Watch 52 musicals, one every week, in 2015.
FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (1971)
Welcome to Anatevka, a small Russian town full of Orthodox Jews that are mostly happy, save for the arranged marriages and the occasional pogrom. Fiddler on the Roof focuses on Tevye (Topol), a hard-working father of five daughters that struggles with the loosening of his religious traditions and also the government ordering him to get the fuck out. Whee, let’s dance!
Love in Anatevka is hard. It involves the local matchmaker Yente (Molly Picon), a living breathing version of OKCupid, deciding that the best husband for your young virgin daughter is, 95% of the time, a dirty old man. It might sound like a shitty deal, but Tevye has totally talked this over with the Dirty Old Man Upstairs and deems it a proud and important cultural tradition… that all of Tevye’s daughters are staunchly against.
“Psst… tonight, we unionize.”
The film handles the subject incredibly well, even for basically replaying the same plot point of one of Tevye’s daughters seeking Papa’s seal of approval three times. The reasons for his opposition are different with each suitor, and the turmoil it causes him makes for great drama and comedy. I expected to be bored by the repetition and was pleasantly surprised.
Tevye’s “This fuckin’ guy?!” face never gets old.
While all of this is going on, the Tsar would like the residents of Anatevka to leave for shitty shitty reasons, and since Tevye is a fan of not being murdered, he reluctantly complies. We see Tevye grapple with the loss of his daughters, his religious beliefs, and his home, and it’s fascinating to see how he handles getting kicked while he’s down. And yet, this is a strangely hopeful story in unpredictable ways. Do I agree with Tevye all the time? Nope, but this guy is just trying to get by.
Get busy livin’ or… let’s just focus on that first part.
Topol is amazing as Tevye. He’s friendly, conflicted, devout, stubborn, capable of intense anger, and yet Topol pulls all of those traits together into a fascinating performance. Tevye might be one of the most complex characters I’ve encountered thus far in my musical journey, and Topol deserves much praise for bringing him to the screen.
“It would be an honor just to be nominated…”
While Topol steals the show, there are some great supporting actors as well. Rosalind Harris as Tevye’s daughter Tzeitel and Leonard Frey as her suitor Motel are particularly great when they bravely, but also shakily, stand up to Tevye. Plus, their chemistry together is genuinely heartwarming.
And then there’s some couple in the middle, but this film is three hours long so I gotta zone out somewhere. Okay, fine, Michele Marsh is Hodel but I don’t remember much about her performance, though she’s a great singer. She’s got the hots for Perchik, a revolutionary that wants to shake up tradition with things like coed dancing. Gasp! Michael Glaser’s Perchik does a good job sticking it to the man.
And eventually the man’s daughter, zing!
Tevye’s third daughter, Chava, has to put up the strongest fight, which is why Neva Small’s tears stuck out a little more in my mind. And her beau Fyedka, played by Raymond Lovelock, has one hell of an intense “have a nice day, but also, fuck you” face.
And eventually your daughter, zing again!
Also great but not worth a screencap are Norma Crane as Tevye’s wife Golde, Molly Picon as the matchmaker Yente, and Paul Mann as the butcher Lazar Wolf. OH, YEAH, THERE’S A GUY WHOSE NAME SOUNDS LIKE “LASER WOLF” AND IT CRACKS ME UP EVERY TIME I HEAR IT. THAT GUY TOTALLY GETS A SCREENCAP. WITH PHOTOSHOP.
When the moon is full, actor-by-day and scientist-by-night Paul Mann becomes LASER WOLF.
THE SONGS AND DANCES:
Aaaaand after the nice break that was Forum, we’re back to movies big enough to choke Tevye’s horse, so I can’t cover every song in this section. Here’s the diamonds and the shit! Assume everything else is passably okay!
After some titular rooftop fiddling, our first song is the big, bold “Tradition,” which both establishes how important age-old customs are to the people of Anatevka and winkingly acknowledges that nobody really knows how these traditions started and they’ll likely be a source of conflict in our story. The sequence also cuts from person to person and gives us a sweeping view of the town. This is how you introduce the setting of a movie.
Continuing with the theme of tradition is “Matchmaker,” in which the young ladies of Tevye’s household desperately wish for Yente to find them some fine young studs to marry so they don’t have to come home to fat old drunks that beat them. No, really, that’s part of this song. This hopeful, but also dark-as-fuck, song!
Pictured: a look of terror reserved only for dusty 60-year-old dicks.
