Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles
2019, PG-13, 92 min. Directed by Max Lewkowicz.
REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Fri., Sept. 13, 2019
One of the most beloved musicals of the last century gets its origin story in the doc Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles, chronicling the history of 1964’s Fiddler on the Roof. Lewkowicz (Underfire: The Untold Story of Pfc. Tony Vaccaro) examines not only the history of this text, but seeks to place it in the context of the post-Holocaust Jewish experience and the social and civil revolutions of the Sixties. The film is a heady brew of analysis and connections, mostly through myriad talking heads of scholars and actors, and of course, the principal architects (the ones still alive, of course). This is coupled with scenes of various productions of the musical, from Broadway and high school revivals to international productions in Japan. The point consistently worked on here is how the universal themes of the musical transcend any kind of specific ethnic experience. It’s tradition versus modernity, it’s defiance in the face of oppression, but more importantly, the film speaks to how Fiddler on the Roof resonates time and time again, across generations, to the human condition.
Based on stories written by Russian author Sholem Aleichem (first collected in 1894 as Tevye and His Daughters, the creators of the musical (Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, and Joseph Stein) brought to life Tevye (Zero Mostel on stage, Chaim Topol in the film adaptation). He’s an everyman, a dairy farmer who talks to God, has five teenage daughters, loves his wife, and has a penchant for ruminations on the nature of existence. The doc brings together some heavy hitters (Joel Grey, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Stephen Sondheim are just a few) rounded out by various scholars and scions of the original participants. Lewkowicz’s film also adds further context in its forays into forced marriage (and how a number of young Jewish women ended up in Buenos Aires as prostitutes) and the Jewish diaspora from Imperial Russia. Then there’s Jerome Robbins, who came on as the dance choreographer for the production. A complicated and difficult genius (as if there were any other kind), he once testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the implications are that his sexual identity was in jeopardy. That caused strife with both creators and actors, and is one of the more fascinating elements in a doc that is jam-packed with them.
If you read the words “If I Were a Rich Man” or “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” and start humming the melodies, chances are this film will be a treasure trove of insight into not just the making of a musical, but of women and men who had the courage of their convictions in the face of odds set against them.