October 11, 2001
‘Fiddler’ Plays On
Since it opened at Broadway's Imperial Theater on Sept. 22, 1964, "Fiddler on the Roof" with the late Zero Mostel as Tevye, the milkman trying to preserve his family's traditions in the face of a changing world, is still part of the tapestry of Jewish and American culture.
MGM Home Entertainment has released a 30th anniversary DVD of the musical, brought to the screen on Nov. 3, 1971 with Israeli-born Topol in the role of Tevye. The DVD includes insightful commentary tracks by director-producer Norman Jewison and Topol; a documentary on Jewison; "Any Day Now," a never-before-available song beautifully sung by Paul Michael Glaser (Perchik) which was deleted from the film; "Tevye's Dream," in full color; and stories of Sholom Aleichem and historical background read by Jewison.
"'Fiddler, is a story that touches everyone, regardless of ethnicity, nationality or culture, because it encompasses so much humanity that it relates to all people," Jewison told The Journal. "It says many things about Jewish culture and life, as interpreted by Sholom Aleichem and Joe Stein."
Playwright Joseph Stein, who also wrote the screenplay, said: "There are universal themes: It's a story about parents and children, a story about struggling in a strange world, conflict of cultures, immigrants."
The road to Broadway was not a smooth one. "Every producer in town turned it down; they thought it was too ethnic," Stein recalled. "One said: 'I like it very much, but what will I do for an audience once I run out of Hadassah benefits?' It was an unusual musical -- it had a Jewish theme and a serious storyline. It had everything going against it. But we loved the story and believed in and telling it as honestly as we could, and tried to adhere to the spirit of Sholom Aleichem.
"Eventually we got Hal Prince and Jerome Robbins involved, and got the play to Broadway," Stein said. "We were stunned by the reaction. People would call and tell us that they never felt that way in the theater before. They felt like they were in shul."
The audiences extended far beyond Hadassah benefits both in numbers and geography. "We also never anticipated the worldwide acclaim," Stein said. "People all over the world accept it as a personal statement. The Japanese producer asked me if they understood the play in America, because he thought it was such a Japanese story."
"United Artists approached me about directing the film version of 'Fiddler,'" Jewison recalled. "I will never forget the shocked looks on the studio heads' faces when I told them that despite my name, I was not Jewish. I knew a lot about the Jewish religion and had been in search of it my whole life and wanted this opportunity.
In shooting the film, I wanted the audience to believe that they were in Anatevka in a small shtetl in the Ukraine at the turn of the century, so I wanted to shoot the film in Europe. The Iron Curtain was up at the time, and U.S./ Russian relations were strained. We ended up in Yugoslavia. We shot most of the film in Croatia, and the rest at the Pinewood studios in London. It was John Williams' first movie score, and I got to use Jerome Robbins' choreography."
Jewison remembered the late Isaac Stern, whose performance on the 'Fiddler' soundtrack reached more people then his lifetime of concerts combined. "I fought for Isaac Stern," Jewison said. "When he played his solo, I had put up a Chagall sketch I had bought, upon which I based the image of the fiddler. When Isaac walked into the studio, I tapped on the glass and showed him the sketch. He told me that the spirits of Chagall and Sholom Aleichem were with us."
Jewison struggled with casting the role of Tevye. "Zero created the role and was very popular, and he so dominated the stage that he turned it into a one-man show. Film, however, was not his medium of expression.
"Topol's performance in London knocked me out. He had warmth and a virility that I knew would translate to the screen. I wanted intense ethnic pride and strength. Topol was Israeli, and was not in any way ghettoized or insecure about his Jewishness. He was in his 30s at the time, and they were pulling the white hair out of my head and putting it into Topol's beard to make him look older," Jewison said with a laugh.
"It is a joy to reminisce about the film," said Chaim Topol from his home in Tel Aviv. "Before the film, I had done over 400 performances as Tevye in London, and since the film I have done over 2,000 performances, in the United States, Canada, Europe, Japan,and Australia. I haven't been away from the subject at any point in my life."
Paul Michael Glaser recalled his experiences as Perchik, the idealistic student who dazzles Hodel, Tevye's second-oldest daughter, with his sophistication and passion.
"I had not yet seen Fiddler when I got the call to audition. I was 27 and was asked to play a 17-year-old, and thought I wouldn't get the part. I went to The Sherry Netherland Hotel in New York, sat with Norman and read and danced around the hotel room. A screen test followed and I got the part.
"This was my first movie, and I was fascinated by the whole aspect of filmmaking. Topol played Tevye like an Israeli. A European Jew would look at God and ask why with his hands open, where an Israeli would ask why with his hands pointed at God," Glaser observed.
Recalling the film's premiere, Jewison said: "In 1971, Arthur Krim, then chairman of United Artists, wanted the premiere to be in Jerusalem, instead of New York or Los Angeles, and he wanted Golda Meir to be the special guest at the screening." She arrived in an old Chevy Impala, flanked by young, heavily armed soldiers. Golda sat with Topol for the first half of the film and with me for the second half. I was worried about her reaction. I watched her during the exodus scene. She put her fist into her eye and flicked one tear away, and she took my hand and squeezed it. At that moment, I knew I had done good."
Asked about the work's ultimate message, Jewison emotionally responded: "'Fiddler' is about a man who has consummate faith in his own destiny and will go on, and nothing is going to defeat him or his family. The fiddler will keep playing. When I think of Tevye going on, pulling the cart, with his two youngest daughters, headed for the United States, I get this strong unshakable belief in our continuity and our survival. It doesn't matter how many buildings people blow up or how many threats are made."