Not so long ago, Broadway musicals had a tremendous cultural impact for the majority of the twentieth century. Everything from the pop charts to movie screens had some connection to what was happening on the Great White Way, but none had an impact exactly like FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. Bright and early this Sunday morning, we got to see an immaculate (and sonically wonderful) presentation of the 1971 film version, which still hits the sweet spot for a number of topics that still strike a chord today.
Now a part of the popular consciousness, the story follows milkman Tevye and his family living in the small town of Anatevka in Czarist Russia at the turn of the century. The role originated on Broadway in 1964 with Zero Mostel in the lead, with direction and choreography by Jerome Robbins (fresh off of West Side Story and Gypsy). The Robbins dances were adapted and essentially retained as conceived for the movie, which wound up earning eight Oscar nominations and winning three (for Adaptation and Original Song Score, Sound, and Cinematography). It’s safe to say in an earlier year it probably would’ve nabbed Best Picture, but the tide was turning in ’71 courtesy of a little film called The French Connection.
Introducing this screening was TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz, while a panel followed after the film with Leonard Maltin welcoming director Norman Jewison (despite his name, “the best goyish director possible”), composer John Williams (one of the film’s Oscar winners), and casting director Lynn Stalmaster. Jewison recalled coming aboard while executives were considering shooting the film in Canada, but he insisted on filming in Eastern Europe (Yugoslavia, as it turned out) and casting London stage lead (Chaim) Topol, an Israeli-born second generation Russian Jew, in the lead rather than Mostel. Both decisions turned out to be sound ones, of course, as did the decision to bring Williams on to adapt the famous music. The limited nature of an orchestra for a live performance had to be completely overhauled for the film, which included an English chorus whose precise diction lent an eerie beauty to film’s final scene.
The pivotal violin solos played by the fiddler (a character inspired by Marc Chagall’s painting, “The Fiddler”) were performed by Isaac Stern, the most famous violinist in the world at the time, whom Jewison went to visit in Chicago. Booking the music legend proved to be tricky as Jewison couldn’t even audibly ring his doorbell over the music being rehearsed inside, and the filmmaker told a charming story about getting Stern’s schedule straightened out and preparing him a glass of scotch. Then there was the casting, and Stalmaster recalled that the most difficult part to fill turned out to be the young Russian Christian suitor Fyedka. Stalmaster scoured London, Mumich, Paris, and Stockholm looking for the right actor, only to find him in Rome courtesy of Ray Lovelock (credited here as Raymond), an actor and rock singer who amusingly doesn’t get to sing a note in this film (though he does get a couple of brief dance moves). Lovelock would go on to become a familiar face in European cinema throughout the ‘70s in films like The Cassandra Crossing and a string of cult action and horror films, while another suitor in the film, Perchik, was played by someone very familiar to TV fans: Paul Michael Glaser (with no “Paul” in his name here), who would hit it big on Starsky & Hutch four years later. Based on the applause he received today from the audience, he still has quite a few fans.
Watching FIDDLER ON THE ROOF now, it’s remarkable how well its story adapts beyond the ’60s when it was seen as both a vivid depiction of Jewish life before the Holocaust and the modern State of Israel and a parallel to the turbulent generation gap that was starting to tear America apart. Today we still find things branded as “tradition” often without any coherent reason being redefined on a constant basis, with attitudes about immigration, national identity, marriage, and religious freedom still evolving and making headlines on a daily basis.
The structure of the musical is still sound as well, with the first three songs (“Tradition,” “Matchmaker,” and “If I Were a Rich Man”) evoking starry-eyed, unrealistic lives in which the ideal mate and financial security could be just around the corner. The three marriages of Tevye’s daughters then break those concepts apart one by one, with memorable monologues to God (cleverly depicted here with a number of perspective tricks and Topol looking just off camera) also forcing the audience to contemplate the purpose and nature of prayer itself. Is it means of wishing for something we might not happen, finding inner resolve, or simply finding focus in a universe in a constant state of upheaval? Then as now, the answer is up to you.