When a musical becomes part of the Broadway canon, and its tunes part of the Great American Songbook, there’s a tendency to assume they were always there and the work came inscribed on stone tablets from Mount Sinai.
That’s one reason by Max Lewkowicz’s expansive documentary “Fiddler: A Miracles of Miracles” is so revelatory. It’s one thing to show how “Fiddler on the Roof” has become the universally loved musical that it is — performed from Broadway to Bangkok and back — but to get the story about how close the show came to never happening at all.
It started when lyricist Sheldon Harnick brought a book to composer Jerry Bock: A collection of short stories by Sholem Aleichem, about life for Russian Jews in the early 20th century, just before the pogroms that scattered them to Europe and America. The stories are dark, depressing, and don’t really have a narrative through-line.
What’s more, notes author Fran Liebowitz, Aleichem created “nostalgia for a world that never happened.” While other immigrants came to America for economic reasons, Jews came over “because we were being killed.”
Joseph Stein, who wrote the musical’s book, found the connective thread to Aleichem’s tales: A milkman, Tevya, raising five daughters and trying to maintain Jewish tradition as modern life is being pushed onto his village.
But while Tevya is the lead role, lamenting his poverty in “If I Were a Rich Man,” it’s the daughters who drive the action — from the moment the eldest, Tzeitel, declares she wants to defy the tradition of an arranged marriage (described in “Matchmaker, Matchmaker”) to marry the man she loves, the tailor Motel Tamzoil. Her sisters follow suit, with Hodl falling for the student radical Perchik, and young Chava wishing to marry a Russian soldier.
The production got rolling, with Zero Mostel as the boisterous, and difficult to manage, star. Jerome Robbins (“West Side Story”) was hired to direct, angering Mostel — because Mostel had been blacklisted during the McCarthy years, and Robbins had testified and named names, to keep himself from being outed as a homosexual.
With interviews from Harnick, Bock and Stein, as well as surviving original cast member Austin Pendleton, the documentary tells of a disastrous tryout run in Detroit, of retooling (a satirical ditty about the Messiah near the finale was dumped) and revival in its Washington run and its Broadway premiere on Sept. 22, 1964.
Next came the 1971 movie, directed by Norman Jewison — hired even though he informed the producers that “I’m a goy” — and starring the Israeli actor Chaim Topol, a surprise to Hollywood observers who assumed Mostel would get the gig. Topol, by the way, gives one of the more charming interviews here, though maybe it’s just a relief to see that he’s still alive and smiling.
To demonstrate the universality of “Fiddler on the Roof,” the filmmakers go to a university in Thailand, where a student production of the show is in rehearsals. And there’s a montage of “Do You Love Me?”, the tender duet between Tevye and his wife, Golde,” made up of renditions from the recent Broadway revival, a production at the Chichester Festival Theatre in the UK, and a Japanese-language production in Tokyo.
Stories of “Fiddler’s” impact and influence abound, as do the deeply personal connections. My favorite is from Michael Bernardi, who played Mordcha the Inkeeper in the 2015 revival, and played Danny Burstein’s understudy as Tevye. Bernardi’s father, Herschel Bernardi, took over from Mostel in the original production, and played Tevye in a 1982 revival — and Michael wears his father’s boots when he plays the role now.
“Everybody thinks it’s about them,” says Joel Grey, who directed a Yiddish translation that’s now playing off-Broadway. That, in a nutshell, may be why “Fiddler on the Roof” has endured, and why “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles” is so rich with stories of connection with this stage classic.
‘Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles’
Opened August 23 in select cities; opens Friday, September 6, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City). Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements/disturbing images. Running time: 97 minutes.