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Audrey Kupferberg: Fiddler - A Miracle Of Miracles

Fiddler on the Roof is so much more than a Broadway musical about a bunch of put-upon Jews struggling to keep their traditions intact, more than a shtetl view of Jews living their lives in 1905 in the rural Russian village of Anatevka.  It has come to be a pop culture phenomenon.  The musical ran on Broadway for more than 3,000 performances from 1964 onward, and it has been performed in many parts of the world frequently over the past fifty-five years.  Right now, Fiddler is being performed hither and yon by professional theater troupes and middle school drama clubs.  Recently, a new Yiddish-language version began running on Broadway.

This past July, a new feature-length documentary called Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles debuted at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.  It went on to a theatrical release and will eventually become available to home viewers.  Max Lewkowicz, founder of Dog Green Productions, who has made hundreds of documentaries for hire, is the capable director and co-writer/producer of this film.  And what a film it is!  There are interviews with Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, Hal Prince, Joseph Stein, Topol, Danny Burstein, Joel Grey, and sons of Zero Mostel and Herschel Bernardi. Even Lin-Manuel Miranda participates.  Original director, the late Jerome Robbins, is a frequent topic of the interviewees, his intensity, brilliance, meanness, his ruthless loyalty to creating a great work -- also the fact that he named eight names to HUAC during the blacklisting era which put him into conflict with Zero Mostel, the original Tevye.

The documentary is so thoroughly researched that it even includes footage of an early 1964 episode of a television show called American Musical Theater made on the cheap for New York City’s educational channel in which Bock and Harnick talk to an audience of fifteen and sixteen year olds about a musical they are planning, and sing samples of the music they have written.  This clip is obscure but familiar to me because many years ago Rob and I were researching at what now is called the Paley Center for Media.  Rob finished his work for the day and then searched for this particular program.  He was elated when he located it.  Why, I asked.  That’s when he told me he was in the audience that day.  And we actually were able to glimpse him at the end of the episode when the young students gather around the piano.

Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles is a polished production that incorporates many cinematic approaches to telling its story.  In addition to the interviews which are revealing and sometimes surprising -- and which are the most informative part of the film, there also are clips from many of the stage productions and the 1971 film.  Lewkowicz includes drawings and clever original animation sequences, too.

I do not need to explain the plot and themes of Fiddler on the Roof to you, you already know.  If you don’t, then you probably have turned down the volume by now.  Whether it is the struggle between two opposing sets of ethnic/religious groups, the yearning to hold on to traditions, or challenges to family unity, or all of the above, there is something about this musical drama that goes straight to the heart of its audiences.  Maybe it’s the bittersweet quality of the music and lyrics.  Maybe it’s the heart-breaking daily problems a poor milkman with a worn-out horse.  Whatever, there is a universality of feeling to Fiddler on the Roof which brings audiences to tears all over the world. 

As I watched this documentary, I cried when sequences from the musical played onscreen.  How odd, I thought.  Then I looked over at my friend, and she, too, was weeping.  The ability to touch the emotional core of its viewers, to bring out their empathy, is striking.  Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles is a definitive look at Fiddler on the Roof.  It is the quality of analytical study that this classic musical deserves.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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