Miracle of miracles
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Miracle of miracles

Documentary about ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ tells multilayered story about a multilayered musical

The full ensemble sings “Tradition!” at the Chicester Festival Theater in England. (CHICHESTER FESTIVAL THEATRE)
The full ensemble sings “Tradition!” at the Chicester Festival Theater in England. (CHICHESTER FESTIVAL THEATRE)

The thing about art is that it sticks with you.

It lodges somewhere in your head — the part of your head that has a direct line to your heart — and it stays there. Sometimes it pings you and you notice it, but most of the time it’s quiet.

But the thing is, it’s always there.

As time inexorably marches on, occasionally you do think about that work of art. As you get older, as the world around you changes, as history morphs, as your understanding of the world matures (or ossifies, depending on who you are and what you’re thinking about), that piece of art surfaces, and you discover something new in it. Something that was there all along, but you hadn’t noticed. Something profound. Something that hadn’t really mattered to you before, but that gives you information that is exactly relevant to your life just now.

“Fiddler on the Roof,” anyone?

“Fiddler on the Roof” opened in the Imperial Theater.

Over the 55 years since the musical first opened on Broadway, it’s been part of the wallpaper of our lives. Its music is catchy, its energy is infectious, its dancing is exciting, its story is clever, its opportunities for actors to ham it up until there seem to be actual whole hogs snorting on stage are immense. It often has been disparaged as corny, sentimental, basically not serious.

But it is a real work of art, with layers of truth sandwiched between the singing and the dancing and the apparent sentimentality (which actually is genuine feeling).

A documentary about “Fiddler on the Roof,” called “Fiddler: Miracle of Miracles,” which has played in theaters around the country will soon be available in JCCs, synagogues, and other Jewish institutions, as well as in other venues, Jewish and non-Jewish across the continent and around the world. There also are plans to have it streaming on all our various screens.

Sheldon Harnick, Joseph Stein, and Jerry Bock. (EILEEN DARBY, JEROME
ROBBINS DANCE DIVISION, NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS)

The documentary “Fiddler” includes interviews with the legendary Broadway figures who created the musical; some have died recently, and one, Jerome Robbins, ne Rabinowitz, who died in 1998, shows up as well, obviously in older footage. Zero Mostel, who created Tevye (and who notoriously chewed scenery — audiences loved it, but his colleagues not so much), died in 1977; he appears only in fairly small clips. But “Fiddler’s” composer, Jerry Bock, its lyricist, Sheldon Harnick, and the author of its book, Joseph Stein, all are there (even though all are not alive now), and so, among many others, are Austin Pendleton, its first Motel; its 2015 Broadway Golde, Jessica Hecht; its movie Tevye, Chaim Topol; its movie director, the astonishingly-given-his-name non-Jewish Norman Jewison; its 2005 Tevye, Harvey Fierstein; its now-on-Broadway Yiddish-speaking Tevye, Steven Skybell; the director of that Folksbiene production, Joel Grey; Broadway composer, lyricist, and all-around genius Stephen Sondheim; and one of the musical’s most devoted fans, “Hamilton” creator and star and all-around theatrical genius Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Jerome Robbins (©Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos)

They talk about how “Fiddler” started; the hesitation about a show that might be too parochial. Too Jewish. And ended up being so universal that it is successful around the world; the documentary shows clips from a Japanese production, a Thai one, and one in a mainly African American and Latinx high school in Brooklyn. Each cast feels that the show is about and for them. (“We don’t understand what you Americans see in ‘Fiddler,’” a Japanese cast member is reported, perhaps apocryphally, to have said. “It is just so Japanese.”)

Because the musical “Fiddler” has made itself at home so deep in the American psyche, the documentary “Fiddler” includes deeply charming clips proving that truth. In one, Zero Mostel and Dick Cavett each sings a bit of his own version of “If I Were a Rich Man.” In another, the Temptations sing “L’Chaim.” In another, so do Topol and Danny Kaye, in Hebrew; they dance — Danny Kaye is better than Topol — and leave the viewer grinning rapturously.

