When “Fiddler on the Roof” opened on September 1964, in New York, perhaps not many people thought it would become the longest-running musical for almost ten years, it would also win nine Tony Awards, and it would have five other reprises in Broadway. Norman Jewison would direct the film adaptation in 1971. The play brings together the contingencies of a dairyman, his wife, and his daughters, as well as those of the Jewish community in the town of Anatevka, in pre-revolutionary Russia. Those who have seen the play or the movie will remember that the story is told with humour while at the same time depicts times marked by persecution and prejudice. After all –and that is also its universal appeal– it is “a story of displaced people” as one of the interviewees in the film puts it. All of that without forgetting the lively and contagious music.
This play is the subject of the documentary “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles” directed by Max Lewkowicz. Described as “the first in-depth documentary film that chronicles the life and themes of this iconic offering of American culture” it is an incisive look not only at how the play was put on stage and the work done by the talented performers, musicians, choreographers, involved in it, but also a sort of essay on how the story and the premises it is based on, are relevant in present days.
That’s why the movie focuses on three time frames: 1905, the time when the story is set, the hardships of the main character’s family, the uncertainties of life under the whimsical attitudes of the local authorities toward the Jews; 1964, when the play opens in New York and the events shaping American society at that moment; and the present, 55 years later, when the notion of “displaced people” is still very much present, although the targets of persecution have changed.
Besides the archival material from the stage and film productions of the play and the interviews with those connected to the work in various capacities, the documentary also resorts to some animated sequences. Lewkowicz explains it these terms: “We searched far and wide for the right animator and animation style, as we wanted to mirror the art of Marc Chagall, whose work greatly influenced the look of the original production.” The director and producer Valerie Thomas found an animator based in Rotterdam, Tess Martin, specializing in a process called “paint on glass”. The result is a rich, textured, and lush look that, to them, “perfectly expresses the soul of Fiddler’s music.”
The play was based on the story “Tevye the Dairyman” by Sholem Aleichem. Jerome Robbins, who had directed “West Side Stories” directed the play in 1964. The story was adapted for the stage by Joseph Stein. Sheldon Harnick, who is also featured in this film, was the lyricist, and Jerry Bock was the composer.
“Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles” is a moving and at the same time eye-opener documentary worth seeing. It is not only a comprehensive look at the making of a Broadway classic but also a pertinent commentary on why its message is still relevant. The film is presented at the Cinema du Musée, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts auditorium (1379-A Sherbrooke West) until October 21.
Feature image: Zero Mostel in the 1964 presentation of “Fiddler on the Roof” (photo Friedman-Abeles, New York Library for the Performing Arts)