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Is this the little girl I carried?
Is this the little boy at play?
I don't remember growing older
When did they?
--"Sunrise, Sunset"

I never watched the 1971 Norman Jewison film until 2020. But I grew up with it.

"If I Were a Rich Man" played on the radio when I was a little kid. One of my older sisters used to wander around the house singing "Sunrise, Sunset." I finally saw a live production in 2004: local theatre, and surprisingly good. Despite the fact that Fiddler on the Roof almost didn't make it to Broadway or Hollywood because people feared it would be too Jewish, it has become an international hit, appealing to people who have never attended a bar mitzvah and whose family never went anywhere near a turn of the century Shtetl. It's about community, family, tradition, and the reality of change. It's about being a minority, and holding together against both the tides of time and oppression by those in power.

It began with a collection of Yiddish short stories by Sholem Aleichem. Tevye the Milkman (1894) tells the tales of a dairy-man in a small Jewish village in Tsarist Russia. We learn of his trials and successes, the stories of his seven daughters, and the expulsion of the Jews from his village. The stories feature comic touches, but they're not entirely happy. The Tevye of the written word experiences a lonelier ending than the one in Fiddler on the Roof-- and even his proves somewhat bittersweet.

Predictably, the musical, adapted by Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock, and Sheldon Harnick, cleans life up a little, and eliminates two of the daughters. Tevye, originally played by Zero Mostel, makes for a lively central character. He begins the play singing with zest about the importance of tradition. Events will undercut his enthusiasm, and three of his daughters will marry, each to a man increasingly less in keeping with his expectations. The third he will disown entirely when she marries a sympathetic Gentile. However, his village will face greater threats. Along the way, Tevye breaks a couple of fourth walls, speaking directly both to the audience and God. The play premiered in 1964. It won nine Tony Awards and set a record for its run-- a record later broken by Grease.

A movie was inevitable. Jewison replaced Mostel with Chaim Topol. Sources I've read cannot agree if he did so because he found Zero Mostel's performance excessively comedic, or because he felt audiences would not be able to separate the character from the larger-than-life actor. Some numbers get dropped. Most get sung by the cast, as in the play, but a couple play on the soundtrack while the characters interact and dance. Fiddler proved a hit, and was nominated for eight Academy Awards. It won three, for cinematography, sound mixing, and score.

The play has persisted, experiencing professional revivals and popularity with community theatrical groups and high school programs. The songs have been covered by artists as diverse as Bing Crosby and Gwen Stefani. Despite its specific ethnic setting, the characters and their concerns resonate with much of humanity.

As for the titular fiddler, he is a symbolic character. It's not entirely clear if anyone sees him save the audience and Tevye. We're all like a fiddler on a roof, he claims, who stands precariously balanced and "trying to scratch out a pleasant simple tune without breaking his neck."

A statue of Tevye stands in Birobidzhan, Russia.

reQuest 2020: an E2 reVue