Weekend Film Recommendation: Fiddler on the Roof

Gifted filmmakers are able to delve into the particularity of one group’s life to illustrate universal human experiences, thereby appealing simultaneously to those inside and outside the group. That’s part of the transcendent power of Hoop Dreams as well as this week’s film recommendation: 1971’s Fiddler on the Roof. At one level, the film is steeped in the particularity of Jewish villagers under persecution of the Russian czar, and it’s a powerful story on those terms. But it’s also a moving treatment of crumbling tradition, parenthood, culture and faith which spoke to a whole generation of diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds.

The story focuses on a dirt-poor, devout and intelligent milkman named Tevye, his wife Golde and their marriageable daughters. The family scratches out an existence sustained by the bonds, traditions and religion in their shtetl of Anatevka. As suitors present themselves for his fiercely independent daughters, Tevye struggles to reconcile his traditional beliefs and concern about their material welfare with their desire to choose their own husbands based on love. Meanwhile, rumors of pogroms and forced exiles reach his ears, and he wonders when Anatevka will suffer a similar fate.

This is a very hard judgment to make, but of any Broadway musical, I would cite Fiddler on the Roof as having the best songs. “Sunrise, Sunset”, “Tradition”, “Matchmaker” are among the unforgettable musical pieces Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick created for the play. These show stoppers are brought beautifully to life in the film by director Norman Jewison (A Canadian Protestant who got the job because the Hollywood execs assumed that with a name like that, he must be Jewish!). Jewison and the fine cast are equally adept at the dramatic scenes, which are given more prominence in the film than in the play because Jewison wanted a more serious tone to what he saw as a largely grim story.

The big debate about this film concerns the non-casting of Zero Mostel as Tevye, the role he made famous on Broadway. To the bitter disappointment of Mostel and his many fans, the part went instead to Topol, the actor who had played Tevye in the London production of the play. It remains a stellar cast regardless, with an extraordinarily talented set of performers with both musical and dramatic talent.

This clip features one of the many wonderful, touching songs from the movie. It also shows how Jewison and top-flight cinematographer Oswald Morris did much much more than photograph a play; they created a remarkable piece of cinematic art using all the techniques the medium can offer.


Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

18 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: Fiddler on the Roof”

  1. Re Mostel v. Topol: The former may have created the role but was too old for the film version (age matters more in close-up) and Mostel was, IMHO, too prone to overplay. Wonderful on stage (I saw him) but Topol was, while not exactly subtle, a lower key and I think better choice. Over the years I have come to like the movie even more than I did on first viewing. It is a beautiful piece of work and does no violence to its sources–both the musical and the stories of Tevye the dairyman. Now, anyone want to suggest that “Masterpiece Theater” adapt Aleichem’s “Wandering Star”?

  2. “…having the best songs.” Po-tay-to, po-tah-to. If I never hear “Sunrise, Sunset” again in my life, it will be too soon.

    1. When I’m asked to help program the music for a wedding, I have two anti-recommendations:

      1. For the processional and recessional, forget about the Wagner Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin, and Mendelssohn’s Wedding March. Elsa and Lohengrin’s marriage wasn’t too whippy, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a big joke.
      2. For music in the service, remember that Paul Stuckey’s Wedding Song (a/k/a There Is Love) and Sunrise, Sunset are both overplayed to the point of being trite cliches.

      Then the recommendation is to find music that is meaningful to you and your betrothed. If any of that music is meaningful (it happens — the couple met doing a run of Fiddler, or whatever) then disregard the advice above.

      1. Sunrise, Sunset are both overplayed to the point of being trite cliches

        This is true. Similar phenomenon with many of Hitchcock’s most famous set-ups and with the Auld Lang Syne too…in both case the amount of copying and repetition nonetheless stem from the greatness of the original.

  3. When the VHS version came out, it seemed that there had been some omissions from the screen version of the film. I am not certain of this due to the passage of time, but in the theater, one of the Russian officials planning the pogrom puts pressure on the generally tolerant local Tsarist official, asking him something like, “Do you really like these troublemakers, these Christ killers?” It sort of hit you in the gut on the big screen and it may have been dropped from the DVD; maybe someone knows for certain.

    The casting was generally very good, and Topol was extremely effective in his performance of “If I Were a Rich Man” and other numbers. Unfortunately, the casting of his wife Golde was unsuitable for the role; she was frequently flat and this had an adverse effect on some numbers, such as the one she and Tevye sing after he has fooled her into thinking that their oldest daughter Tzeitel must marry Motel the tailor rather than the wealthy butcher to whom she had been betrothed.

    It is worth digging this out and seeing it again, though. That goes for “Sunrise, Sunset” as well as the title number played by Isaac Stern. Thanks, Keith, for the reminder.

  4. Oy, Keith: best songs?? Which ones have become jazz standards, or cabaret staples, again? All of them are indigestible Nutella/treacle confections of easy sentiment. Grownup songs have to have some bite: as Vinicius says in his instruction manual http://letras.mus.br/vinicius-de-moraes/86496/ (and he should know!)

    Mas pra fazer um samba com beleza
    E preciso um bocado de tristeza
    Senao nao se faz um samba nao
    But to make a beautiful samba
    requires a small mouthful of sadness
    If not you aren’t making a real samba

    A good song has contradiction, tension, original imagery (sunrise, sunset…please!), irony in the lyrics, just as the music doesn’t move without discord

    Kiss Me Kate certainly takes most best songs cake.

      1. All of them are indigestible Nutella/treacle confections of easy sentiment. Grownup songs have to have some bite

        I think this quite wrong-headed both about the nature of the songs in Fiddler and even moreso about what it means to be a grown-up, but as Ed Whitney wisely says de gustibus non est disputandum.

        Incidentally Ed, I love Cole Porter, but Wunderbar is my least favorite of his songs. It always reminds me of Kappelmeister Bonno saying that “German is — scusate — too brutal for singing.” I have a magnificent collection of his songs across the various shows, and this is the only track I always skip.

        1. Ah, but who was the girl you were with when you first heard it?

          A lot of what determines “de gustibus” probably turns on this very point.

          Maybe someone could be clever enough to run a multiple regression model on variation in tastes with this as a variable in the model. The sources of variation in tastes are numerous, but this factor is likely to remain significant in the final model, if anyone gets it together to figure out how to do the study.

          1. Ah, but who was the girl you were with when you first heard it?

            I think I was with Eva Braun, now that you call my mind to it.

            A Cole Porter triumph, Silk Stockings, has the perfect exchange where Don Ameche reminds the starchy Hildergard Neff who can’t see the lights of Paris that “If you go by yourself, you won’t see them”.

      2. give me Camelot any day for songs … though an awful lot of them insist on the law, in one way or another. Maybe that’s an attraction.

  5. There can be no debate about “best songs” unless you exclude “Porgy and Bess” from consideration.

      1. My understanding is that Mostel, for all his genius, had a reputation for being extremely difficult to work with. Maybe that was a factor.

  6. I recall Norman Jewison commenting on being mistaken for a Jew, perhaps when this film came out – he said he was thinking of changing his name to Christianson … Irving Christianson.

    1. David Cone, who pitched for both the Mets and the Yankees, had a similar story. Many people assumed, incorrectly, that his last name was just an offbeat spelling of “Cohen.” He said he got invited to an awful lot of Bar Mitzvahs when he played in New York.

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