Documentary Review — “Fiddler! A Miracle of Miracles”

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“Fiddler on the Roof” is not everybody’s favorite musical.

You see enough community theater or scholastic productions of it performed by folks who figure Jewish caricatures are the way to go with their performances, or that they can (in one burned into my memory) get away with having a synthesizer subbing for a “fiddle” in the pit orchestra, you get over it pretty quickly.

But if “you hear it once or twice,” says Ted Chapin, Executive Director of the Rodgers & Hammerstein company, “you know the songs for the rest of your life.”

And the man, who has nothing to do with “Fiddler,” really — neither did Rodgers or Hammerstein — is as right as rain.

From “Tradition” to “If I Were a Rich Man” to “Matchmaker” to “Sunrise, Sunset” and “(L’Chaim) To Life,” they embed themselves into the brain and pop up at any appropriate moment.

“Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles” takes its title from one of those songs, and is a delightful history of this unlikely blockbuster, interviewing the creators of it, scores of actors who have performed in it, from Broadway to Bangkok, and others who have embraced it as one of the great moments in musical theater, one that’s always in production somewhere on the globe because it speaks across cultures and across time.

“In moments of great upheaval,” Broadway wunderkind Lin-Manuel Miranda declares, hinting at the dark politics of bigotry and anti-semitism on the rise here and abroad, “‘Fiddler’ is going to seem relevant.”

Using animation, vintage TV performances and interviews, clips from productions ranging from Rotterdam to Tokyo, various Broadway revivals and the 1971 Norman Jewison film of the show, filmmaker Max Lewkowicz (he did the Morgenthau political dynasty documentary) gives us a great origin story, some funny anecdotes and lots and lots of “Fiddlers” and milkmen named Tevye.

Best of all, he lets us hear from the creators — Joseph Stein, who wrote the book (the narrative, dialogue), composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Yarnick.

You don’t have to buy into Stein’s assertion (he died in 2010) that their initial pitch, “a musical about a bunch of old Jews in Russia going through a pogrom” earned them “You’re nuts!” brush-offs back in the early 1960s. Come on. New York? Broadway in the ’60s? Pretty doggoned Jewish. And many others had given a thought to doing this very adaptation.

But remembering the “Mad Men” era, when august Broadway and show business figures such as Jerome Robbins (Jerome Rabinowitz), Alan King (Irwin Allen Kniberg) and Joan Rivers (Joan Molinsky) were still hiding their Jewish surnames, you think “Maybe.”

The original idea was to do a particular Sholem Aleichem story, which was quickly abandoned instead for an adaptation of some of the famous Jewish author and wit’s “Tevye” stories, principally “Tevye and his Daughters.”

Harold Prince was approached to direct, but he pushed for Jerome Robbins (“West Side Story”), and the film gets at the personal and political conflicts Robbins brought to the process, in the writing and staging and in the casting.

He “named names” during the 1950s Congressional “Witch Hunt” of people in Hollywood and the performing arts, and original “Fiddler” Tevye, Zero Mostel never let him forget it. And Robbins didn’t get along with such collaborators as designer Boris Aronson, who settled on Marc Chagall-inspired sets, giving the production its surreal out-of-time 1905 Russia look.

Chagall’s 1921 painting “The Fiddler” gave the show its title, “Fiddler on the Roof.”

The show bombed when it hit out of town try-outs in Detroit, was tweaked and became a smash that set Broadway records that lasted until “Grease!” and “A Chorus Line” and their like came along a decade later.

We hear a hilarious if somewhat tone-deaf ditty cut from the play, “When Messiah Comes,” and see old TV bits with Bock and Harnick singing and playing pieces they were working on for a New York theatre TV show of the early ’60s (wow), of Mostel singing with talk show host Dick Cavett, and Chaim Topol, the Israeli actor who played Tevye in London before being cast in the film version.

There’s excellent analysis of the show and the film and the era from Fran Lebowitz, Chapin and others, and a splendid defense of the somewhat stodgy and stagey movie (having an Israeli play Tevye made his endless conversations with God a lot more assertive and aggressive).

And Topol, Joel Grey (star of a Yiddish production), Michael Bernardi, a Broadway Tevye and son of a Broadway Tevye (Herschel Bernardi), and actresses from recent revivals (Jessica Hecht, Melanie Moore) talk about the subtexts of characters, the nascent feminism that worked its way from Aleichem’s book to the all-male braintrust that created “Fiddler.”

The film gets sidetracked, here and there, diving deep into the horrors of matchmakers and their role in Jewish women being sold into slavery among its dead ends.

But by the time we visit the “real” village of Anatevka, the setting for “Fiddler,” and see how the show looks and sounds in public schools and in Tokyo, Rotterdam and Bangkok, “Fiddler” has worked its magic, all over again.

And we’re left with days of trying to get those damned songs out of our head. Again.

3stars2

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some thematic elements/disturbing images.

Cast: Chaim Topol, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jessica Hecht, Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, Fran Lebowitz, Gurinder Chadha, Joel Grey, Michael Bernardi, Harvey Weinstein, Austin Pendleton, Harold Prince, Paul Michael Glaser, Melanie Moore

Credits: Directed by Max Lewkowicz, script by Max Lewkowicz and Valerie Thomas. A Samuel L. Goldwyn release.

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