Fiddler On the Roof

B+

Fiddler On the Roof

In Hollywood's early years, a lot of Jewish entertainers changed their names and toned down their ethnicity in order to assimilate, but that began to change in the '50s, when the New York-based television industry altered the mass-media accent. Demand for programming brought in a wave of nearby Borscht Belt comics, who worked cheap and had plenty of material. By the time Fiddler On The Roof opened on Broadway in 1964, the culture had been softened up for a musical about early-20th-century Russian Jews, fretting over the loss of their cultural traditions while exile and genocide loomed. After so many variety-show jokes about rabbis, Jewish mothers, and matchmakers, the rest of America had internalized a lot of what Fiddler is about. And it didn't hurt that during the course of the story, the hero, Tevye (played by Zero Mostel on Broadway and by Topol in Norman Jewison's 1971 film), learns to accept that his daughters can't cling to the old ways any more. Even before the Russian government forces his shtetl to change, Tevye has made himself so open to change that he's practically American.

Perhaps appropriately, Jewison's film came along during a Hollywood filmmaking revolution that would've made a conventional, stagebound Fiddler look way too square. So Jewison reconceptualized the blockbuster musical by shooting on location in the cold and mud, and by replacing the hammy Mostel with the more low-key Topol. He was about 85 percent successful. The film version of Fiddler On The Roof relies on rhythmic editing instead of precision choreography, which means it loses the uplifting symbolic surge when all the villagers dance in unison, and while Topol's Tevye is believably put-upon, he isn't as funny as he's supposed to be. But Jewison's let's-get-a-good-look-at-the-spittle-on-Tevye's-lips approach is touchingly intimate, and never diminishes the play-to-the-cheap-seats pizzazz of songs like "Tradition," "Matchmaker, Matchmaker," "If I Were A Rich Man," and "Sunrise, Sunset." By preserving the exoticism and making sure the audience left the theater humming, Jewison made a grubby, European-flavored movie that Yanks could embrace.

Key features: A low-key but anecdote-filled commentary track by Jewison and Topol, plus a second disc of featurettes, including a fly-on-the-wall location documentary and some revealing discussions about how Fiddler's songwriter and book-writer worked together.

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