Easter with Tevye

I grew up in the kind of Jewish home where Santa Claus came on December 25 and a certain pagan rodent arrived on a seemingly random Sunday in the Spring, often accompanied by matzoh brie for breakfast if it was Passover.  Over the years, my inevitably confused interest in my Hebraic roots increased, and I quickly understood that the three holiest texts in Jewish scripture were the Torah, the Talmud, and Broadway’s Fiddler on the Roof.

With a book by Joseph Stein, music and lyrics by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick and drawn from stories by pseudonymous Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem, often called “the Jewish Mark Twain,” no Jewish wedding or bar/bat mitvah was complete without half the score. A particular must for even a lot of the non-Jewish weddings I’ve attended remains “Sunrise, Sunset.” The song, a succinct expression of the bittersweet feelings involved with watching beloved children turn into adults, remains the most effective technology for extracting tears from parents known prior to the release of “Toy Story 3.”

The tale of a goodnatured, deeply religious milkman trying to marry off his three daughters in the face of pogroms and the onslaught of history in early 20th century Tsarist Russia did roughly what “The Godfather” did for Italian-Americans (ethnic controversy notwithstanding) and “Roots” did for African-Americans, create a sense of history during a time when present day changes often seemed overwhelming. If you hadn’t seen “Fiddler,” as my mother’s friends inevitably called it, on the stage, you were suspect. If you missed the movie, you might as well get baptized.

All of which is just a longwinded way of saying that, when we the 40th Anniversary Blu-Ray edition of director Norman Jewison’s 1971 film of “Fiddler on the Roof,” genetics pretty much forced me to raise my hand for it, though it hasn’t been a favorite since the day I got my cinephile magic decoder ring. The slightly grainy and slightly gauzy film — director of photography Oswald Morris shot it entirely through a woman’s stocking and won one of the film’s three Oscars — looks as good as you can probably hope for on Blu-Ray, naturally, and John William’s solid but occasionally too-pretty adaptation of Jerry Bock’s score sounds nice, too, but the movie remains problematic for this viewer.

It’s not so different from a lot of other awkward stage-to-film musical translations of its time. Chiefly, Canadian director Jewison tries to adopt a realist approach to try to sell the highly theatrical material in the unforgiving medium of film, which might have been next to impossible regardless. Though Jewison retained much of the choreography by the legendary Jerome Robbins (“West Side Story”), setting it in real or real-looking locations is a doomed strategy. The best strictly musical scenes, like the famous “bottle dance” wedding sequence and the rousing “L’Chaim,” were shot on a London soundstage.

A solid cast led by Israeli actor Topol as Tevye, the milkman, and featuring Yiddish theater legend Molly Picon and future “Starsky and Hutch” star Michael Glaser (he’d add “Paul” to his name later) among many others, helps. Chaim Topol, who played the part on stage in London and Tel Aviv, is a better choice than the brash and notoriously difficult to control original Broadway Tevye, Zero Mostel, would have been. Among other issues, Woody Allen in “Annie Hall” was not the first movie Jew to break the forth wall and address the camera directly. No one would accuse Topol of underacting, but if it had been Mostel talking and singing at us about the importance of “Tradition,” the audience would have been forced into a defensive crouch.

Of course, there’s much more to than issues like cinematic style and acting to the ongoing appeal of “Fiddler on the Roof.” It remains popular not only in the U.S. but is still performed even in Japan, where the story of the breakdown of ancient traditions has had an oddly logical resonance. No amount of quibbling is going to kill the film version of “Fiddler,” nor should it.

Oh, and happy Easter if that’s your thing. Have a chocolate bunny for me.

  

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RIP Larry Gelbart

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An important chunk of entertainment history left us yesterday with the death of Larry Gelbart at 81. Gelbart was gifted both working alone and as a collaborator with other writers. It probably helped that relatively early in his career he labored alongside Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, and Neil Simon on comedian Sid Caesar’s classic early variety shows. In the sixties he graduated to Broadway and the movies. With Burt Shevelove, he cowrote the book for the Broadway musical/Zero Mostel vehicle, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (later filmed by Richard Lester) and the hard to find all-star cult British comedy, “The Wrong Box.” A Chicago-born graduate of L.A.’s Fairfax High (right across the street from Cantor’s Deli), he lived in England for a time, working with another nice Jewish boy named Marty Feldman at the height of his English television fame.

He became much better known in the seventies as the primary writer during the early, funnier and more politically pointed days on the television version of “M*A*S*H.” I get to write about him because he made a mark in movies that’s too important to ignore, writing several good ones, and some not so good. He’ll probably be most commonly remembered for his work on “Oh, God” with George Burns in the title role, and what is probably Dustin Hoffman’s best performance in “Tootsie,” which is something of a comedy classic. He also co-wrote with Sheldon Keller the vastly underrated and all but impossible to see spoof of early Hollywood (specifically Warner Brothers) films, “Movie, Movie,” directed by Stanley Donen and starring George C. Scott, Eli Wallach, Trish van Devere, and Barry Bostwick. (A likely model for “Grindhouse,” in that it was also a double-feature complete with fake trailers.) It more than made up for the regrettable but profitable “Blame it On Rio,” written by Gelbart and also directed by Donen, which starred Michael Caine, Joseph Bologna and an extremely young Demi Moore.

In the nineties, he divided his time between Broadway plays like “City of Angels,” a musical spoof of classic hard-boiled detective novels, and pointed TV movies like “Barbarians at the Gate” — a tongue in cheek version of a nonfiction book about the buyout of Nabisco — and 1992’s “Mastergate,” an unbelievably witty parody of the hearings that invariably follow major Washington scandals.

Mr. Gelbart never stopped writing until almost the end, and was easily one of the most respected and beloved writers in all of show business. 81 isn’t exactly young, but we could’ve used a few more years of his presence. It’s a sad weekend for the world of funny.

Below, a great moment from “Tootsie.”

More about Mr. Gelbart’s illustrious career here, here, here, and here.

  

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