The musical story of a Jewish family set in a shtetl was a risky bet when it premiered on Broadway over a half-century ago. But, after initial mixed reviews, “Fiddler on the Roof” would go on to capture the hearts of audiences — and be the first musical to exceed 3,000 performances in Broadway history.
Now, a new documentary illuminates its history and impact of the show that held the record for longest-running musical for nearly a decade. “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles” makes its world premiere at the 27th Toronto Jewish Film Festival on May 8.
The film’s veteran director, Max Lewkowicz, knows people are well-acquainted with Anatevka’s most famous family, first portrayed in the stories of Sholem Aleichem — Tevye the milkman, his wife Golde and their unmarried gaggle of daughters.
Lewkowicz also knows that people have memorized the time-honored soundtrack (his personal favorites: “Far From the Home I Love” and “Sunrise, Sunset”). And he knows the talent that has been involved with “Fiddler” over the decades.
The 1964 Broadway production relied on the lyrics of Sheldon Harnick, the music of Jerry Bock, and the writing of Joseph Stein. It was directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, and had the star billing of Zero Mostel as Tevye.
Over the years, productions of “Fiddler” have featured acclaimed performances from such names as Israeli star Chaim Topol, who played Tevye in the 1971 film, and the 2015-16 Broadway revival duo of Danny Burstein as Tevye and Jessica Hecht as Golde.
“I saw it with Chaim Topol in New York at a young age years ago,” Lewkowicz recalled of his introduction to the show. “Maybe it was in the 1980s.” And, he added, “Of course I saw the film. It moved me. It’s a connection to part of my life.”
The documentary explores the perspectives of cast and crew members, scholars and spectators. Lewkowicz interviewed about 60 people, including those with direct links to the show such as Harnick and Topol; experts such as author Fran Lebowitz, film critic Jan Lisa Huttner, and Columbia professor Alisa Solomon; and even “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda (watch him sing “To Life” in an impromptu wedding duet with his father-in-law).
“Lin-Manuel Miranda was remarkable,” Lewkowicz said. “First of all, he loves the show… He really connected with the show. We got so much stuff from him on how universal the themes are.” Lewkowicz noted that “Fiddler” was a basis for Miranda’s award-winning “In the Heights.”
Lewkowicz got the idea to make a documentary about “Fiddler” several years ago, when he met lyricist Harnick during the Broadway revival. Their encounter “sort of opened up” a story about “how art plays a very important role in keeping us sane in a world where sanity is a rare commodity,” Lewkowicz said.
In the case of “Fiddler,” the story is told through song, and Lewkowicz realized that the documentary had to incorporate the soundtrack. The true stars of the musical are the songs themselves, he explained.
“Tradition” gives a panoramic view of the shtetl of Anatevka, much like the view enjoyed by a fiddler playing on a rooftop. In “If I Was a Rich Man,” Tevye interrogates God as to whether there is any divine reason — “some vast eternal plan” — that can explain his lack of wealth. His older daughters Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava take center stage in “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” lamenting how their romantic notions don’t correspond with their parents’ suggestions for a spouse.
Collectively the songs illustrate several themes, Lewkowicz said — “trying to break away from the traditional ways of Eastern Europe… then, of course, the plight endured by refugees… obviously presaging the Holocaust coming later. Then, it’s a story about family, how a father has to come to a decision about what’s important to him.”
Tzeitel forgoes her father’s choice for marriage, the wealthy but much older Lazar Wolf, for her true love, tailor Motel Kamzoil (whose song “Miracle of Miracles” inspired the documentary’s title). Tevye and Golde muse over time’s passage in “Sunrise, Sunset” — and discuss love’s durability in “Do You Love Me?”
Hodel laments journeying “Far From the Home I Love” to join her radical suitor Perchik in Siberia after his exile — foreshadowing further difficult times for Tevye, his family and Anatevka. A pogrom wrecks Anatevka on Tzeitel’s wedding day. Chava marries Fyedka, a Russian Orthodox Christian, causing a rift with her father. The tsar ultimately expels the shtetl’s Jews.
“It’s a Jewish story, a history about Eastern Europe, the Pale of Settlement in 1905,” Lewkowicz said — but also a story that “could be written [about a] village in Kazakhstan or a family in Nigeria, the same story.” It’s a theme, he said, that’s both “Jewish and universal.”
