Friday Night Retro: Fiddler on the Roof

Growing up, many of the things to which I was exposed was as a direct result of my parents rather than what was popular at the time. When other kids were watching Power Rangers, I was watching Monty Python. When they were listening to N’Sync, I was listening to The Beatles. And by far, one of the more memorable movie/musicals I recall from my childhood was the epic tale of The Fiddler On The Roof. The tragic story of a Jewish family in the small Russian town of Anatevka, as the main character, Tevye, struggles to hold onto the traditions of his faith in a rapidly changing world around the turn of the 20th century, from his daughters to the oppressive regime of the Russian Tsar. Phenomenal casting and a wonderful script combine to create an experience that is difficult to forget.

Tevye is the local milkman, with five daughters, and a strict, but loving wife, Golde. Fiddler on the Roof follows his life in Russia, as he and his family try to maintain a semblance of normalcy in a time and place where Jewish people are persecuted for their religion, likening the community to a fiddler who makes his music on the rooftops. He soon finds himself in one moral dilemma after another, as his eldest daughter Tzeitel wishes to marry a poor bookseller by the name of Motel, only learning this after he has promised her hand to the local butcher, who is much wealthier, eventually allowing the young couple to wed. Unfortunately, the wedding is interrupted by a crowd of Russians who trash the party and the entire town, a grim reminder of the difficult times they live in, even during happy moments. Tevye’s second daughter also flaunts tradition, as she and her beloved, Perchik, let him know that they will marry with or without his blessing. However, after some brief soul-searching, Tevye also allows their relationship to continue, believing that their happiness is more important than whatever plans he might have in the future. It also prompts a lovely duet between him and his wife where they reflect on how their lives have been, and the fact that they love each other still. Unfortunately, when his third daughter, Chava, desires to marry Fyedka, a Christian Russian, Tevye refuses, his conscience unable to accept a marriage outside of his own faith. When the two elope, he considers her dead to him. The play ends on a rather somber note, as the entire populace of Anatevka is forced to abandon the village under orders from the Tsar.

One of the things that drew me into this movie was the fact that it was a musical, and a serious one at that. Even as a small child, I was inexorably drawn to the theatre; I loved being onstage, acting, singing. Fiddler on the Roof was actually the first play I was in, and my father introduced me to the movie in short order. The many musical numbers of the story enraptured me, as they offered insights to the characters thoughts and the general atmosphere of the piece in general. “Tradition” showed me how the society of Anatevka functioned, Tevye’s numerous songs like “To Life” and “Tevye’s Dream” helped me understand his caring, mischievous nature, and “Do You Love Me?” gave me hope that even in unknown circumstances that happiness can still be found. Even though I was too young to truly understand and analyze the effects these songs had on me, the messages still shone through clear as day, and in a manner that was catchy and memorable. Without a doubt, my favorite song of the entire movie was and is “If I Were A Rich Man,” as Tevye’s amusing aria to the heavens reflects many of our thoughts; would it be so terrible if I had a small fortune?

Fiddler on the Roof paints a wonderful picture of life. Its message about toeing the line between tradition and the inevitable progress of time is clear, unlike the actual issue. Especially today, the line between the past and the future, between tradition and innovation, becomes smaller and less distinct all the time, something that Tevye points out multiple times throughout the course of the play. The film adaptation is also unique in the fact that it takes very few liberties with script editing, leaving it almost untouched, and resulting in a play time of over three hours. The setting is almost perfectly authentic as well, with period costumes and stunning sets and landscapes that make it easy to believe that the filming could easily have happened back in 1905. Chaim Topol’s portrayal of Tevye was also an instant classic, and though the entire cast was amazing, he brought such life to the film that it simply wouldn’t have been the same without him. His character’s constant disregard for the fourth wall only makes the role more interesting and amusing.

Fiddler on the Roof has spawned four separate Broadway revivals and a film adaptation, so I believe it is fair to say that Fiddler is a story that can withstand the test of time. It has a universal theme to which everyone can relate, even if the specific events seem so far removed from our society today and the story that it tells is engaging with phenomenal writing. It has a soundtrack that ranges from serious and depressing to upbeat and silly, encompassing every emotion in-between. In other words, Fiddler on the Roof has everything necessary to make it a bona fide hit, and its continuing success is only further evidence that the story of Tevye the milkman won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. It has earned its place on my wall of great movies that I can watch time and time again and never be tired of it.

Next Week: Powerpuff Girls

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