By Elias Savada.
At moments during filmmaker Max Lewkowicz’s lovely homage to one of the world’s greatest musicals, I was verklempt. I got choked up over Chaim Topol’s interpretation of Tevye the milkman in Norman Jewison’s film version of Fiddler on the Roof, and when Lin-Manuel Miranda breaks out into a rendition of To Life at his 2010 wedding, joined by friends and family (including his father-in-law) to offer a hilariously effective entourage piece before his totally-taken-by-surprise bride. Throughout the film, which Lemkowicz directed, and wrote and produced with Valerie Thomas, I was aching to remember the moment when I was 14 and went with my father to see the Broadway hit starring Zero Mostel, during opening week in September 1964. And again a year later—twice—when Herschel Bernardi took over the lead.
Such faded memories have been rekindled with Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles, which adds new references beyond the wonderful songs by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, both of whom appear with numerous others in the well-woven interview segments. This footage is interspersed with numerous productions of the play, which have been offered somewhere on this planet every day since the show premiered at the Imperial Theatre almost 55 years ago. These snippets of performances are framed by the social and cultural context that surrounded the era when the show opened in New York City (after being savaged by critics in Detroit), when the film was made in 1971, and even during the current political climate. Songs are carried from one stage to the next with deft rhythm by editor Joseph Borruso. The settings may alternate from the 2016 Broadway revival to the Stratford Festival in Canada and the Chichester Festival in the United Kingdom, and then to far-flung corners of the world (Tokyo, a student production in Bangkok, Rotterdam), before showcasing a most unusual enactment by Black and Hispanic kids at Brooklyn Middle School 447.
There is a fairly thorough look at Sholom Aleichem (the Jewish Mark Twain), whose stories about shtetl life in the early 1900s, would inspire the play, with its book by Joseph Stein and direction/choreography by the great Jerome Robbins, and the recently deceased Harold Prince producing. The show became the first commercially successful English-language play about Eastern European Jewish life. It ran for over 8 years in the Big Apple.
The film breaks itself the three culturally connected time frames: 1905 (when the story takes place), 1964 (the play’s first staging), and today. Each era gets examined for its turbulence. The beginning of the 20th century saw political upheaval in Czarist Russia and extensive anti-Semitic pogroms that forced Jews to become refugees. The middle frame covers the beginning of the quagmire that was Vietnam, John F. Kennedy having been assassinated a year earlier, and civil rights workers just murdered in Mississippi. The present portion of the documentary reveals the same right wing, fascist forces that forced the Jews from Anatevka more than a century ago are still embedded in a small, hateful portion of society. Interesting themes, indeed, but it’s a more enjoyable film when the songs are being sung, and the creators, numerous cast members from a variety of the productions provide their personal links to the musical, or of Topol talking about the film version. Personally, I’ve always adored Mostel as the quintessential Tevye.
Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles reminds us of the legacy of a Tony (9) and Oscar (3) winning production with universal appeal that is wildly deserving of further scrutiny. Whether it’s the stark interviews (often setting its subjects against a dark background), the engaging archival footage and photographs, and the audiotapes that break down the blocks used by Bock and Harnick to shape their score, this is a fascinating tale. Particularly the ancient reel-to-reel relics that the composers snail mailed back and forth—not everyone would congregate around a piano to pen their masterpieces—tendering up some lovely anecdotes. There’s also a look-hear of When Messiah Comes, a wry, comic song cut after the Detroit tryout. It’s available on numerous albums and is quite funny. Just not funny enough to have been kept in the show, which Harold Prince (in a missive to Peter Filichia in 2011) said “was dropped because it was theatrically too lugubrious and the shape of it too long to sustain at that point in the story.”
Anyway, it’s time to find a wedding or bar mitzvah playing some of the favorites the show. Or maybe I’ll just download the cast album from iTunes.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2019 by Centipede Press).