Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Fiddler on the Reel: Tevye Goes Hollywood

As the holiday season approaches, it’s high time to pay tribute to one of December’s favorite films. No, I‘m not talking about It’s a Wonderful Life or Elf or Home Alone. This post is devoted to a movie that’s been a star of many a holiday singalong: the 1971 screen adaptation of the musical theatre classic, Fiddler on the Roof.  

The whole history of this long-running Broadway hit is captured in a fascinating book by Alisa Solomon, first published in 2013.  It’s titled Miracle of Miracles: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof. Solomon begins with author Sholem-Aleichem and his creation of a lovable Old Country dairyman named Tevye, burdened with three marriageable and strong-willed daughters. Her book’s first section, and its driest, explains early attempts to put the Tevye stories on the American stage. Section Two bursts to life with an insider picture of exactly how the Broadway  hit came to be. Solomon has interviewed the still-surviving members of the Fiddler team and mined the archives to get a full picture of the joys and kvetches associated with the mounting of a Broadway blockbuster that at one time seemed the most desperate of gambles.

In section three, Solomon visits productions of Fiddler in places as far-flung as Israel, Poland, and Brownsville, Brooklyn, where ethnic divisions almost derail a heartfelt junior high production in which most of the young actors are Latino or African-American. But one chapter, “Anatevka in Technicolor,” is devoted to  the big-budget film. What’s striking is how, though the material remains the same, the aesthetics in play and film are so different. Under Jerome Robbins’ brilliant direction and choreography, the stage version avoided kitschy Borscht Belt stylistics to capture the flavor of a fragile community rent asunder both by outside enemies and by inner stresses. But there’s a fanciful folk spirit to the staging, enhanced by Zero Mostel’s larger-than-life portrayal of the leading character. Audiences around the globe quickly came to love the show’s universal qualities, to the point that book author Joseph Stein was asked, at the Tokyo opening of Fiddler, how the team had managed to understand so well the essence of Japanese family dynamics.

When Norman Jewison was invited to direct the film version, he was best known for the Oscar-winning In the Heat of the Night, which for its day was bold in addressing racial discrimination in a small Southern town. Jewison favors what might be called poetic realism on screen. He wanted to show audiences an Eastern European Jewish shtetl that was more real than charming. And he wanted at all costs to avoid turning his characters into outsized caricatures. That’s why he chose as his Tevye a sturdily handsome Israeli, Topol, who was younger and more macho than the various stage Tevyes had been. Filming in what was then Yugoslavia, Jewison captured the look of the fields and forests, the ramshackle homes, and especially the tiny synagogue, modeled after the few still-standing “shuls” that survived in the countryside of eastern Europe. The portrayal of Teyve as an attractive and appealing “mensch,” notes Solomon, made for a nice antidote to the on-screen portrayal of Jewish neurotics of the Woody Allen ilk who dominated the movies of that era.

Still, for all its Jewish authenticity, the film too has inspired those from many cultures to tell their own stories. One Bollywood director dreams of transplanting the basic story to strife-torn Kashmir . And Lin-Manuel Miranda admits that In the Heights, his pre-Hamilton musical about a changing New York Latino community, borrows from his admiration for Fiddler. Who knew?

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