How successful has “Fiddler on the Roof” been? Maybe a little reminder is in order.
Winner of nine Tonys, for almost 10 years the longest-running musical in Broadway history and revived there a full five times, its appeal is so universal that it’s playing somewhere in the world every single day, playing more than any other show.
Given all that, it’s easy to lose track of how hugely unlikely a success this adaptation of a group of Yiddish short stories was, and the struggles that were necessary before all those good things happened. Which is where “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles” comes in.
As directed by Max Lewkowicz, this engaging and enlightening documentary is stuffed with anecdotes, history and information. It makes excellent use of both new interviews and carefully selected archival footage to reveal the building blocks of all this accomplishment.
It also offers visual evidence of exactly how extensive the show’s reach has been, the way multiple cultures around the world feel this story is specifically about them.
We see clips from productions in Japanese, Thai and Dutch and we hear everyone from opera legend Bryn Terfel to the Temptations singing the show’s iconic songs.
And for those who can’t get to Manhattan, we even hear star Steven Skybell singing a song (translated as “If I Were a Rothschild”) from New York’s current red-hot Yiddish-language production.
All this is especially ironic given that when the original “Fiddler” was trying to get produced, voices were loud and persistent that nobody was going to want to see it.
Based on a group of short stories from the great Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem about a milkman named Tevye and his relationship with God, his wife and his family of marriageable daughters, it was a landmark in American musical theater because outsiders told their own story and made it the center of popular culture.
Because the outsiders were Jewish, it was widely assumed no one outside the faith would come to see it. “What am I going to do for an audience,” one producer asked, “once I run out of Hadassah members?”
The show’s creators, book writer Joseph Stein, composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick, were mightily discouraged from pursuing their idea. “Jews fleeing pogroms?” they were told. “Are you out of your mind?”
It was Harnick who got things started when he read another Sholom Aleichem work, “Wandering Stars,” and thought there might be a musical there. Stein steered the trio to the Tevye stories and the three men worked on it in their spare time as a passion project they refused to abandon.
One of the treats of the documentary, in fact, are excerpts from the tapes Bock, who did extensive research in traditional Jewish melodies, sent to lyricist Harnick when he reworked something that he thought had possibilities.
So it’s almost chilling, after hearing Bock’s voice saying he’s come up with something “bubbly and spirited and kind of kooky,” to hear the unmistakable strains of “If I Were A Rich Man” played for the very first time.
“Fiddler” was brought to Broadway by legendary producer Harold Prince, and all the voices in the documentary agree that his decision to hire Jerome Robbins as director/choreographer was key even though, Robbins biographer Amanda Vaill notes, “he had a complicated and conflicted feelings about his Judaism.”
Robbins’ key idea, as we see in a handwritten memo, was to “celebrate and elevate the life of the shtetl,” the small communities where Eastern European Jews lived. In fact, it was Robbins who encouraged the writing of the key song “Tradition.”
Things went less smoothly with star Zero Mostel, who had issues with Robbins because he’d named names of Communists during the blacklist era; something he did, the film posits, because he was threatened with exposure as a homosexual.
Among the other aspects of the show that are hard to believe is that when it opened in Detroit for an out-of-town tryout, Variety opined that it had no memorable songs. Robbins worked tirelessly to improve things, adding “Do You Love Me” and cutting a number called “When Messiah Comes.”
In addition to people intimately involved with “Fiddler,” such as original cast members Austin Pendleton and Joanna Merlin, the documentary interviews random cultural figures like Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, not always to fascinating effect.
The person who is most engaging is “Hamilton’s” Lin-Manuel Miranda, who supplies movies of his own wedding celebration where he and his father-in-law surprise his bride with a rousing rendition of “To Life.” It’s a moment to treasure, a further reminder of a show whose reach continues to expand.
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles; Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino; Edwards Westpark 8, Irvine: Edwards Rancho Niguel 8, Laguna Niguel