And then there’s the ditty that nobody bothered to tell Gewn Stefani absolutely doesn’t work as a booty-shaking Harajuku-themed pirate shanty, “If I Were a Rich Man.” Tevye fantasizes about great wealth, is mindful of his devotion to God being his main goal in life, but still asks what the harm would be if he were filthy rich. This song perfectly sets up the state of Tevye’s inner conflict. It’s less “shaking your fist at God” and more “shaking your arms.”
You can’t top these sick moves, Gwen.
“To Life” is a rollicking drinking song that Tevye belts out with the locals. It’s a ridiculously joyous tune, but Tevye is singing it after a decision he’s not quite sure about, so like many of this film’s songs, there’s a slight undercurrent of sadness. Still, it’s got a beat and you can dance to it and the choreography is killer.
“This is my jam! Yeah!”
If you like dopey love songs that drop a ton of Bible references, you’re going to love “Miracle of Miracles,” in which Motel compares his engagement to Tzeitel to godly probability hacks such as David slaying Goliath or Daniel surviving the lions’ den. I know this movie’s about opening up to less strict religious policies, but this is straight-up blasphemous as balls, right? Eh, whatever, at least Motel prances around and the melody’s nice and they’ve both got big goofy smiles, so aww.
“Walls of Jericho ain’t got shit on me putting my wiener inside of you!”
Ugh, and there’s a number called “Tevye’s Dream” that is just nut-punchingly awful. See, Tevye is worried about telling his wife that Tzeitel is going to marry Motel, so he makes up a fake prophetic dream in which he’s confronted by the reanimated corpses of dead relatives and villagers in cheesy makeup. This over-the-top Scooby Doo shit runs counter to the realistic, small-town atmosphere of the film, and the song sucks too.
We now interrupt Fiddler on the Roof to bring you unused footage from “Thriller.”
“Sunrise, Sunset” is a bittersweet song about the passage of time and watching children grow up. It’s haunting and beautiful and that is all I have to say about that.
It’s an internal monologue, hence the closed mouth.
Wait, except everyone in the room is singing it.
Internal chorus? Hive mind?? Musicals are weird!
There’s a very interesting character moment later in the film in which Tevye and his wife Golde reflect on when they were first introduced by the matchmaker, in the song “Do You Love Me?” It’s uncomfortably tense but also romantic in the weirdest way because, shit, you’d hope this would come up at some point in an arranged marriage. And, brilliantly so, the song makes you wait the whole way through to get the answer.
More intense than any bomb-defusing scene in an action movie.
And there are many more good songs and dances in Fiddler on the Roof, but the last I’ll mention are a trio of monologues that Tevye sings whenever one of his daughters wants to get hitched. They’re microbursts of comedy and drama, with quiet whispers and loud shouts, at us, at the happy couple, at God, and at Tevye himself. Musicals are powerful stuff, you guys.
- While I’m trying to watch only musical films I’ve never seen before for this experiment, I’ll confess that I did know the basic plot from getting paid to film some eighth graders rehearsing all these songs approximately ten years ago. I had forgotten most of the words and plot but man, did the melodies stay with me all the way to today’s viewing.
- This is dumb as hell, but when I saw John Williams and Alexander Courage together in the opening credits for orchestrating, my nerd brain flipped out because the composers for the Star Wars theme and the “Star Trek” theme were working together! And later, when I heard “Sunrise, Sunset,” I started singing, “Star Waaaaars, Star Trek.” Here’s all my lunch money.
- Our own Cinemanaut John actually played Motel in a high school production of Fiddler on the Roof. Here is a document of that fact.
Wonder of wonders, gaze upon this photograph!
I THINK THIS LINE’S MOSTLY FILLER:
So I wanted to call out “If I Were a Rich Man” for containing what sounded like several nonsense placeholder syllables, and they may have quite literally started as gibberish in a somewhat misguided attempt to sound like Hasidic chanting, but supposedly Zero Mostel tried to make them more authentic when he played Tevye on Broadway. Those lyrics likely carried over to the movie, so… how about I don’t risk accidentally crapping on a Jewish musical custom and instead highlight the moment in the already irritating “Tevye’s Dream” in which the spirit of Lazar Wolf’s dead wife won’t stop screaming about pearls in the campiest ghost voice possible?
“(How can you allow your daughter to take her place?)
Pearls! (House!) Pearls! (Keys!) Peaaaaarls! (Clothes!)
Fiddler on the Roof is damn good. Great songs, a compelling story with interesting themes, complex characters clashing over important ideas, and amazing cinematography. If you’re new to musicals like I was at the beginning of the year, this is a solid choice to start with. On the other hand… NO! There is no other hand!