recommended.

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