Since its premiere on Broadway on Sept. 22, 1965, “Fiddler on the Roof” has struck a chord with audiences: it has been shown somewhere in the world every single day since then. A new documentary, “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles,” examines this phenomenon and the central question it poses: What is it about this musical that speaks to so many people across the globe?
While the plot follows a Jewish family in the small Russian village of Anatevka, Fiddler’s themes are easily identifiable and universal: parenting, childhood, marriage, people who are forced to leave their homes, faith, individual struggle, bigotry, a changing world and communal identity. This musical reminds us that we are not alone in the world and in history.
Joseph Stein, the author of the book upon which Fiddler was based, had read Sholem Aleichem’s Tevya stories during his childhood. Aleichem was funny, angry and neurotic, but also deeply concerned about his people. His stories are profound, dealing with both tradition and modernity.
Tevya is a character with a great deal of depth, warmth, humor and humanism. He is loving and generous, but also hot-tempered. He is deeply religious and speaks to God frequently. Tevya displays the essence of a man who doesn’t give up, but instead rebounds from life’s many setbacks.
The documentary also examines the song “Matchmaker” as a female empowerment piece that mirrored what was going on in American society at the time the show was written. It is written as a mini-drama, or a three-act piece. Act one shows us three sisters, with the younger two not comprehending what is occurring. The oldest daughter is being forced to marry against her will, thus it is the daughter versus the traditional father, with the daughter having no independent choice. Act two shows the younger sisters’ awakening, and the matchmaker Yenta hovering around the house as she makes a match for the older sister. They realize that a prospective husband can be brutal, egotistical, or vain, or just not care about them. The final act of “Matchmaker” is a battle cry – the girls realize that they are just the raw products of Yenta’s business, and decide that they are going to change things.
Steven Sondheim recommended Jerome Robbins to choreograph Fiddler. Robbins identified the power of the show as coming from tradition, and he told Stein to write about that. He insisted that the song “Tradition” be the opening number of the show. Robbins also gave each of the 40 characters in the show a name, and each of them was a part of the village that Robbins envisioned.
But there are actually three circles in Fiddler. The center one is Tevya and his family. The middle one is the villagers, and the outermost one is people of your culture. Robbins thought that is how you identify yourself in the world.
To learn more about the making and themes of “Fiddler on the Roof,” join Arts Emanu-El for a screening of “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles” on Nov. 2 at 7:30 p.m. at the temple.
Refreshments will be served, and there will be a few surprises. Tickets are $18 in advance, $25 at the door. For more information, go to www.teprov.org/arts-emanuel, or call 401-331-1616.
The next Arts Emanu-El event is Dec. 14 at 7:30 p.m. and features Alicia Svigals and Ensemble.
PAMELA HANZEL is the chairperson of Arts Emanu-El.