Late last year, the latest touring production of Fiddler on the Roof, a 2015 Broadway revival originally directed by Bartlett Sher that updated parts of the classic musical while maintaining its timeless resonance, made its way through Chicago; I reviewed it back in December.
If you also caught that production over the holidays, you’ll recognize a lot of the footage in Fiddler: Miracle of Miracles, a new documentary that captures the show’s origins, iterations and impact over the more than 50 years since it premiered in 1964. A worthy historical archive of an American musical that’s weathered changing political climates and cultural appetites over generations, director Max Lewkowicz (who co-wrote with Valerie Thomas) manages a quite comprehensive, interesting affair populated by the men who created it, the actors who bring it to life and the scholars and audiences who keep it as popular now as it was then.
With the show’s own songs as a narrative guide (melodies that will stick in your head long after the film’s credits), Fiddler starts at the beginning, recounting the origins of the show in Sholem Aleichem’s classic short stories about a dairy man named Tevye and his family, a wife and five daughters, eking out a living in the shtetls of turn-of-the-century Russia. In conversations with Jerry Bock (who wrote the music), the late Hal Prince (producer) and others, it’s clear that from the start (Bock collaborated with Sheldon Harnick on the lyrics for a book by Joseph Stein) that the creators had an eye for the story’s universality, even its very specific setting. Even the decision to hire Jerome Robbins, best known as a dancer and choreographer, to direct proves a fork in the show’s road to the stage that could’ve gone quite differently than it ultimately did. He was not an easy man to work with, even outright feuding with the show’s larger-than-life star Zero Mostel.
Portions of the film delve into the 1971 film based on the stage show, from how Norm Jewison (a goy!) was hired to direct the epic (some behind-the-scenes footage on set is particularly moving) to the importance of shooting in the old country. Still other scenes visit international and student productions in some unlikely places. Hearing “Do You Love Me?” in Japanese is a treat, and a middle-schooler cast as Tevye’s wife Golde proves wise beyond her years as she reflects on her chance to inhabit such an iconic role. Moment after moment throughout the film provide such interesting “aha” insights. Poignant with the hindsight of today, it will feel as if this well-known musical is brand new again.
There is a lot going on in Fiddler, and for audiences not as familiar with the show, it may seem too much to follow; perhaps the film would have benefited from scaling back its scope, focusing on just one aspect of the production and its storied history and leaving the rest for other films. But that would be a disservice to the legacy of the creators, producers and actors then and now who bring the show to life year after year (an epilogue notes that the show is performed somewhere in the world every single day, and has been for decades). By incorporating all the various versions of the show, a wide swath of artists and cast members past and present, and a glimpse at the international impact despite cultural differences, Fiddler: Miracle of Miracles delivers as a well-researched archival document and an engaging, entertaining film.