Tradition kept alive by ‘Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles’

The film, released in the US in July, is director Lewkowicz’s serious attempt to explore the creative origins of the popular play.

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September 24, 2019 20:30
3 minute read.
Tradition kept alive by ‘Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles’

A scene from 'Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles' . (photo credit: Courtesy)

Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles is a tribute with a difference. Max Lewkowicz’s celebration of Fiddler on the Roof’s 55 years on stage features the legendary past performers and the iconic tunes you expect. But unlike other documentaries of the genre, it takes into account the politics and the changes in society that affected the play’s creation.

The film, released in the US in July, is director Lewkowicz’s serious attempt to explore the creative origins of the phenomenally popular play and the social events that inspired the Broadway Fiddler production.

The film, currently being screened in festivals and theaters around the world, includes interviews with many of those involved in the original Broadway production, including lyricist Sheldon Harnick, producer Hal Prince and actors Austin Pendleton (Motel), Joanna Merlin (Tzeitel). Violinist Itzhak Perlman, Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and Haim Topol – who played Tevye in the film version – are also featured. Through cast, crew and luminaries’ commentary, Lewkowicz examines the play’s time-transcending magic as he wonders why “mainstream America is interested in a bunch of Jews living in a pale of Russia of 1905.”

The film traces the beloved musical from its roots in Sholem Aleichem’s Yiddish writings to its Broadway debut in 1964, its film adaptation in 1971 and its revivals and stagings around the globe.

Tevye is one of the most beloved characters of film and stage. The humble, insightful, hard-working father of five girls in need of a match, whose long-held traditions are under attack. With charm and endearing innocence, Tevye ponders about the changing world, philosophies and talks to God about life’s frustrating tribulations.

“Tevye is from the shtetl, but his message is universal,” Lewkowicz told The Jerusalem Post from his New York home. “He could be a family man in Honduras, or anywhere in the world for that matter – a father whose children rebel and want to go a different way against his will. He is a man whose tradition is being seriously challenged.”

To Lewkowicz, Fiddler is “a remarkable work of art” and rather than produce “just another behind-the-scenes” Broadway documentary, he wanted to “show how Fiddler deals with the basic human elements, from the way people treat each other to how parents deal with children who rebel.”

Three time periods weave the documentary’s narrative through the decades, making strong political statements throughout.
“The first period is 1905 with Russian Jewish communities facing horrific pogroms and Jews being forced out of their homes,” said Lewkowicz.

1964 comes next as the show opens in Broadway and the impact of civil and women’s movements rocks America.
“The third period is the present day and the world again in turmoil,” he added. “We see refugees on the move and the rise of antisemitism worldwide.”

Through mixing studio interviews with striking footage of current events rocking the world, the film makes bold political assertions. For example, the classic tune “Matchmaker” is laced with footage of 1964 women’s movement protests and is presented as a feminist statement. One commentator speaks of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique being on the best-seller list at the time the 1964 production was penned. There is even a reference to matchmakers assisting a trafficking ring, transporting unsuspecting girls to Argentina. To the background of 1960’s women marchers, Lewkowicz added an emotional scene from Bend it like Beckham where the young girl breaks free from tradition. This is accompanied by commentary from director Gurinder Chadha about arranged marriage as a universal issue.

These political references shed light on the play’s creation, but some viewers might find them hard to take in.

“Sholem Aleichem’s is a political story,” explained Lewkowicz, “There is no avoiding it: the Jews were kicked out of their homes and forced to move to another country. That’s political. The daughters questioning the match made for them and wanting to choose their own partner is a political issue, Perchik’s statement that ‘money is the world’s curse’ is a statement on capitalism.”

The timeless compositions perfectly illustrate Fiddler’s magic, with iconic performances of past productions including Topol’s electrifying rendition of “If I Were A Rich Man” and the moving “Do You Love Me?” among others.

There are many enlightening insights about Fiddler in the documentary, from Topol filming for three days through terrible toothache to the show’s disappointing debut in Detroit.

Referring to the classic film, but fitting for his own tribute to Fiddler on Roof, Lewkowicz concluded that “It is about the dance of life, the fiddler is the spirit that keeps us smiling”

Amy Spiro contributed to this report.


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