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(Try reading this poem to the tune of “If I Were a Rich Man”)
 
Back in Czarist Russia,
Tevye is a Jewish milkman with three daughters yet to wed.
Though he may be struggling and poor,
Still he keeps his family fed.
Tzeitel is the eldest;
And the matchmaker has found the perfect match, or so she thinks,
Lazar Wolf, a wealthy butcher man,
Though he is quite old and stinks.
 
Tevye goes to see him;
After going back and forth on whether to approve the match,
He assents and both then celebrate,
But there is an unknown catch.
Tzeitel loves a tailor,
Which her father learns once he has spent a night out with the bottle.
Though he’s angry at this sudden change,
He says she can wed her Motel.
 
At his daughter’s marriage,
Tevye sees his second daughter Hodel dancing with a man.
Though this shocks the many wedding guests,
He joins in because he can.
But the celebration
Is disrupted by a group of soldiers, who attack the Jews.
Mostly they harm property and such,
Yet it can’t help but confuse.
 
Later Hodel tells him
She and Perchik want to marry, though he’s leaving for a time.
They seek blessing, not his permission,
And to him, this seems a crime.
Tevye thinks it over:
Things are changing and he might as well accept love will prevail;
He consents, and Perchik leaves for town,
But he soon is sent to jail.
 
Hodel wants to join him
In Siberia and sadly leaves her father and her home.
Tevye’s sad to see his daughter go,
But he bids his child Shalom.
His third daughter Chava
Asks her father to accept her own forbidden love somehow,
But this Gentile isn’t of their race,
And this Tevye won’t allow.
 
They both wed regardless.
Tevye turns his back on Chava and regards his daughter dead.
He will only bend so very far,
Though there are still tears to shed.
Then comes even worse news:
Their town constable declares that all the Jews must quickly leave.
Anatevka must be emptied soon,
And the Jewish people grieve.
 
Tevye and his family
Leave their home to seek America but do not stay aloof.
Their tradition keeps them balanced yet
Like a fiddler on a roof.
_________________
 

Fiddler on the Roof was once the longest-running Broadway musical and certainly deserves its esteemed reputation. While Zero Mostel immortalized the role of Tevye in the original Broadway production, Topol makes the role his own in this film version, having played it in the London production as well. His monologues to the audience and to God, going on and on about what’s “on the other hand,” are absolutely masterful, and the other actors imbue their characters with just the right amount of distinctive charm. Tevye himself is an outstanding character, understanding and willing to concede for the sake of his daughters, yet, though he should certainly draw the line somewhere, it’s unfortunate that his unyielding stand involves forsaking his daughter. It’s a role of a lifetime, and, not having seen Mostel’s version, I can’t envision anyone else in the role.

The film is a first-rate snapshot of an extinct way of life, a time of poor milk men, flighty matchmakers, and rigid traditions that outlaw men dancing with women. In its details, it is also an insightful view of how Scripture can be twisted to mean whatever the interpreter may want and a touching look at how difficult relationships can still be grounded in love. I’ve never understood many people’s hatred of Jews, whether in Czarist Russia or Nazi Germany or even in the present day, and the film doesn’t try to explain the sudden pogrom forced upon the peaceful villagers; it remains as mystifying to the characters as to the audience and just as heartbreaking. This, coupled with Tevye’s rejection of his third daughter, makes the second half of the film a real downer, detracting from its entertainment value.

The best part of a musical is, of course, the music, and Fiddler on the Roof has a very unique sound. Most songs are very Yiddish and Jewish-sounding without becoming repetitive, while others are typical Broadway-style tunes. The opener “Tradition” and “Matchmaker” start the film off with the right mood, and the celebratory “To Life” is a show-stopping number that was much better than I remembered. Some songs carry a special emotional punch to them, particularly “Sunrise, Sunset,” which reflects the feelings of two parents realizing how much their children have grown. While “Tevye’s Dream” leans a bit too far in a surreal direction, the best tune of them all is the aforementioned “If I Were a Rich Man,” which is made all the more memorable by Topol’s energetic performance and rich, deep voice. The film overall has some slow parts and goes on a bit too long, but it’s a grand and humorous musical that extols tradition and its role in keeping us stable in a hectic world.

Best line: (Tevye, explaining the title with the film’s first lines) “A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask ‘Why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous?’ Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition!”

 
Artistry: 9
Characters/Actors: 9
Entertainment: 7
Visual Effects: 3
Originality: 8
Watchability: 6
Other (slow and depressing ending): -3
 
TOTAL: 39 out of 60
 

Next: #222 – Steel Magnolias

© 2014 S. G. Liput

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