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Now Opening: ‘Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles’ and the Legacy of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’

Category Broadway

|by Ron Fassler |

‘Up In the Cheap Seats’ author Ron Fassler on the new documentary about the classic musical

Having already played festivals in San Francisco and Toronto, a new documentary Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles opened this past weekend for a limited run in New York City. And if you have to think twice about the title, then perhaps this film is not for you. But then again, that is the way the classic Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof was judged (or misjudged) since its inception: that after the Jewish groups were finished seeing it, who would go? What was the audience in 1964 for a musical about the Jewish experience set in a Czarist Russian shtetl? Add to that that there had never been a musical on Broadway strictly concerning itself with what it meant to be a Jew, especially one without a single American character in it. None of this felt at the time like the ingredients for a long-running hit.

‘Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles’ is now playing in New York City (Photo: Polk & Co.)

‘Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles’ is now playing in New York City (Photo: Polk & Co.)

But that’s exactly what Fiddler on the Roof proved to be. And when, seven years into its historic run, it played its 2,845th performance, breaking a long-held twenty-year record, I was there – fourteen-year-old theater geek that I was – having secured a $4.50 ticket. I vividly recall the 2,845 balloons that dropped at the curtain call, as well as the appearance of the show’s original star Zero Mostel coming out on stage to entertain the sold-out crowd. Even forty-eight years from that night, the staying power of Fiddler has continued, as its five major Broadway revivals can attest. Yet another is currently playing Off-Broadway in an outstanding production, performed entirely in Yiddish.

What filmmaker Max Lewkowicz has done is chronicle the show’s history, from its roots based on the stories by the Russian writer Sholom Aleichem, to its still-relevant storytelling, evidenced by the fact that the show has been playing somewhere in the world every single day since it opened on Broadway in September, 1964 – an extraordinary feat. Unsure though I am regarding how long ago Lewkowicz began the process, we should all be grateful that he started when he did, as he was able to secure interviews with three members of its original creative team who are no longer with us: Jerry Bock (composer), Joseph Stein (librettist) and Harold Prince (producer), who only passed away last month, and to whom the film is now dedicated. In addition, Lewkowicz carefully chose what talking heads he includes in order to impart ideas and tell stories that never detract from the mission at hand: to reveal what makes the show so specific and universal at the same time. Harvey Fierstein, who starred in a 2005 revival and then toured the country with it, is among the most articulate. When he discusses Tevye’s relationship with God, he points out that it is Tevye’s only close male relationship – he a husband to a wife with five daughters. It’s a simple fact, yet a profound one, and Lewkowicz is particularly deft in getting these things out of the participants.

As most people are aware, Fiddler on the Roof ends with a pogrom and then an exodus. What can be more topical today than that? And that this documentary doesn’t shy away from the issues it brings up is testament to the power of the arts to shine a light on important issues, as well as to sadly inform that at times, the more things change the more things stay the same. Towards the end of the film, there is powerful footage that was shot Russia and in Anetevka (did you know that the town Sholom Aleichem sets his stories is a real place?). Joining the filmmaker on the trip is Michael Bernardi, whose father Herschel took over the role of Tevye from Zero Mostel in 1965, and was Tony-nominated for a 1982 Fiddler revival at Lincoln Center. And in an example of life imitating art, as understudy to Danny Burstein, Michael played Tevye a few times himself in the 2015 Broadway revival. At the time Michael auditioned for it, he was playing Tevye in Plymouth, Massachusetts in a production that I directed.

Some of the other go-to people interviewed in the film are Stephen Sondheim, Topol (star of the 1971 film version), Joel Grey (director of the current Yiddish production) and Lin-Manuel Miranda, who has a connection to Fiddler that has to be seen to be believed.

If you love Broadway and you love Fiddler on the Roof (and aren’t the two synonymous?), then you must see Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles.

Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles is currently playing at the Quad Cinema, 4 W 13th Street, New York NY 10011 and the Landmark, 657 W 57th Street, New York, NY 10019.

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