When do you stand by traditional values and when do you step outside their bounds for those you love? That’s the question for Tevye the Dairyman in “Fiddler on the Roof,” and you can watch him work it out — with difficulty — when The News-Gazette Film Series screens the 1971 film adaptation of the popular stage musical at the Virginia Theatre at 1 and 7 p.m. Saturday.
Set in a small Jewish village, or shtetl, around the turn of the 20th century in an area of the Ukraine controlled by Russia, the stage musical was based on eight stories written by Yiddish author and playwright Sholem Aleichem. In the stories, Tevye, a poor dairyman, tells Aleichem about his various business dealings and family developments, including the marriages of some of his seven daughters.
Several stage and screen adaptations of this material have been made, but the best known and most successful were the 1964 stage musical and the 1971 film adaptation.
Jerome Robbins directed and choreographed that 1964 stage version from a script by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. Starring Zero Mostel as Tevye, the Broadway production was the first musical to run for more than 3,000 performances (3,242) and won nine of its 10 Tony nominations. Subsequently, it has seen five Broadway revivals, four London revivals and a current Off-Broadway revival in Yiddish.
Its title was inspired by the paintings of Marc Chagall, as was the original design of its sets. The fiddler of the title does have a stage presence but functions mostly as a metaphor for the balancing act that Tevye and the other Jewish villagers must perform to get through life in the Tsar’s empire under constant threats of pogroms. Pointless punitive “demonstrations” by the local Russian constabulary intrude on even the happiest of occasions, and the eviction of the entire community precipitates the film’s climax.
The film version, produced and directed by Noman Jewison, remains faithful to the stage musical, with the exception of a couple of songs and a change in the role of Yente the Matchmaker (in personality and height — she was originally played by Bea Arthur on stage and Molly Picon, an icon of Yiddish theater and film and 10 inches shorter, in the movie). Both stage and film productions reduced the number of Tevye’s daughters from seven to five.
The story has Tevye dealing with the marriages of the three oldest daughters as they progressively get less traditional. Tzeitel (Rosalind Harris in the film), the eldest, wants to marry Motel (Leonard Frey), her childhood friend but an impoverished tailor, rather than Lazar Wolf (Paul Mann), a wealthy butcher older than Tevye. Second oldest Hodel (Michele Marsh) falls in love with radical student Perchik (Paul Michael Glaser), and they ask for Teyve’s blessing — but, significantly, not his permission — to wed. And the wedding is put off because Perchik is returning to Kiev to organize workers; when he is consequently arrested, Hodel leaves home and family to join him in his Siberian imprisonment.
Worst of all from Tevye’s point of view, third daughter Chava (Neva Small) wants to marry Russian and Christian Fyedka (Raymond Lovelock); when Tevye refuses even to consider an inter-faith marriage, they elope and are married by the local Russian Orthodox priest.
Tradition is challenged and weakened throughout the play, as it was generally in the America of the 1960s, which probably explains in part the musical’s great popularity then (and now). The humor, sentiment and drama so well expressed in the dialogue and the songs accounts for the majority of its appeal, though. It was such a success on Broadway that when Jewison had asked for a seat to watch the play before starting on the film, the best the producers could do was to supply him with a pillow to sit on in an aisle ... in the balcony.
Zero Mostel became identified with the character of Tevye and literally made it his own as he kepts adlibbing more and more throughout his term in the role. So it caused something of a controversy when Jewison cast Israeli actor Chaim Topol, who had played the role in Tel Aviv and in the London production. Jewison reasoned that Mostel had become so associated with the role that viewers would be thinking of him more as Zero Mostel than as Tevye the Dairyman.
In fact, most of the faces here will be unfamiliar to viewers. The songs, however, will be instantly recognizable — especially “If I Were a Rich Man” and “Sunrise, Sunset.”
The choreography, particularly in the wedding scene, is energetic and superbly filmed. The bottle dance where a line of dancers stomp, squat and kick while balancing full wine bottles on their hats is a marvel; and, no, the bottles were not attached to the hats to make it look as though they were staying put.
Jewison moved away from the Chagall-inspired set design of the stage to a more realistic, earthy look, but he also wanted his film to convey a nostalgic idealization of the past. Cinematographer Oswald Morris came up with the idea of filming through a piece of silk stocking to achieve a sort of textured, golden glow in his images. (Jewison has claimed that you can occasionally see the fabric’s actual texture in some shots of the sunny sky.)
When the Mirisch Production Company initially approached Jewison to do the film, he informed them of what he thought might be a problem — despite his name, he wasn’t Jewish. After a blink or two around the table, the deal was sealed nonetheless.
The film went on to win three Oscars (Cinematography, Sound and Music — Scoring Adaptation and Original Song Score). It also received nominations in five other categories — Picture, Actor in a Leading Role (Topol), Actor in a Supporting Role (Leonard Frey), Director, and Art Direction — Set Design.
In August of this year, “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles,” a documentary on the creation of the original stage version, saw a limited theatrical release and will surely turn up on some streaming service or cable channel soon.
“Fiddler on the Roof” has a running time of three hours, with an intermission.
Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.