Tuesday, June 28, 2016

"Answering A Question (Like I Said I Would)"

Because I am nothing if not true to my word.  A lot of the time.

Not long ago after publishing my post entitled “Three ‘Fiddlers’”, a “Regular Reader” who goes internetically by JED inquired:

“Is it fair to ask how you rate the movie compared to these {theatrical “Three ‘Fiddlers’”} or is that not a fair question?”

First of all, anyone who uses the word “fair” twice in one sentence is okay in my books.  As an inveterate “Fairist”, I am always looking for likeminded compadres to offset the unquestioning ideologues who… you know, this sentence can only get me in trouble, so I will curtail its completion and just say,

“Good on ya, JED.”  (And also I’m out here, and I’m with ya.)

I shall answer JED’s question, embellishing it with answers to questions I was not asked to fill things out, thereby allowing me to believe that I did a decent day’s work.  (Where does it say a person cannot service his readership while simultaneously fostering encouraging feelings of self-worth?)

Let me start with a general prejudice.

With the exception of Singin’ in the Rain (made directly for the screen) and The
Music Man and Chicago… I better stop before my exceptions torpedo my argument… although I am a longstanding stage musical enthusiast, I am not a big fan of movie musicals.

I have never seen a cinematic adaptation of a musical that was as absorbing and exhilarating as its corresponding counterpart on the stage.  For one thing, after a major production number finishes with a crescendoing flourish, rather than the thunderous applause of the theater, there is, in movies…

Deadening silence.

Turning an energizing moment into an anti-climactical letdown.

“With a capital ‘T’
That rhymes with ‘P’
And that stands for


The other thing is, the theater is… what’s the appropriate word here?... oh yeah…  


Hyper-verbal.  Over-the-top.  Larger than life. *  (* Except for the size of the actors.)

Movies, by their technological imperative, are more real – in movie musicals, not necessarily to positive effect.


West Side Story – The Movie.

The creative auspices decided in their wisdom that, rather than performing on appropriately designed soundstages, the “Sharks” and the “Jets” should execute their majestic leaps and pirouettes on the graffitied “Mean Streets” of Manhattan.

I can imagine legitimate gang members watching incredulously from the sidelines going:

“We’d nevah do that.”

It was an understandable decision.  “Movies are real.  Let ‘em dance in a real place.”  (Forgetting that real gang members do not dance balletically on the street.  Even in alleys.)

To me, it looked ridiculous.  What came to mind were “delinquents” executing similar choreography never making it back to their clubhouse in one piece.

(Note:  The West Side Story movie won 10 Academy Awards.  So there were apparently people who disagreed with me.)

A similar complaint applies to transfering of Fiddler on the Roof to the big screen.

Beginning with the decision, in the name of “cinematic reality”, to reject Fiddler’s original star, Tony Award-winning Zero Mostel considered to be too “big” (Read:  “theatrical”) for the movie in favor of Israeli actor Topol, adjudged to be more Eastern European-sounding and therefore closer to what the “real Tevye” (a fictional character) would actually have been like. 

Stifling virtually every joke and comedic opportunity in the process.

This determinational rationale was revealed by Fiddler’s director Norman Jewison in a documentary about the movie.  Interesting Side Note:  Norman Jewison is not Jewish.  (Although he is Canadian.)  Demonstrating that you don’t have to be Jewish to make terrible errors in casting.

What was the mistake?

Trading “breathtakingly hilarious” for “tedious and dull.”  In an effort to make things “truer to life.”  (Which may be accurate.  Life is regularly tedious and dull.)

But that’s the movies.  That’s what they do.

Triggering the question:

“Who said musicals had to be real?” 

(Or animated features, for that matter.  There is no way today Mickey Mouse would have four fingers.  Minus some agonizing “backstory” on how the missing digit was tragically lost.)

