Directed By: Norman Jewison
Starring: Topol, Norma Crane, Leonard Frey
Tag line: "Shout It From The Rooftops!"
Trivia: Orson Welles, Anthony Quinn and Marlon Brando were among the many actors who turned down the lead role of Tevye. Frank Sinatra and Danny Kaye both wanted the role and were passed over
Since when do hardship, oppression and stifling traditional values translate into a feel-good experience? The answer is: never. But Norman Jewison’s 1971 musical, Fiddler on the Roof, somehow manages to be the exception to that rule. The story of a man’s attempt to hold onto custom in the face of a changing world, Fiddler on the Roof is one of the most heart-warming movies I’ve ever seen.
Based on the long-running Broadway musical of the same name, Fiddler on the Roof is set at the turn of the 20th century in the town of Anatevka, a poverty-stricken village in the Ukraine. Tevye (Topol) is a milkman whose three daughters, Tzietel (Rosalind Harris), Hodel (Michele Marsh) and Chava (Neva Small), are close to marrying age. Tradition calls for the father to be involved in the selection of a husband for his daughters. However, all three girls seem to have a mind of their own when it comes to a potential mate, throwing the traditional values of the old-fashioned Tevye into upheaval. Will Tevye adapt to this new, modern world, or will he cherish tradition above all else?
So what is it about Fiddler on the Roof that’s so uplifting? What’s to smile about when children are trapped by the strict practices of their parents; when people are persecuted for their religious beliefs; when poverty, sadness, and violence are the rules of the day? Sure, I could say it’s the musical numbers that gives the film its charm, yet even they deal with suffering. Matchmaker is a rousing number, but one that shows us Tevye’s three daughters the moment they realize Anatevka’s resident matchmaker, Yente (Molly Picon), probably won’t find them the Prince Charming they’re hoping for. If I Were a Rich Man has Tevye fantasizing about what it would be like to finally have a little extra money. “I know there’s no shame in being poor”, he says during one of his many conversations with God, “but it’s no great honor, either”.
So what is it, exactly, about Fiddler on the Roof that makes me smile? It’s Tevye asking Golde (Norma Crane), his wife of 25 years, if she loves him, and noticing the spark in her eyes when she realizes that, despite their constant bickering, she does. It’s Tevye’s internalized debates with himself as his daughters, one by one, break with the tradition he holds dear, and in his realization that their doing so isn’t the end of the world. It’s even in Tevye’s heart-breaking goodbye to his daughter, Hodel, who's about to catch the next train to Siberia to marry the revolutionary-minded Perchik (Paul Michael Glaser). In short, it’s the will to carry on, to smile in the face of oppression. Through the difficulties and persecution, there is always hope, and in the poverty and sadness, always life. These are the images from Fiddler on the Roof that stay with me: some happy, some sad, yet all very endearing.
Drink La’chayim to life!