In the early 1960s, the composer Jerry Bock excitedly recorded a tape for his musical partner, Sheldon Harnick. On it, he talked about a song he’d been working on: “It’s fun, and it’s a little ‘musical-comedy,’ but it might be a kind of tour de force without being cheap – but just being bubbly and spirited and kinda kooky. See if you like this one.”
Bock then starts playing a jaunty little piano version “If I Were a Rich Man”, and suddenly, the significance of this moment dawns on viewers of Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles, a new documentary opening this month. The film details the making and global ramifications of arguably every Jew’s favourite musical, Fiddler on the Roof.
The film is split into three sections detailing the meaning behind the story during writer Sholem Aleichem’s time – the late 1800s; in 1964, when the play debuted in the midst of the cultural revolution; and finally in the modern day, when a surging refugee crisis has renewed xenophobic fears.
“That’s the universality of this story,” director Max Lewkowicz tells The CJN over the phone from the streets of Manhattan, where he lives. “Nobody who’s seeing it can walk away untouched.”
The Canadian-born Lewkowicz, 63, has worked in the industry for decades. After graduating from McGill, he earned a master’s degree from New York University and found lucrative gigs in TV commercials. But the work wasn’t emotionally fulfilling, and he eventually wound up working with Holocaust museums, filming short interviews and documentaries to educate visitors. He later began directing bigger features for HBO and PBS.
He first saw the film adaptation of Fiddler in theatres in 1971. Because his mother was a Polish Holocaust survivor, he was deeply moved by the uniquely Jewish themes tackled onscreen and little nods to Jewish viewers. Near the film’s end, as Chava prepares to leave her shtetl, Lewkowicz was astonished when she announced they were moving to Krakow.
That line “struck me like a bullet,” Lewkowicz says. It was a clear nod to the impending Holocaust, a tragic omen that Chava would not find much safety beyond the Russian village of Anatevka. “I don’t know how many people got that in the theatre,” Lewkowicz says.
But Fiddler did not succeed commercially because of these little Jewish nods – on the contrary, it succeeded because its themes are so universal. During pre-production on his film, Lewkowicz called up Musical Theatre International, which handles global licensing for Broadway shows after their first runs. Lewkowicz had a simple question: where is Fiddler playing right now?
The answer, he recalls, was definitive: “Where is it not playing?” In the documentary, we see footage from productions staged in Japan, Thailand, the Netherlands and Germany.
We also see Joel Grey, director of a 2018 Yiddish adaptation of the play, recalls a Japanese woman who told him it’s her favourite musical. “What is that?” he asks. “What is it that, that makes it speak in so many languages? And everybody thinks it’s about them.”
As the play’s themes transcend borders, they also transcend time. Though Sholem Aleichem created the Tevye story over a century ago, the play debuted shortly after Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, sparking a women’s rights movement across North America. Today, the #MeToo movement echoes that tradition, making current performances of Fiddler, representing a wide array of defiant women, feel as relevant as ever.
“I can’t see any other play that does that,” Lewkowicz says. “Cats, Mamma Mia: they’re fun to see, but you forget them after five minutes. But you don’t forget Fiddler.”
Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles opens in Toronto Aug. 23 at the Hot Docs cinema, and in Vancouver and Montreal on Aug. 30.