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Max Lewkowicz
(DOG GREEN PRODUCTIONS)

But the deeper truths are there too.

As the documentary tells us, every single character in “Fiddler” had a name. No chorus member — not the fathers or the mothers, the sons or the daughters were anonymous. Each had a backstory, although the audience never knew it. That’s because everybody deserves a name.

The documentary looks at many of the issues that the musical touched on.

The documentary’s director, Max Lewkowicz, has won many awards, including an Emmy for “Morganthau.” He said that he began to work on “Fiddler” because “I had just finished a film about a World War II photographer.” (That was “Underfire: The Untold Story of Pfc. Tony Vaccaro”; he was nominated for an Emmy for that one too.)

Max Lewkowicz (DOG GREEN PRODUCTIONS)

“I love storytellers,” Mr. Lewkowicz said. “I met Sheldon Harnick, and I heard him start to tell stories about ‘Fiddler,’ and I said ‘Can I interview you?’ and he said ‘sure.’

“So I started to interview him, and it started to build.”

Sholem Aleichem published the stories about Tevye the Dairyman, the character about whom “Fiddler” revolves, and a version of whose adventures it tells, between 1894 and 1916. The writer “had a remarkable prescience,” Mr. Lewkowicz said; he told the stories of the vast Pale of Settlement where the impoverished Russian Jews were confined, how their lives changed, and how eventually they were exiled. “In Tevye we have one of the great characters of literature,” he said. That was the first of the three periods that “Fiddler” now encompasses.

“And then, on September 22, 1964, 55 years ago, when it opened, what was happening in America was the protests against the Vietnam War, the fight for civil rights and women’s rights. The whole social landscape of America and the world was changing.

“And then today, what started to happen when we started the film was everything was topsy turvy. The whole Me Too movement, immigration, refugees crossing the border from Honduras and El Salvador, the mother trying to bring her child to safety, to save her child — how is that any different from Tevye trying to save his child?”

Given the understanding that the musical, like any true piece of art, reflects both the time it was made and the time in which its audience lives, Mr. Lewkowicz decided to make the film. He had to decide how to structure it.

Zero Mostel as Tevye and Joanna Merlin as Golde bless the Shabbat candles in the original Broadway production in 1964. (EILEEN DARBY, JEROME ROBBINS DANCE DIVISION, NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS)

“We started to look at the songs, which were remarkable in both their lyrics and their music, and we built a story that plays on these layers.

“Great art helps people cope with loss. That wasn’t my line; it comes from Bart Scher, who directed the 2015 Broadway revival. He said that ‘Fiddler’ is not just about tradition. It is about how art survives so many years because it helps us cope with the loss of our families, our community, about everything around us that is meaningful. We sing about it and we dance about it and people around the world relate to it because it is a universal theme.”

Much of the choreography in “Fiddler” involves circles, Mr. Lewkowicz said, but at the end, when the villagers are exiled and dispersed to an unclear future, they trudge off in a straight line.

“Fiddler” looks at feminism; the world of Anatevka starts out deeply gendered but becomes less so as Tevye’s daughters reject brokered marriages. It looks at assimilation; each daughter leaves the community farther behind until the third one breaks her parents’ hearts by leaving for real, with her Cossack husband. It looks at the pull between tradition and innovation, and between community and individuality, with those marriages. It looks at parents’ universal disbelief at how quickly time passes, and how their love for their children remains as unbreakable as ever even as their ability to influence them diminishes and then disappears.

Sheldon Harnick and Max Lewkowicz (DOG GREEN PRODUCTIONS)

It looks at immigration and at people forced out of their homes, which might have been small, too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer, too hard to keep clean, but was home nonetheless. Where do they go? Who wants them? How do they pick up the few belongings they can carry and stumble out into what might be either a sunrise or a sunset?

The one issue that “Fiddler” — neither the musical nor the documentary — addresses head-on is the Holocaust. We know that it’s coming; we know that in a way these Jews, forced to leave Anatevka, are lucky, because if they had been allowed to stay, they would have been murdered 30 years on.

Mr. Lewkowicz is very aware of the way the Holocaust looms unmentioned.

