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.