The first Broadway musical I ever saw was “Fiddler On The Roof.”
I was probably eight or nine when my parents took me to see it during its original run. I didn’t grow up in a religious Jewish house, but I had ancestors who had been the victims of pogroms that forced them out of Russia. My father even regaled me with the story of one of his uncles being chased out of town by a one-armed Cossack on a horse. So I had some sense of what to expect, but the story and songs touched me to the core in a way I hadn’t expected and the production had my rapt attention from beginning to end.
My folks also bought the cast album, which we played often enough that I quickly learned the lyrics to every song. A few years later, the film version was released, and we went to see that, too.
After I left home in my late teens, and on through my twenties, “Fiddler” was no longer part of my life — until a 25th anniversary revival was staged on a national tour, starring Chaim Topol, who had played Tevye in the movie after originating the role in a London production (while Zero Mostel starred on Broadway). When it came to Washington, DC, my wife and I immediately got tickets, and I was caught up in the drama all over again, singing along with the songs (in my head), and marveling anew at the reproduction of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography and direction.
Fast forward a few more years, and it was time to introduce “Fiddler” to our daughter. She knew that, among all the other film musicals we’d shown her, this one had a special place in our hearts, which only added to her enjoyment. Unlike me, she grew up in the video age, when we could buy a copy of the movie and watch it over and over, which we did. Now that she lives in New York, she was able to go see yet another revival of “Fiddler,” this time entirely in Yiddish (with English supertitles), directed by Joel Grey. She loved it so much, she went back to see it two more times.
With all of that history, it’s no wonder I can’t help but rave about “Fiddler: A Miracle Of Miracles,” a documentary about the history of the show that was released last year and is now streaming on several platforms. Director Max Lewkowicz did interviews with composer Jerry Bock, lyricist Sheldon Harnick, playwright Joseph Stein, and producer Harold Prince, who explained how they took Sholem Aleichem’s stories of Tevye The Dairy Man and turned them into the first musical on Broadway to run for more than 3,000 performances.
He also got many members of various productions and revivals, including the original Motel and Tzeitel (Austin Pendleton and Joanna Merlin), Rosalind Harris (who played Tzeitel in the film and returned as Golde for the 25th anniversary revival), Zero’s son Josh Mostel, and Herschel Bernardi’s son Michael, who went on to play Tevye, too.
The documentary also has footage of productions around the world, done in the local languages to surprising success. You might not think that an American musical about poverty-stricken, observant Jews in 19th-century Russia would be relatable to other cultures — but there’s a wonderful story about a Japanese version of “Fiddler,” whose star asked one of the producers, “Do they get this in America? It’s so Japanese!” That’s proof of the show’s lasting universality.
To show how wide the popularity of “Fiddler” was during its epic original run, Lewkowicz even found footage of several cover versions of “If I Were A Rich Man,” including a nine-minute medley from a 1969 TV special by The Temptations, clad in gold outfits that screamed 1960s, and complete with the canned applause that producer George Schlatter used on pretty much all of his shows (watch it here).
As the documentary wraps up, it follows Michael Bernardi and Kelly Hall-Tomkins (who played the violin solos in the 2015 revival) to a newly-built Anatevka in Ukraine, to take part in a showcase of some of the classic “Fiddler” songs for the town’s population, made up mostly of refugees who’d been chased out of their hometowns by modern-day Russian forces. It’s quite touching, and a reminder of why “Fiddler On The Roof” is still relevant more than 50 years after it leapt off the stage and into our consciousness.
I give “Fiddler: A Miracle Of Miracles” a 10 out of 10. If you’ve ever loved the show even a smidgen as much as I have, I think you’ll enjoy it, too.