Monday, February 2, 2015

"The Under-Appreciated Essence Of 'Fiddler on the Roof'"

Flipping around the channels, I happened to pass the movie version of Fiddler on the Roof, where I momentarily stopped to simultaneously watch and bewail the inexcusable mistake of casting the ethnically appropriate but congenitally ponderous Israeli actor Topol as the lead character “Tevye” instead of the show’s onstage original, Zero Mostel, who exuded electric mischievousness and delight from every pore.

Oh well.  There are more important elements to a comedy than a sublimely hilarious centerpiece.

No, wait, there aren’t.

Oh well again, accompanied by a sigh, 

And moving on.

Fiddler on the Roof has often been dismissed as lightweight, “Borscht Belt” entertainment, elevated by a brilliant directorial concept – courtesy of director-choreographer Jerome Robbins – that seamlessly integrates the narrative, the music and the dancing.  

Perhaps.  Or “That’s a matter of taste and opinion”, which is the same thing, only longer.


At the fundamental core of Fiddler on the Roof lies a universal concern, as current as the cable news show I watched yesterday, which I will talk about shortly and mention now only to proceed to the following paragraph.

Productions of Fiddler on the Roof have played successfully around the world, including Africa and Japan, which are not generally regarded as traditional enclaves for Hadassah theater parties.  Arguing that the show touches a nerve in disparate cultures.

Why?  Because everyone likes watching talented Jewish girls in aprons dancing around holding brooms?


And “No” to considerably less frivolous reasons as well.

It is, the writer herein asserts, the show’s definitive opening number that strikes a compelling international chord.


“Because of our traditions…”, the line in the song’s introductory narration relates, “… everyone of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.”

Set aside the part after the “and” for a second, and concentrate on the first part.

Fiddler on the Roof’s scenario revolves around Tevye’s challenge to hold true to his traditions when the wishes his three marriageable daughters, goaded by “outside influences”, are pressuring him, out of love for those daughters, to relent. 

The first daughter picks the husband without the auspices of a matchmaker.  “Unheard of!  Absurd!”, complains Tevye in his overheard internal monologue, the problem being: 

“One little time, you pull out a prop – Where does it stop?” 

After weighing the pros and cons of this conundrum, Tevye reluctantly gives in.

The second daughter eschews even asking her father’s permission, informing him instead of her decision to marry the husband of her choice.  Well, Tevye has already surrendered once, the consequence of his own making now being,

“… you pull out a thread – Look where it’s led!”

Once again, Tevye capitulates, making it “True Love – Two; ‘Tradition’ – Zero.”

The third daughter selects a Russian non-Jew for a mate, and Tevye goes “All Popeye” on the situation:

“Dats all I can stands.  I can’t stands no more.”

A “line in the sand” having been crossed, Teyve puts his foot down, unequivocally rejecting the out-of-the-faith nuptials.  Now ostracized, the daughter is lost to the family, possibly forever.

Venn Diagram Delineating The Issue:

“Because of our traditions everyone knows who they are.”

“We have abandoned our traditions.”

“Nobody knows who they are.”

Bringing us to the aforementioned cable news broadcast.  (Which I rarely watch anymore, though I occasionally drop by to find out how much trouble we’re in.)

An… I don’t know, “Liaison Representative” from the Muslim community is relating the story of a young Muslim woman seeking the religious guidance of an imam concerning the wearing of blue jeans.  The imam nixes the idea, leaving the young woman to weigh her fashion preference against behaving proscribedly “non-Muslim” from the waist down.

What is that story about if not…


Specifically:  “Can I still be who I am, wearing denim pantalones.”

I am not at all disparaging that dilemma.  I am simply observing that at the heart of such conflicting concerns, concerns not just for religious people because everyone identifies themselves with some standard, lies the resonating question…

in Fiddler on the Roof.


JJ said...

I watched Fiddler for the first time just a few months ago. While I do love music, not so much musicals. While watching, and reading IMDB, I noticed that Leonard Frey was a Best of the West cast member, meaning you probably have a story or two about him. So if you need a post topic sometime, maybe this is it. I also noticed that he tragically passed at the young age of 49.

cadavra said...

A few years ago, I chanced to meet Norman Jewison and finally got to ask him the question I'd wanted to ask for nearly 40 years: Why didn't he cast Zero as Tevye?

He replied, "Because I wanted the audience to see Tevye. Zero had stopped playing the character and was simply being himself." I said that I understood, but still felt posterity had deserved Zero. He smiled and said, "You're far from the first."