Documentary explores the miracle that created ‘Fiddler on the Roof’

At left, Maria Karnilova, Tanya Everett, Zero Mostel, Julia Migenes and Joanna Merlin are shown backstage on the opening night of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ on Sept. 22, 1964. Above, the Imperial Theater in 1964. Photo: Associated Press/Courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Samuel Goldwyn Films

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

The delightful documentary “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles”  actually begins with a fiddler on a roof, but not the one we expect to see. A violinist in a tuxedo, seated on a New York rooftop garden, plays the familiar opening tune from the beloved musical “Fiddler on the Roof.” 

That violinist is Sheldon Harnick, who wrote the lyrics for “Fiddler on the Roof” in collaboration with songwriter Jerry Bock. Max Lewkowicz directs this affectionate, informative look at the creation of the beloved musical, its enduring appeal, and how its themes of tradition, family and social change helped it reach across cultures and keep it continually on stage.

“Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles” assembles some of the creative forces involved in the making of the award-winning and popular musical, as well as some of the actors and artists who have been influenced or inspired by it. Among those featured, in addition to Harnick, are the late Hal Prince, Joel Grey, Chaim Topol (the Israeli actor who played Tevye in the 1971 film version), Harvey Fierstein, Fran Lebowitz, Itzhak Perlman, Calvin Trillin and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Each talks about how the musical touched his or her life.

Rare archival footage, including clips of the original “Fiddler” star Zero Mostel, choreographer Jerome Robbins and others are combined with stills from actual Russian shtetls and details about the history behind it. Viewers see sketches for the original sets, clips from the film, and insightful interviews and thoughtful commentary.

The documentary not only focuses on the creation of the original Broadway hit, but also on the popular movie that followed, a recent successful Broadway revival and its many productions around the world, where it has been staged by professional troupes, community theaters and high schools. 

Much about the musical’s creation was indeed miraculous, including the remarkable combination of talent that coalesced to bring “Fiddler” to the stage. 

When the idea was floated in the early 1960s for a musical based on Sholem Aleichem’s Yiddish-language stories about life in a Jewish shtetl in czarist Russia, success was far from assured. One of the strengths of this documentary is the way it takes us through the unlikely creation of this classic and captures the tensions of its tentative first days. 

It certainly benefited from the musical partnership of composer Bock and lyricist Harnick. Harnick, 95, shares insights and details on their process. The appealing music made the songs hummable, but Harnick’s lyrics, drawing heavily on Aleichem’s writing with a mix of humor, humanity, insights and touches of tragedy, gave the songs and the whole production an emotional depth the typical musical lacked. 

Aleichem’s tales take place in 1905, a time of great upheaval in the world, but in little Anatevka, Jewish dairyman Tevye is just trying to eke out a living while worrying about finding husbands for his five daughters. Tradition shapes their lives, and it is the one thing Tevye thinks he can rely on. Yet change is on the horizon for Anatevka. 

Tevye is a complicated man — funny, religious, hot-tempered, loving — and as his three oldest daughters reach marriageable age, he finds they have ideas about marrying for love rather than the husbands Pappa and the matchmaker pick for them. The musical’s view of life in the shtetl is complicated, too, not nostalgia for “underfed, overworked Anatevka” but a remembrance of the past, of family, community — and tradition.  

As we learn in the documentary, the idea for the musical didn’t initially start out as one based on Aleichem’s tales about Tevye the Dairyman.A different Aleichem book, about a traveling Yiddish theater troupe, first inspired Bock and Harnick. But when the musical’s creators then read Aleichem’s Tevye stories, they fell in love with them. Still, in the early ’60s, it wasn’t clear how this very Jewish musical, with its serious themes of anti-Semitism and a traditional, small-town Jewish society facing a changing world, would be received.

So how did this musical become an international hit? The documentary explores that question through a series of interviews with people whose lives have been influenced by it. The music is memorable and tuneful, but its universal story seems to be the key to its enduring popularity and its ability to reach across cultures. 

Grey, director of an all-Yiddish production of “Fiddler” playing in New York, shares an anecdote in the film that illustrates this puzzling dichotomy. It’s about how a Japanese audience member wondered how the musical did in America because “it was so Japanese.”

Part of the musical’s initial success was the timing of its opening, as the documentary makes clear, as well as what its creators chose to build the story around. A daughter rebelling against marriage arranged by her parents is a classic theme that runs through countless fairy tales. But Tevye has five daughters, and when this musical debuted in 1964, it was just as the women’s movement was getting started. Each of Tevye’s three older daughters marries for love, but each goes further away from tradition than the last. The third daughter’s choice — to marry a non-Jewish Russian — is particularly heartbreaking for Tevye and controversial still. The documentary spotlights how audiences have differing reactions to this last choice and to Tevye’s response to it. 

The musical’s themes of tradition, social change, persecution, economic survival, migration and intermarriage make it seem surprisingly contemporary. While this fine documentary allows us to ponder these concepts, it still keeps a focus on the artistry of this beloved and enduring theatrical classic. 

“Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles” is a treat for fans of the musical, but it offers more, with its wealth of background and archival materials and thoughtful insights on how a musical about the life of a Jewish dairyman and his family in a shtetl became something that spoke to the whole world.

‘Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles’

Opens Friday at Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema.

Running time: 1:32