Reflecting this universality, today the musical version of “Fiddler” is performed in more places than any show in the history of Broadway — “Japan, South America, Europe, North America, Africa, Germany,” Lewkowicz said. “Something must attract people from other cultures to this wonderful story.”
Genesis of a musical wonder
The story of “Fiddler” as a Broadway show began in the 1960s when Harnick received a copy of Aleichem’s book “Wandering Stars.” (One of the documentary’s treasures is a rare wax recording of Aleichem’s voice.) Harnick then gave the book to Bock, who in turn recommended it to Stein.
While Stein did not feel it would make for a Broadway show, it evoked memories of Aleichem’s “Tevye and his Daughters,” which he had read in the original Yiddish. Bock says in the film that “Tevye and His Daughters” impressed everyone with its “writing, ambience, atmosphere, connection it made with us.”
Stein would write the playbook, Bock the music and Harnick the lyrics. To direct and choreograph, another Broadway luminary — Robbins — stepped onto the scene, having just finished working on “West Side Story” with Leonard Bernstein.
“Jerome Robbins was talking about why he wanted to do the show,” Lewkowicz said. “How relevant [it was to] the civil rights movement in America, what was happening there.” As Lewkowicz explained, “1964, 1965, 1966 was a period of turmoil, a remarkable period of change. The civil rights movement, women’s rights, the struggle of rich versus poor, poor versus rich, it continues.”
On September 22, 1964, “Fiddler” premiered on Broadway with Mostel singing about tradition and the cast performing Robbins’s choreographed folk dances, including the “bottle dance.” Yet at its core, the show embodied change.
“To take a story that is very harsh,” Lewkowicz said, “a difficult story to tell, a life of poverty in Eastern Europe in 1905, pogroms that destroyed the communities and then, 30 years later, led to the Holocaust and destroyed most of Eastern European Jewry — to take this and turn it into a Broadway show was remarkably gutsy.”
Lewkowicz said that “nobody thought” the show would find success on Broadway. Yet the original production won nine Tony Awards and ran for nearly a decade, setting a record for the longest-running Broadway show for many years. By the end of its eight-year run, “Fiddler” had also appeared on the big screen — in the hit 1971 film directed by Norman Jewison, with Topol playing Tevye.
“The film came out, different versions of the show came out, it played in 104 countries,” Lewkowicz said. “It’s still played everywhere all over the world.”
Families: the best drama in the world
Reflecting on family disputes in general, Lewkowicz quoted original Broadway director Bartlett Sher, who said that if it were not for drama between parents and children, there would never be Romeo and Juliet.
Lewkowicz said that time has given new perspectives to some of the tensions of the plot — for example, when Chava angers her father by marrying Fyedka.
Lewkowicz said that Chava would have been baptized into the Russian church upon marrying him and added, “She was cast aside by her family.” He said that “[in] 1905, this was overwhelmingly shocking, a daughter who leaves because she falls in love.” But, he said, “When we deal with an issue of intermarriage, nowadays there’s a lot more acceptance.”
“Fiddler” also offers a perspective on a shtetl world that vanished with the Holocaust. Lewkowicz sees a tragic poignancy in the film’s portrayal of the exodus from Anatevka. Tevye leads his family out of the shtetl and eventually to America. Chava and Fyedka come to say goodbye.
Lewkowicz recalls that Chava says, “we have to leave here as well, we are going to Krakow, where people are more liberal.” He wondered whether Stein used this to indicate what would happen to Krakow three and a half decades later, when the Germans captured the city and sent its Jews to the gas chambers.
Noting that his mother, a Holocaust survivor, was born in Krakow and endured Auschwitz, Lewkowicz said, “I heard the name ‘Krakow’ and it slowly hit me.”
“I wonder how many people get it,” Lewkowicz said. “It’s a prescient look at the future.”
The director has voiced his concern regarding the state of the world today and sees an urgency to the warnings in “Fiddler.”
“Anti-Semitic incidents have gone up 75 percent the last couple of years,” Lewkowicz noted. “We in the arts have to struggle against that sort of behavior, and tell the story of what Sholem Aleichem was trying to do in 1905.”