Synopsis: The origin story behind one of Broadway’s most beloved musicals and its creative roots in early 1960s New York, when “tradition” was on the wane as gender roles, sexuality, race relations and religion were evolving.
Stars: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Austin Pendleton, Fran Lebowitz, Michael Bernardi, Jerry Bock, Danny Burstein, Joey Grey, Josh Mostel, Harvey Fierstein, Topol, Harold Prince
Director: Max Lewkowicz
Running Length: 92 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: A funny thing happens to me anytime I hear someone bring up the musical Fiddler on the Roof. No matter where I am or what I’m doing, I stop in my tracks, get completely serious, and say “I. Love. That. Show.” It’s not being dramatic, it’s not overstating the truth…it’s just fact. For a while I used to say it was my guilty pleasure show…until I realized that I’d never seen a bad production of it and there were quite a few others than shared in my sentiment. In the world of theater, it seems that you either love Fiddler, you were in Fiddler, or both.
For the last 55 years, the Tony winning show inspired by the tales of Sholem Aleichem with music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and book by Joseph Stein hasn’t gone a single day without being performed somewhere in the world. Ponder that for a moment. Every day, for over a half century, somewhere on earth, an audience experienced the musical set in a Russian shtetl in 1905 about a milkman named Tevye and his family. A little over a month ago, I caught the new Broadway tour of the 2015 revival of the show and fell in love with it all over again. Yes, the first act is longer than most Adam Sandler movies (100 minutes) and by this point there’s hardly a person in the world that hasn’t “deedle deedle dum’ed” their way through a shower rendition of ‘If I Were a Rich Man’ but the show continues to work like gangbusters.
Inspired to learn a bit more about the show, I tracked down a copy of Barbara Isenberg’s excellent 2015 book ‘Tradition!: The Highly Improbable, Ultimately Triumphant Broadway-to-Hollywood Story of Fiddler on the Roof, the World’s Most Beloved Musical’ right around the same time I got wind of this documentary. Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles is part creation story and part time capsule, showing not just the genesis and lasting impact of the musical but also the cultural climate it sprung out of. While many of the stories from the book are repeated in the movie, both have their own golden nuggets that make them a must for any Fiddler fan.
Clearly, the admirers are plentiful and endure along with the show, including a plethora of familiar stars of stage and screen that are interviewed by director Max Lewkowicz. Using archive interviews with the creators (Stein and Bock have passed away) and having family members fill in some narrative gaps, the film is often a straight-forward ‘this is how we made it’ charting of how the piece developed. Those interested in Broadway history will find many recognizable names mentioned as the show went from a poorly reviewed tryout in Washington D.C. to becoming a global phenomenon that continues to sell out theaters whenever it plays in whatever language it’s been adapted to. Yet before we get to how the writers came up with the songs and how director/choreographer Jerome Robbins devised the inventive dances, Lewkowicz takes audiences on a journey through the early ’60s and the mood the country was in when the Fiddler crew was setting up shop. It’s valuable to see where the authors were coming from and what might have influenced them, not just in that point in history but in their own personal remembrances.
While the book ultimately has some more dishy asides about the shenanigans that went on offstage and original Tevye Zero Mostel’s tendency toward the unpredictable onstage, the documentary has its own share of memorable moments. I found the audio clips from the first school production to be incredibly moving. As the show was still playing its original run on Broadway, a inner city NYC school was granted the rights by the creators as a way to demonstrate that, though the show was about Jews, its message was universal. The production was met with protests by the religious on both sides, each wonder the appropriateness of someone outside of the Jewish heritage going through a show that has several faith-based observances serving as key moments. Hearing the young cast sing the music is remarkable. Try to stave off the chills.
Starting out strong by going into a fairly detailed deep dive into the politics and temperature in place when the musical was first created, Lewkowicz stretches things a bit too far by looping in everyone’s favorite Pulitzer Prize winner, Lin-Manual Miranda (Mary Poppins Returns) for some on-camera time. Now, I’m fan of what Miranda did for Broadway with Hamilton and hold that piece of theater up as the highest of high bars, but did we really need his appearance talking about his wedding reception video that went viral (a well-orchestrated viral, I might add) where he got family and friends to sing ‘To Life’? Honestly? No. It feels like a strange diversion, an unfocused detour after such a keen honing in on more related topics. I know it’s included to show how the music continues to inspire but it comes off as a chance for Miranda to pat himself on the back for devising the surprise for his bride. So it smacks ever so slightly of inclusion for name value alone.
At a brief 92 minutes, there’s a bounty of information here for the casual fan and for those that have listened to the cast recording thousands of time. It’s nice to hear from Topol, the Oscar-nominated star of the movie who played Tevye onstage before and after his silver screen performance. Seeing him play the role onstage several years ago, I’m not ashamed to admit I burst ino tears the moment he said his first line. I would have liked to see a bit more comparisons between the Fiddler productions throughout the years, from the revised version that played Broadway in 2004 (I saw Harvey Fierstein as Tevye…another unexpected delight), the most recent revival from 2015, or from the current production playing off-Broadway performed entirely in Yiddish. Even so, there are clips from a number of international productions, illustrating again the ease in which the show crosses through languages and interpretations.
Thanks to the judicious editing by Lewkowicz and the addition of some nice animations to tie passages together, it’s a well-paced watch. Engaging and entertaining but, like it’s subject, over in the blink of an eye, Fiddler: Miracle of Miracles may follow the same structure as many making-of documentaries but it gives the audience something extra. By looking at the bigger picture surrounding the show and how it has had an impact, it makes an oft-done musical seem as relevant today as ever before.