When I was a kid (Canadian-born, Midwest adolescence), one of my best friends, an Evangelical Christian, was allowed to pretty much watch just two studio films: The Sound of Music and Fiddler On The Roof. My love of musicals began there as we watched them over and over. Fiddler became one of the tent poles of my childhood, filling in the spaces between Hebrew school, holiday services at the small synagogue (its existence a minor miracle of its own) and in the absence of any Jewish classmates or friends. I had the plot and songs memorized, such that when I finally saw it staged for the first time, not long before the pandemic, I was able to easily follow the heralded, Yiddish language production in New York City directed by Joel Grey.
I was certainly not alone in my love for Fiddler. Early on in the new documentary on the making of the 1971 movie, no less than legendary New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael is quoted, calling it “the most powerful movie musical ever made.” Released to coincide with the movie’s 50th anniversary, Fiddler’s Journey To The Big Screen is a treasure trove for fans, with abundant on-set footage from the five-plus months of shooting in the former Yugoslavia (a stand-in for Russia) and Pinewood Studios, and interviews with many of the cast and crew, including Topol, composer John Williams, and the now 96-year-old director Norman Jewison.
The first thing you may be surprised to know is that even with a name like Jewison, the Oscar nominee is not Jewish. But drawn to Judaism from his earliest years in Toronto and with a background directing TV (he helmed the historic Judy Garland “comeback special”), Jewison was well-suited to the challenge of taking Sholem Aleichem’s stories of Tsarist Russia as well as the beloved Broadway show and, as he put it, “bringing it out into the real world.” Jewison zeroed in on the essential element that would grab viewers of every stripe across the globe. “Family is universal. Right or wrong, we all have a family. You understand [Tevye’s] conflict with his daughters, with God.”
Besides getting Jewison’s wonderful insider account (Sinatra met with him about the role of Tevye!), I also really enjoyed hearing from the actresses who played Tevye’s eldest daughters: Rosalind Harris (Tzeitel), Michele Marsh (Hodel) and Neva Small (Chava). Harris was the Broadway understudy to Bette Midler’s Tzeitel and auditioned for the movie at Midler’s urging. Harris sang “Matchmaker” for Jewison, but unsure how to impress him, manically sang all of the parts. Jewison told her, “Roz, sit on your hands! Just sing to Yenta.”
Oscar-nominated filmmaker Daniel Raim has crafted a fun and fascinating look at a movie that transcends the moment in time when it was made and those involved speak to how meaningful it continues to be, for them and for audiences. It’s clear why, as Topol notes, more than one billion people have seen the movie and why generations more will in the decades to come.
Fiddler’s Journey To The Big Screen will be having in-person and virtual screenings during the Twin Cities Jewish Film Festival, which starts Nov. 10. Check the event website for schedules and tickets.