For those who might regard “Fiddler on the Roof” merely as just another warhorse musical and a favorite of dinner theater and high school drama societies, Max Lewkowicz’s rowdy and informative “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles” might change their minds. The documentary opens Aug. 30, at the Kendall, Coolidge, and West Newton. The 1964 Broadway hit, based on Sholem Aleichem’s Yiddish stories about Tevye the dairyman and set in a 1905 czarist Russia shtetl, not only mirrored the major issues of its era but has since grown even more timely. Lessons on feminism, tolerance, social justice, the clash between tradition and progress, the plight of refugees, resistance to tyranny, even gay rights, can all be read into its rousing, bittersweet, tuneful tale.
It is also universal in its appeal, with productions staged around the world — Lewkowicz shares clips of versions in Thailand, Japan (its rendition of the number “Do You Love Me?” is particularly affecting), a middle school in Brooklyn, and Ukraine. Every day, according to the film’s epigraph, at least one performance of “Fiddler” is playing somewhere. And after watching the movie, its relentlessly catchy numbers might keep playing for you; as one of the interviewees says, “You’ll be singing these songs for the rest of your life, whether you like it or not.”
Back when the show’s creators were pitching the idea, however, its prospects looked dim. “We knew what the reaction would be,” recalls Joseph Stein, the librettist. “ ‘You want to do a musical about a bunch of old Jews in Russia who are going through a pogrom? Are you out of your mind?’ ” The trial run in Detroit got a negative response; fortunately there was a newspaper strike, so no one read any reviews. The notices for its Broadway opening were tepid, too. Nonetheless people started lining up to see it, and it was off to a then record-breaking 10-year run . It won nine Tony Awards, has spawned five Broadway revivals, and was adapted into an Oscar-winning 1971 hit movie, directed by Norman Jewison (who, in one of the film’s many entertaining anecdotes, recalls the producers’ nonplussed reaction when they learned that he was not, in fact, Jewish).
In addition to interviews with Stein, the composer, Jerry Bock, and Sheldon Harnick, the lyricist, and some original cast members, the film includes an eclectic slate of talking heads — author Fran Liebowitz, journalist Calvin Trillin, violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman, film director Gurinder Chadha (“Bend It Like Beckham,” 2002, “Blinded by the Light”), and various cast members from numerous “Fiddler” productions over the years. Most note that since it originated in the 1960s it reflects the turmoil of that time — the JFK assassination, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the women’s liberation movement (Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” was still a bestseller in 1964).
Sadly, such turmoil has recurred over the past 55 years, making the story perennially relevant. In the new Anatevka, a village in Ukraine created as a refugee center and named after the shtetl in “Fiddler,” Michael Bernardi (son of one of the great Broadway Tevyes, Herschel Bernardi) performs numbers from the musical for those who have been driven from their homes by war. “We played for Ukrainian displaced people,” he says, “singing songs from ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ about displaced people.”
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FIDDLER: A MIRACLE OF MIRACLES
Directed by Max Lewkowicz. Written by Lewkowicz and Valerie Thomas . At Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, West Newton. 92 minutes. PG-13 (some thematic elements/disturbing images).
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.