Excerpted with permission from Reel Jewish (Jonathan David Publishers, Inc.).
The Jewish musical of all Jewish musicals hit the screen in 1971, three years after Funny Girl [a highly anticipated musical film starring Barbra Streisand] and with the same kind of anticipation. Actually, anticipation was even greater, since the stage version of Fiddler on the Roof was a bigger hit than Funny Girl, and the curiosity about how well the screen’s Topol would measure up against the stage’s Zero Mostel developed into an American-Jewish version of “Who shot J.R.?”
A story of Jewish traditions tenaciously clung to in the face of adversity; Fiddler on the Roof, written by Joseph Stein and directed by Norman Jewison, was blessed with a versatile, enthusiastic ensemble. It also boasted a marvelous Broadway score and an old world reality found and replicated by the production crew in realistic Yugoslavian locations and filmed with shades, tones, and colors specifically chosen to resemble a Marc Chagall painting.
In terms of production problems, why should Fiddler on the Roof be different from anyother movie musical? First, of course, there was the Tevye tribulation, and then the director dilemma. Many actors, including Mostel and Danny Thomas, lobbied hard for the part of the poor milkman with five daughters. But itwas the Israeli actor Topol–who had played Tevye for many years on the London stage–who won the coveted role. Many thought his more muted approach to the character (compared with Mostel’s) would hurt the film. Topol, in turn, raised concerns that the studio’s choice for director, the non-Jewish Jewison, might not be able to interpret the emotions or characters of the story properly.
Topol and Jewison, as it turned out, were both excellent choices.
The townsfolk of Anatevka, a Russian shtetl, or poor, tiny village, try to “scratch out a simple little tune without breaking their necks.” Tevye’s horse, though, breaks its leg, his daughters begin to break tradition–and his wife, Golde, would like to break his neck when he gives in to his daughters’ marital whims.