Somewhere in the world, right now, people are enjoying “Fiddler on the Roof.” In fact, as a new documentary on the making of the classic musical tells us, the show has been performed somewhere on earth every day since its 1964 Broadway debut. But why is it so popular? “Fiddler: Miracle of Miracles” aims to contextualize why the story of dairyman Tevye and his daughters in 1905 Imperial Russia resonates with audiences.
Director Max Lewkowicz spoke with 60 of the main players in “Fiddler on the Roof’s” creation, including lyricist Sheldon Harnick, producer Hal Prince and original cast member Austin Pendleton. Those interviews form the backbone of the early part of the film. We learn how Harnick and writer Joseph Stein collaborated with composer Jerry Bock to adapt Sholem Aleichem’s story “Tevye and his Daughters” for the stage. How when “West Side Story” choreographer Jerome Robbins came on board he introduced themes that echoed the civil rights movement in America.
It is that examination of tradition and the essence of change that deepened the show. It remained a Jewish story, a history about Eastern Europe, but now had a universal appeal to audiences. Even today the story of tradition and displacement, of uncertainties and hazards is both timeless and timely.
It’s interesting that the original production, led by the bigger-than-life Zero Mostel, was not a critical hit. But audiences loved it and interviews with fans Stephen Sondheim, Itzhak Perlman and “Hamilton’s” Lin-Manuel Miranda suggest why.
Lewkowicz also details the making of the Norman Jewison film, productions of the show ranging from an African-American high school production to stagings from all around the world, hammering home the widespread appeal of the story.
Then, of course, there is the music. Lewkowicz showcases multiple versions of hits like “Tradition,” “Matchmaker,” “If I Were A Rich Man” and “Sunrise, Sunset,” with one talking head suggesting, I think rightly, that after you hear the songs more than once they stay in your head forever.
“Fiddler: Miracle of Miracles” is a detailed history of a beloved show, with plenty of behind-the-curtain revelations—like the backstage war between Mostel and Robbins, who irked his star by testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee—but this isn’t just a Broadway origin story, it’s a testament to the enduring power of art to speak to specific situations while illuminating broader issues.