Fiddler on the Roof

Fiddler on the Roof brought the shtetl--along with many memorable characters and unforgettable tunes--to the big screen.

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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.

Casting Tevye

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.

But Tevye is not a broken man--a poor man, yes, but not a broken one. He has faith in his faith, and everything he does, includ­ing the songs he sings, speaks to that faith. He dreams of being a rich man so that he would have more time to sit in the synagogue and pray. He talks and even argues with God, coming to some very special re­alizations along the way. When his eldest daughter, Tzeitel, and her beau, Motel the tailor, tell him that they have given each other a pledge to marry without using a matchmaker, Tevye suddenly realizes that they are indeed using a matchmaker--the same one used by Adam and Eve--and he takes comfort in that.

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Joel Samberg

Joel Samberg, a humor and opinion columnist, also is the author of The Jewish Book of Lists.