“FIDDLER: A MIRACLE OF MIRACLES”: “It’s so Japanese”
My rating: B (Opens Sept. 13 at the Studio 28) – 92 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13
Published September 12, 2019 by Robert W. Butler at Butler’s Cinema Scene
Since it debuted on Broadway in 1964, not a day has passed when “Fiddler on the Roof” was not being performed somewhere on Earth.
The universal appeal of this musical about life in a Jewish village in Czarist Russia is examined every which way in “Fiddler” A Miracle of Miracles,” Max Lewkowicz’s documentary summation of the show, its creators and its lingering appeal and influence.
Drawing as its starting point two recent NYC productions of “Fiddler,” one that ran on Broadway for two years and a second performed entirely in Yiddish, the film dips into the creation of this most unusual effort. Scenes from these revivals — as well as clips from the 1971 movie version — hammer home once again just how spectacularly good the work is.
We’re talking goosebumps moments.
Happily, the geniuses behind the show — composer Jerry Bock, lyricist Sheldon Harnick, playwright Joseph Stein and producer Hal Prince — lived to ripe old ages and before their deaths (Prince left us only last month) sat down for insightful interviews on how the show came together. (Jerome Robbins, the brilliant director, passed in 1998).
The film is part history, part testimonial, with actors, directors and others who have been associated with the musical — Lin-Manuel Miranda, Austin Pendleton, the Israeli actor Topol — commenting on its life-changing power.
Actor Joel Gray offers a common analysis when he says that “it works in so many languages — and everyone thinks it’s about them.”
Author Stein recalls attending a Tokyo production where an audience member asked him: “Do they understand ‘Fiddler’ in America? It’s so Japanese.”
In the late ’60s, while the show was still on Broadway, the creators gave permission for it to be performed at a New York high school whose students were overwhelmingly black and Puerto Rican.
From this and other anecdotes we learn that “Fiddler” “always works.” Something about the show is so compelling and resonant that it transcends even the most amateurish productions.
The show’s road to the Great White Way was often bumpy. Star Zero Mostel, who originally played the milkman Tevye, despised director Robbins for having named names before the Houser Unamerican Activities Committee investigating Commie influence in show business. We’re told that HUAC staffers threatened to expose Robbins’ homosexuality if he did not comply.
The on-the-road opening in Detroit was a near disaster. The critics were unimpressed and a savagely comedic song about human tragedy, “When the Messiah Comes,” was eliminated.
In its second hour “Fiddler” turns to the movie version. It was directed by Norman Jewison, who believed he got the gig because the producers mistakenly thought he was Jewish.
There’s lots of good stuff here, and one leaves the documentary thinking it may be time to see yet another production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
But as has been the case so often with recent documentaries, “Fiddler: Miracle of Miracles” loses steam after the one-hour mark. Not enough to seriously damage the viewing experience, but enough to make us wonder if with some judicious tightening it might not have been an exemplary 60-minute experience.
| Robert W. Butler
Read the original review and more reviews at Butler’s Cinema Scene
Robert W. Butler for 41 years reviewed films for the Kansas City Star. In May 2011 he was downsized.
He couldn’t take the hint.
OKAY, so here’s the deal. I write mostly about movies. One good thing about no longer writing for the paper is that I’m free to ignore the big dumb Hollywood turkeys that don’t interest me. So don’t expect every blessed release to be written about here. Many films aren’t worth the effort. Besides, at my age it’s not the $8. It’s the two hours.
UPDATE: OCTOBER, 2014: Well, here’s an interesting twist. The Star wants me back as a freelance film reviewer!!! Apparently enough time has passed that they cannot be accused of firing me so that they can rehire me at a fraction of my original pay (I gather the federal government frowns upon that practice.) So from now on I will probably be reviewing a movie a week for the newspaper.