Summing Up:

But not before throwing this in because I want to and may not receive the opportunity again.  Two years before, in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, and then a second time in Fiddler on the Roof, the once blacklisted Mr. Mostel was asked if he’d be willing to work with director Jerome Robbins who had “named names” during the McCarthy hearings on “Un-American Activities”, to which the assenting Zero replied, “We on the ‘Left’ do not blacklist.”  (It probably helped that Jerome Robbins was a theatrical genius and the previewing Forum was in terrible trouble.)

Okay, now summing up.

Movie musicals have a propensity for “real”, at the excessive cost of wonder and enchantment.  The Fiddler movie fell particular victim to that liability.  Possibly an inevitability, because it’s a movie.  If they wanted “real”, they should have focused on the verisimilitude of the wardrobe, and retained Zero. 

Costumes rarely obliterate laughter.  Bad casting can.

On the other hand, you might want to check out Chicago.

That one, sez this prejudiced reporter,

Is right on the money.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

I was lucky enough to see FIDDLER with Zero Mostel on Broadway. When the movie came out and I found out Mostel wasn't in it, I decided I didn't want anything to overwrite my memory of Mostel performing the role and as a result have never seen the movie or any other production. Good for Mostel taking that view, though I wonder how he would have felt when Elia Kazan was given a lifetime Academy Award - it was noticeable that half the audience stood and applauded, and the other half sat on their hands, glowering.

I feel the same about having seen Jimmy Stewart in the 1970 Broadway revival of HARVEY - but there you do always have the movie to go back to (although his stage performance was a little different - he said he wanted Elwood to be a little more assertive, and so he was).


Pidge said...

What many interpretations of Fiddler lack, and I've seen many...including a summer camp production starring 12 year-olds, which was better than most, is what my Zaida called "Tam" (pronounced "Tum") It's a Yiddish word meaning...idiosyncratic flavor or taste. Without it.....It's what happens when you miscast Tevye, Golda and Yenta with blonde, thin aristocratic- looking gentiles. They may have excellent singing voices, they may learn all their lines....but they aren't convincing anyone who knows that they come from a shtetl in the Pale of Settlement!
At Stratford, in a production highly praised (although not by many with Jewish blood in their veins) for a genteel performance of Tevye by Brent Carver, Yenta referred to one of the daughters as CHava...as in CHurch! The lilt of the dialogue was completely missing...especially in the song, "Do You Love Me?" I wept. With disdain.
Have you also noticed that, except for Bette Middler, who played one of the daughters in an early stage version, the daughters are also usually miscast...very, what's a politically correct term for it.....can we say gentile anymore? Like Jackie Mason is fond of pointing out...they can't be "too Jewish"!

Fiddler is renowned for its universality and its themes resonate around the world. That said, it's so much better when it has a little "Tam"!

JED said...

Thank you for answering my question, Earl. And I appreciate Wendy's and Pidge's comments here and also Pidge's earlier comment in the original post.

The minute I sent my comment to "Three Fiddlers", I remembered another instance where I'd seen both the play and the movie. I got to see Mary Martin in The Sound of Music in 1961 when my parents took me to New York. It was my first and only time to go to a show on Broadway and it was incredible. I was only 10 years old but even then I was amazed that such a thing could exist. Even the audience and the theater itself were fantastic. When friends of mine talked about seeing the movie, I could only pity them. They hadn't seen the real thing!

But then I thought about seeing the movie. I'd only seen it on TV. I suppose we could go through a whole series of "how can you even compare it" comments between seeing a movie in the theater and seeing it on TV. That's one reason so many lists of the best movies are often weighted to recent films - it's because people saw the recent films in the theater and they saw the old classics on TV. So, maybe The Sound Of Music wouldn't be so bad if you saw it in the theater. Nah!

One more thing before I go. I love Natalie Wood as an actress. But why put her in West Side Story if she can't sing? Would a theater production ever do that? I don't think so.

Jim Dodd (JED)