A documentary about a 55-year-old musical sounds like a quaint and nostalgic cinematic scrap book. But Fiddler: Miracle of Miracles turns out be an exhilarating, expansive, warts-and-all look into 1964 Broadway phenomenon Fiddler on the Roof. Director Max Lewkowicz delivers an emotional powerhouse in which none of the compromises, growing pains and ego wars of Fiddler’s creation are left out in the name of tribute. The film is dedicated to the memory of Hal Prince, who produced the original show and died last month, and truly documents what goes into the creation of a masterpiece. (Never mind that the show’s first review in Variety declared it had “no memorable songs” in a score that includes “If I Were a Rich Man,” “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” and “Sunrise, Sunset.”)
Based on the short stories of turn-of-the-century Russian-Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem, the show (set in 1905) focuses on Tevye and the tiny czarist Russian village of Anatevka. The milkman brings humor and heart to struggles with poverty, a strong-willed wife, and five marriage-age daughters. The stirrings of feminist rebellion can be felt as the young women push back against the attempts of Yenta the matchmaker — one defies tradition to marry a non-Jew. Tevye talks to God about his problems, especially when his people face religious persecution through violent pogroms and are forced to leave their shtetl as refugees facing a scarily uncertain future. If you’re wondering why Fiddler is so pertinent to our tumultuous present that there’s an all-Yiddish Joel Grey production of the show currently on Broadway, here’s your answer.
In Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles, archival interviews with the show’s creators — composer Jerry Bock, lyricist Sheldon Harnick, and librettist Joseph Stein — are mixed with those from contemporary artists like Stephen Sondheim, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Fran Lebowitz, Calvin Trillin, and Alisa Solomon, who extol the show’s enduring value. We hear from Norman Jewison, the director of the Oscar-winning 1971 film version, who hilariously had to apologize to the studio for not being a Jew, despite a last name that suggested otherwise.
Lewkowicz’s film allows us to see how Fiddler on the Roof was put together by a band of outsiders who constantly questioned its artistic viability and commerciality. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the portrait of Jerome Robbins, the show’s dazzling, notoriously difficult director and choreographer. Conflicted about his Judaism and sexuality, Robbins, who died in 1998, was a domineering genius. Zero Mostel, the formerly blacklisted actor who starred as the original Tevye, so resented Robbins for naming names at Senator Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist witchhunts that he barely spoke to Robbins during rehearsals. Actor Austin Pendleton, who costarred in the original production as Motel the tailor, recounts a stinging story about how Robbins insulted him, calling him physically repulsive and saying how hard it must have been for the actress playing his wife to act opposite him. But then the film cuts to Robbins at work, creating the glorious “Bottle Dance” for Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding in which the male guests move with bottles balanced on their heads, symbolizing the precariousness of life as Jews in Anatevka. The sequence remains one of the finest achievements in choreography as characterization.
Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles makes itself essential viewing by chronicling the turbulent genesis of a global sensation. But its real miracle is demonstrating why it continues to entertain and illuminate, from Tokyo to a Brooklyn middle school where an African-American girl now plays the role of Tevye’s wife, Golde, and back to Broadway.