Norman Jewison’s film Fiddler On The Roof (1971) adapts the musical by Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick for the silver screen (the original musical was itself based on the stories by Sholem Aleichem). Jewison’s film is an epic spectacle that frames the intimate story of a milkman’s family living in the Pale Of Settlement against the backdrop of the First Russian Revolution. Like The Sound Of Music (1965), Fiddler On The Roof is structured as a synthesis between the historical epics of David Lean and the family oriented musicals MGM produced in its heyday such as Meet Me In St. Louis (1944).
The musical was well on the way out in Hollywood when Jewison made Fiddler On The Roof. Major studios weren’t interested in producing musicals that didn’t fit the viable formula established by The Sound Of Music. With few exceptions, the musicals produced by major studios post-Gigi (1958) lacked the visual verve and expressiveness that was once synonymous with the genre. Jewison, to his credit, pays homage to the musicals of Vincente Minnelli and James Whale with the “Tevye’s Dream” sequence. But Jewison has the excuse of the dream sequence to create some rather wildly expressionistic images that he must otherwise work into Fiddler On The Roof with far more subtlety.
In a stroke of dated aesthetic genius Jewison envisions a hallucinatory ballet sequence in silhouette that externalizes the emotional experiences of the protagonist. Overlays, backlighting and a barren Eastern European landscape combine to create a wholly cinematic illusion that also suggests the technical conventions of the original stage musical. This sequence, “Chavaleh (Little Bird)”, is the emotional climax of the main plot in Fiddler On The Roof in much the same way that “Tevye’s Dream” signals the closure of a major plot thread. However, these two scenes, these fantasies, are isolated incidents of cinematic expressionism just as much as they are signposts for act breaks.
The bulk of Fiddler On The Roof is concerned with creating an illusion of historical authenticity that rivals anything Stanley Kubrick has ever done. Production design, make-up, and location scouting were all carried out with an eye for detail. Jewison, a meticulous perfectionist, succeeds in making the fictional town of Anatevka feel as real and tangible as possible. What this does for Fiddler On The Roof is to make the poverty of this Jewish community so profoundly felt that the dramatic stakes of every plot beat is elaborated upon and reiterated in the characters’ physical milieu. The terrors of anti-Semitic Tsarist Russia permeate every scene without a song until gradually these conditions motivate a musical number themselves. It’s a subtle approach that pays off and makes Fiddler On The Roof every bit as emotionally powerful as The Sound Of Music pretends to be.
Of course, Fiddler On The Roof wouldn’t really be Fiddler On The Roof without Topol. Topol’s portrayal of Tevye is definitive. His Tevye is a compassionate and devout father, husband and Jew whose situation, socially and politically, often sets these societal roles at odds with each other. Tevye’s a fantastically complex character that Topol brings to life with exuberance and nuance. Only Topol could make such drastic shifts from broad comedy to tragedy seem so fluid and organic. There are rough patches in these aesthetic transitions in Fiddler On The Roof that Norman Jewison entrusts Topol with making them feel more earned and natural which, of course, Topol does.
Really Fiddler On The Roof is a great ensemble (with the exception of Paul Michael Glasser) that creates such a clear sense of a community that it rivals It’s A Wonderful Life (1946). Fiddler On The Roof is that singularly immersive musical film that its appeal extends beyond the devotees of the genre to the self-serious fans of historical epics like The Godfather (1972) and Lawrence Of Arabia (1962). Yet, while Fiddler On The Roof may have spawned the rock movie musical Jesus Christ Stuperstar (1973), it actually signaled the very end of the second wave of Hollywood musicals. After Fiddler On The Roof Hollywood studios made musicals designed to exploit popular trends and cultural impulses like Grease (1978) and Xanadu (1980). What attempts there were to recreate films such as Fiddler On The Roof have ended miserably and shamefully.