I recently attended the opening night performance of our son’s high school’s production of Fiddler on the Roof. Our son was on the tech crew running lights so we were there strictly for him. As much as I love the stage, having spent some time upon it myself, high school musicals ain’t my bag, baby. But what I saw that night was surprising.
The young man who played Tevye did an excellent job. He really threw himself into it and just had fun. Sure, some of the kids in the show weren’t stellar actors or singers, but as a whole the show was really enjoyable.
I was also impressed at the undertaking. Going in I presumed that they would have to cut some of the scenes or greatly modify them due to the complexity of the production. I was positive that there was no way they would do Tevye’s dream. Not only did they leave it in, they really pulled it off. But that wasn’t all. They left the whole play intact. Start to finish. It was quite the undertaking and they executed it well. In fact, the young men who played Tevye and Perchik were both nominated for the Blumenthal Performing Arts Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor awards respectively along with the show’s choreography and chorus ensemble. Apparently, there’s no award for Awesome Light Board Operator. I should write them a letter.
I think the most complimentary thing I can say about this production is that it made me want to watch the film version from 1971 again. So when I found out that Titanic would be this week’s installment of our local megaplex’s classic film series (Titanic? Classic?!?) I knew my son and I would need to make other plans. Aha! A perfect time for Fiddler on the Roof.
This musical tale of Tevye, a poor milkman in the Jewish village of Anatevka during Tsarist Russia, and his wife and 5 daughters is a moving portrayal of braving the winds of change by holding fast to the foundation of your faith. Tradition!
Topal is the quintessential Tevye and while he was not in the original Broadway production, he has become the gold standard by which all future Tevye’s are judged. His is the strongest performance and is not only the glue that holds it all together but it is the heart that makes it so powerful. And the music is uncommonly great. Few musicals have as many stellar songs. If I start mentioning a couple now I won’t know how to stop.
I don’t think I realized how much this film means to me. For years I have wanted to make this a Selby Family Tradition during Christmas or New Years. But until I watched it this past Wednesday it never hit me how much I truly love it.
I think it’s an overlooked classic. I even overlooked it on my Top 25 Films of All Time list. I won’t make the same mistake the next time I revise that list. But this was a significant film even when it was released more than 40 years ago.
It was the #1 movie in the country for 5 consecutive weeks in 1971. It took James Bond to unseat it with Diamonds Are Forever. It had the 2nd highest opening weekend of the entire year, second only to the eventual Best Picture winner, The French Connection.
But Fiddler on the Roof was no slouch at the Academy Awards either. It was nominated for 8 Oscars including Picture, Director, Actor (Topal), Supporting Actor (Leonard Frey) and Art Direction winning for Sound, Score and Cinematography.
Interestingly, it was John Williams who scored the film. I think a lot of people don’t remember that. In fact, this was his first of 5 Oscar wins and the only one for a film not made by anyone named Spielberg or Lucas.
Even though it gets overlooked as a cinematic great, Fiddler on the Roof has been absorbed into our collective cultural consciousness. It is iconic even if we don’t realize it.
I conducted a small experiment at work about this. I talked to three 20-somethings about Fiddler on the Roof. Two of them had never seen the film and knew nothing about the plot. But they had heard of the film and knew it was based on a Broadway musical. When I started to sing “If I Were A Rich Man” they said “That’s from Fiddler on the Roof?”
The third woman I asked saw it when she was a child and didn’t remember much but when I asked her about the music she broke into “If I Were A Rich Man” and started to dance around my office like Tevye. I asked her what she knew about The French Connection. She’d never heard of it.
Please don’t misread me. The French Connection is a great film. I may even write a blog post about it someday. But Fiddler on the Roof is just a special film. It holds an extraordinary place in our society that is normally reserved for movies more readily identifiable by the general public.
Maybe this is the year Fiddler on the Roof will find a place as part of the Selby Family Christmas. I can’t think of a better tradition.