We find that there are some stage musicals which are more than just singing and dancing. They have a real story to tell and it is that which is shown though the songs.
There is surely no more moving a story to tell than that of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. The musical is about the Jewish population which was forced from their homes in a poor shetl out into the wider world as the pograms made their lives impossible in the Ukraine under pre-revolutionary Russian rule in the time of the Csars and they were made to leave. The father Tevye speaks directly to God – addressing the audience in stage and film productions – and has to cope with his 5 daughters. Three of them make marriages that he doesn’t agree with and there are statements and songs about tradition and how important that is to the community.
This documentary told mainly through interviews with those involved in writing, directing or acting in the musical over the years, is absolutely fascinating. We hear from the lyricist, producer, choreographer and director about the first production of the musical on Broadway in 1964. And later about the film We learn how the writing arose from Sholem Aleichem’s stories – written in 1894 – about Tevye, the poor milkman in Anatekva.
We hear about Fiddler’s universality and how audiences all over the world including Japan identify the characters as being about them. The film points out how truly amazing it is that the musical is so relevant today. The rise in refugees fleeing from their homes and seeking new places to live is not a million miles away from the Jews of (the fictional) Anatekva being forced out of their shetl. There is something there about women’s emancipation in the way that Tevye’s daughters break away from the tradition of just agreeing to the matchmaker’s decisions. In fact, Bend it Like Beckham follows the theme of young women going their own way.
Jerome Robbins staging of the show was directly responsible for it becoming a hit. He directed it too. He gave every villager a name. His choreography which seems so simple was superb and subsequent productions borrow heavily from it. Very interesting facts are put forward; the bottle dance (bottle balanced on heads of males at a wedding) is like a marriage and how to balance the different elements. There is actually a village called Anatekva in Ukraine. In 1971 Norman Jewison (who wasn’t, in fact, Jewish in spite of his name) directed the film, basically the stage production of 1964, but with Topol, an Israeli actor, in the lead instead of Zero Mostel.
There are a number of very dark moments in the movie and director Max Lewkowicz, shows these well and various speakers comment on them. One such explains that when Chava marries out of the faith, Tevye resorts to his religious beliefs and she is dead to him.
Amazingly the show has been performed every day somewhere in the world since it first opened in 1964! Even seeing short excepts from the show as the documentary comments and explains moments, shows us just how the magic of Fiddler affects us all.