Fiddler on the Roof

September is Stage Musicals Lunar Cycle

Fiddler on the Roof. Cartier Productions 1971.

Before watching the movie:

Pretty much everything I know about this show is from the songs. I can guess that there’s poverty, generational shift, and probably a changing world. Meanwhile, an older man stands on his roof and plays his violin. Why? Maybe because, what else can he do?
This is the last entry in this series which was made available to me through my great aunt’s estate.

After watching the movie:

In the Czarist Russian town of Anatevka, life is hard for the Jewish community, but they draw their strength from rigid adherence to tradition, even as pogroms loom and revolution is in the wind. Tevye the milkman frequently asks God why He chose to “bless” him with poverty and five daughters to raise and marry off. As the political and religious climate heats up, Tevye finds that his three oldest daughters keep finding new ways for the changing times to challenge his traditional upbringing.

To get it out of the way, this movie has way too many dance breaks. I respect the position some have that a musical is a series of song and dance performance strung together by a story, instead of a story supported by singing and dancing. In fact, that’s how the genre got started. But the movie has two hours of story and a runtime of three hours and one minute. There has to be some fluff that could have been trimmed.

I know it was a controversial decision to cast Topol as Tevye over Zero Mostel, who originated the role, but having seen Mostel’s work, I think I agree with the decision. Topol portrays Tevye as a simple, dignified, old-fashioned man trying to make sense of life in a modern world. I’m sure Mostel is capable of more subtlety than I saw in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and The Producers, but he’d still be incredibly hammy. I also liked that Tevye, being the central character, had an appropriate accent that contributed to the flavor of the setting, even if most of the rest of the cast had clashing American accents.

Everyone likes to come back to Tradition and If I Were A Rich Man (which gets a little hammier than Topol usually plays the role, but probably because of Mostel’s influence), but for me the most powerful song was Do You Love Me?, which is just a simple conversation where Tevye, considering the new fad of marrying for love, asks his wife of a 25-year arranged marriage if she loves him, and she’s initially too practical and possibly bashful to answer him. It’s a sweet rumination on one of the cruxes of the story.

When I see a musical on the stage, I often find myself at the end of the show feeling like I’ve been there for days, but in a mostly good way, sharing a lifetime with the characters. I rarely get that in movies, but I did in this one. Maybe that’s a point in favor of the three hour runtime.


Watch this movie: for song and spectacle with deep thoughts about change.

Don’t watch this movie: waiting for Tevye to snap and start dancing on rooftops.

One thought on “Fiddler on the Roof

  1. Valerie September 21, 2012 / 8:26 am

    i agree. Do You Love Me? is the best song. (And though i resonate more with Sunrise Sunset than i used to, i’ve never really liked it.)

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