Norman Jewison’s Fiddler on the Roof is among one of America’s most delightful musicals. It was made back when musicals were unapologetically cinematic, as well as unafraid to make good use of three hours. Jewison’s production was filmed across the refined and earthy planes of Yugoslavia that stand in for the small Ukrainian Village known as Anatevka. Characteristic not only for its engaging band of characters but also its significant themes that stretch across its lengthy runtime, the film adaptation of one of the definitive works in the history of Broadway Theater is a near-exceptional feat of scale and storytelling prowess.
The story is a timeless one: Tevye is a Jewish peasant who lives on a farm with his wife and their five daughters. Three of his daughters have approached the appropriate age of marriage, but their request for agency and autonomy in the process of picking their partners causes great stress for a traditionalist like Tevye. He’s blindly conformed to the socially sanctioned practices that have made up all he’s ever known. Throughout the film, the girls marry: Tevye arranges his eldest to marry a wealthy but unappealing butcher, and her reaction to such a union is so harsh it leaves him no choice but to renege on a handshake agreement. Another one of his daughters arranges to marry a Marxist and the youngest of the three falls for a non-Jewish man. This is all too much for Tevye, whose poor heart can’t take many more affronts to his age-old customs.
With a three-hour runtime and the culturally dense Anatevka to explore, Jewison and screenwriter Joseph Stein essentially have all the time in the world to humanize this beautiful fable. Integral to the film’s success and longevity both on-screen and on the stage are its invigorating musical numbers. An early one featuring Tevye’s three daughters — played by Rosalind Harris, Michele Marsh, and Neva Small — has them lamenting the “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” process while vocalizing prayers to the powers above something comes of the archaic process. Another noteworthy one is “Sunrise, Sunset,” its lyrics and titular phrase have etched itself into the colloquialisms of the English language. Then there’s the emotionally laced “Do You Love Me?,” a question Tevye poses to his wife, Golde (Norma Crane), with the utmost sincerity. In a moment that could’ve been heartbreaking, perhaps uncharacteristically so of a film that’s musical numbers are sunny and full of life, Jewison finds the right tone and the performers pull it off with extraordinary poise.
Tevye is played by Israeli performer Topol, a casting choice that was marginally controversial before the film saw a release. Prior to the project’s conception, the great Zero Mostel was synonymous with the character of Tevye, bringing the kind of bold theatricality to the character that Jewison thought worked wonders for the stage but not the screen. He went instead with the understated Topol, who sometimes appears to have a twinkle of excitement and gratitude in his eye while playing such a cherished role. He isn’t overdramatic in illustrating the stern nature of Tevye; only during song does that explosive energy surface.
Oswald Morris’ earthy cinematography finds the right visual cues for Anatevka and the film as a whole. The locations have a rustic quality, not only one difficult to capture on film, I’m sure, but one that’s challenging to present in a way that doesn’t look unappealing or ghastly. In conjunction with Jewison’s dynamic wide-angle shots and skilled panning, Morris’ effectively produces a distinctive appearance for the tight-knit, homey locale that serves as the film’s primary setting. The versatile array of shots also give the Jewish village a real tangible, sometimes contradictory feel insofar that it makes the area seem vast and limitless yet confined and overrun. The challenge of making this material break from the perceived confinement of theater onto the larger stage is absolutely remarkable.
On top of everything, Fiddler on the Roof‘s narrative, for all its dense themes, is very easy to follow. From its commentary on tradition, community, repression, and diaspora to Stein giving Topol every opportunity to engage with the audience and push the story along, Jewison’s picture is a massive success. It’s a very real contender for one of the greatest musicals of all-time made by a director who should be in contention for a similar title as well.
NOTE: As of this writing, Fiddler on the Roof is available to stream on Pluto TV and Tubi, free of charge.
Starring: Topol, Norma Crane, Rosalind Harris, Michele Marsh, Neva Small, Leonard Frey, Molly Picon, and Paul Mann. Directed by: Norman Jewison.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!