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NY Theater Reviews

Fiddler at the Chichester Festival Theater, UK/ Ph: Chichester Festival Theater

FIFTY YEARS OF FIDDLER

By MATT WINDMAN

This documentary details Fiddler on the Roof's origins, recent revivals and continued cultural relevance.

On a sunny day in Manhattan, 95-year-old Sheldon Harnick is sitting outside playing the familiar opening strains of Fiddler on the Roof on a violin. As it happens, early in his life, Harnick trained as a violinist, including during the 1940s at Northwestern University. But rather than grow on to play in a symphony orchestra, Harnick found work contributing to various musical revues and then found a writing partner in composer Jerry Bock. And after enduring the shame of the quick flop The Body Beautiful, the pair went on to write the Pulitzer-winning Fiorello!, the pitch-perfect romance She Loves Me and of course Fiddler on the Roof, which once held the title of longest-running show in Broadway history and continues to be performed all around the world by both professional and amateur companies.

In the past few years, we have witnessed even greater interest in Fiddler than usual, with the publication of two books on its history (Alisa Solomon’s Wonder of Wonders and Barbara Isenberg’s Tradition!), a novel imagining the life of one of its lead characters after the musical ends (Alexandra Silber’s After Anatevka), and two major revivals in New York, including the 2015 Broadway revival (starring Danny Burstein as Tevye and directed by Bartlett Sher) and a Yiddish-language production (directed by Joel Grey) that originated at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in 2018 and has since transferred Off-Broadway for an open-ended commercial run – and that just released its own cast album in Yiddish.

This has occurred for many reasons, including the 50th anniversary of the opening night performance of the original Broadway production, the parallels between current world issues (the struggles of refugees, the escalation of anti-Semitism and mass violence, lack of rights for women), and the continued praise of Fiddler by no less than Lin Manuel-Miranda, who himself appeared in a grade-school production of Fiddler and performed a choreographed rendition of “To Life” at his wedding, which was captured on video and can be viewed on YouTube – or as part of Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles, an 80-minute documentary by Max Lewkowicz exploring the show’s history and continued relevance, which will be released in select movie theaters beginning August 23, 2019, including the Landmark at 57 West and Quad Cinema in Manhattan.

The title (derived from the song “Miracle of Miracles,” which is sung by the poor tailor Motel after Tevye agrees to let him marry his eldest daughter Tzeitel instead of the richer and older butcher Lazar Wolf) is more than appropriate in light of the artistic and commercial success and continued international appreciation and cultural relevance of Fiddler. Even during an artistic golden age, musicals like Fiddler come along once a generation. They can be imitated but not repeated. To give a more recent example, many people hailed Hamilton as a “gamechanger” – but it actually changed very little for Broadway and musical theater at large. Unlike, say, Oklahoma!, which did substantially change how Broadway musicals were written by emphasizing structural and narrative integration, shows like Fiddler and Hamilton are one-of-a-kind.

As it happens, there are very few documentaries dedicated to individual musicals. It is a relatively recent trend, with examples including Every Little Step (the 2009 documentary on A Chorus Line) and Best Worst Thing that Ever Could Have Happened (the 2016 documentary on Merrily We Roll Along). Not every great musical requires a documentary. There should be a compelling need, such as a behind-the-scenes story to tell (i.e. how A Chorus Line came together, how Merrily fell apart).

While Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles does spend considerable time detailing the show’s genesis in the short stories of Sholem Aleichem, the artwork of Chagall, the challenges faced by Russian Jews in the early 20th century, the singular vision of director-choreographer Jerome Robbins (who would essentially give up on Broadway after Fiddler) in bringing the show together, and the turbulent political climate of 1960s America, the documentary is not so much a straightforward narrative history of its creation and afterlife (including the 1971 film adaptation starring Topol as Tevye) but an open-ended discussion by theater professionals and authors about the show’s universality and continued relevance, which no doubt explains why it continues to be performed. Unlikely connections are made between Fiddler and the gay rights movement, Bend It Like Beckham, The Feminine Mystique and African American children performing the show in the present day at a Brooklyn middle school.

Among the many familiar Fiddler figures (Harnick, Bock, book-writer Joseph Stein, Sher, Grey, Topol, Burstein) who are interviewed, an unlikely lasting impression is made by Michael Bernardi, son of Herschel Bernardi, who appeared in the ensemble of the 2015 Broadway revival and went on as Tevye – using the same boots worn by his father in the role. Bernardi is also seen visiting the modern-day “Anatevka Refugee Community” in the Ukraine and attending a wedding there. Hal Prince (who produced Fiddler and died earlier this summer at age 91) is only briefly seen, mentioning that he had difficulty making sense of the show in the beginning and felt that it would be best served by having Robbins be the director. Appropriately, the documentary is dedicated in his memory.

The documentary incorporates original animation sequences that evoke the artwork of Chagall, archival clips (Harnick and Bock performing the cut title song for a television studio audience, Zero Mostel joking around and singing “If I Were a Rich Man” with Dick Cavett, early black and white films based on the work of Sholem Aleichem, renditions of “If I Were a Rich Man” by various pop artists including The Temptations), and selections from the 2015 Broadway revival and recent productions by the Stratford Festival in Ontario, the Chichester Festival in the U.K., Toho Stage in Tokyo, and Theater Alliance in the Netherlands. The 2004 Broadway revival with Alfred Molina goes unmentioned and unseen, although Harvey Fierstein (who took over as Tevye) is interviewed. The film adaptation is also heavily featured – so much so that I wouldn’t mind watching it again in its entirety.

Personally speaking, I might have been a bit more enthusiastic about the documentary were it not for the fact that I have been inundated with Fiddler not just in recent years (having attended the Broadway revival multiple times, as well as the Stratford and Yiddish-language productions) but practically my entire life, going back to when I stage managed a production of Fiddler on the Roof Jr. (the brainchild of the licensing company Music Theatre International) at my local Hebrew school. Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles ought to be screened on PBS, where it can be seen by viewers who appreciate Fiddler but may be unfamiliar with its history or have not seen a production of it or the film version in a while. The documentary would also be ideal viewing for those who perform in future productions of Fiddler, hopefully enhancing their understanding of the piece and informing their performances.