“My mother was a survivor of Birkenau, and she was a Schindler Jew,” he said; Oskar Schindler saved her life via his list. “So I was shocked, when I first saw ‘Fiddler’ by how little it related to the Holocaust, even though it came out just 20 years after the gates of the camps were opened.”

This production was at the College of Music at Mahidol University in Bangkok, Thailand. (DOG GREEN PRODUCTIONS)

There is just one place where some intimation of what was to come leaked in. “It was put in a very subtle way in the show, and thus into the film,” he said. “It was when the families were leaving Anatevka, and Chava and Fiedka come by.” That’s the heart-wrenching moment when Chava — who not only married Fiedka, who seems genuinely to love her and whom she genuinely seems to love, but also had to convert to Russian Orthodoxy in order to do so — and Fiedka show up. Tevye cannot bring himself to acknowledge his once-favorite daughter, whose death to him he’d marked by sitting shiva for her in the stories, although not in the show, and Golda can’t quite either. But Golda mutters a farewell wish to Tzeitel, and Tzeitel amplifies it to her sister. Chava says that she and Fiedka are going to Krakow; that, Mr. Lewkowicz said, is their foreshadowed death warrant. “They say that they’re going there because ‘people treat you better there.’ And you know that 30 years later, they will be doomed to die in Auschwitz.”

One of the things about art is sometimes its creators don’t know exactly what they are doing. “I asked Joe Stein’s widow if that’s what he meant when he wrote that line, and she said she didn’t know.’

“It’s really very layered,” he said.

Mr. Lewkowicz thinks that the lessons of the musical “Fiddler,” as shown in his documentary “Fiddler,” matter now as much as they ever have. He’s working hard to get his film shown as widely as possible. He’s arranged for many Jewish organizations, “including UJA Federations, JCCs, B’nai B’riths, the New Israel Fund, to show it. Our goal is to have it shown everywhere, right down to Jewish senior living buildings and nursing homes. All Jewish organizations that want to connect with the story of the Jews, with how we are dealing with problems the way we always have dealt with them.

“We don’t only protect ourselves and take care of ourselves, but we also take care of people around the world, and protect them.

“What I really want to make clear is that ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ isn’t just a musical that you see on Broadway. It is a presentation to the world. We want to get as many people connected to it as possible.

“I think that people connect to it because it deals with so many elements of who we are as a people. We have to keep struggling. We have to keep fighting, if we are to keep ourselves from ending up in a terrible place. If we are to keep the world from ending up in a terrible place. The fight doesn’t stop. It doesn’t end.”

Rita Lerner of Englewood Cliffs and Ann Oster of Englewood both are trustees of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in southern Manhattan, and both are executive producers of “Fiddler.”

Both Ms. Oster and Ms. Lerner are the daughters of Holocaust survivors; both began their work at the museum when work on it first began, before it turned into what it is today. Both feel deeply about the need for Holocaust education, and both of them feel that the “Fiddler” meets some of that need, indirectly but surely.

They also just plain love the way the movie turned out.

“We feel thrilled and honored to be part of this film,” Ms. Lerner said. “We loved it, but we didn’t expect it to be 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes” — it is — “and in the Hollywood Reporter.” (Is “bottom line” is “Essential viewing for musical theater nuts.”)

“We have a great friendship with Max and we just were thrilled to be able to work together.”

“We thought that it would be a sweet little film — and instead it’s almost a blockbuster,” Ms. Oster added.

“Fiddler: Miracle of Miracles” will play on Saturday night at the Teaneck International Film Festival; it’s probably just teasing readers to give too much information about it, because the screening’s sold out. (We are proud to say that the Jewish Standard is sponsoring the screening.) There will be a talkback afterward, featuring both Mr. Lewkowicz and Zalmen Mlotek of Teaneck, who is the artistic director of National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene and the music director and guiding force behind the Yiddish-language “Fiddler” that opened at the museum and now is on Broadway, in another testament to the musical’s power. But it might be an impetus to look for the documentary when it begins streaming, and that should happen soon. We’ll let you know when.

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