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(Credit: United Artists)

Film

'Fiddler on the Roof' at 50: A musical classic exploring time and tradition

@Russellisation
'Fiddler on the Roof - Norman Jewison
4.2

Try and convince most young people to watch a classic crime noir, early Hollywood horror or melodrama and you will most likely be met with disinterest. Whether it’s the outdated cinematography, stilted acting or lack of visual stimulation, the Golden Era of cinema has long struggled to capture a modern audience, that is however aside from the movie musical. As one of cinema’s oldest ever genres, the musical seems to remain somewhat unchanged, with films such as Damien Chazelle’s La La Land even trying to recapture some of the glory of what made the original classics so great. 

From Singin’ in the Rain in 1952 to The Sound of Music in 1965, the very finest films of the genre largely remain unchanged, with these classic films suffusing powerful stories with compelling musical numbers. Though, whilst both these films are both well celebrated, it is Fiddler on the Roof from director Norman Jewison that deserves more credit in the genre, inspiring the likes of Cabaret and In the Heights written by Lin-Manuel Miranda. 

Adapted from the 1964 Broadway musical of the same name, the film, directed by Norman Jewison, centres on Tevye (Topol) a poor Jewish milkman living in Russia who is responsible for the marriage of his five daughters amid growing tension in his hometown. Receiving eight nominations at the 44th Academy Awards, including for Best Picture, Fiddler on the Roof is widely considered a classic movie musical with pertinent thoughts on the loss of tradition in an ever-changing world. 

Recasting the original on-stage actor who portrayed Tevye, Zero Mostel, Topol was controversially brought in to add a more unknown face to the then iconic role. God’s lonely man, the character of Tevye is not your typical musical lead, a downtrodden individual living in pre-revolutionary Russia, though Topol brings an effortless empathy to the role, fleshing the character out to be more than a mere instrument for the film’s musical sequences. 

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With influential musical numbers including ‘If I Were a Rich Man’ and ‘Tradition’, Fiddler on the Roof is suffused with genuine dramatic intrigue and a warming undercurrent of the human spirit. This becomes all the more engrossing once you realise the story is stitched into the context of pre-revolution Russia, when the power of the individual would help to overthrow the traditions of a troubled nation. As director Norman Jewison explained to the American Film Institute, “It’s about a problem a man has with his five daughters, anybody who has 5 daughters has a problem and it’s about the breaking down of traditions, the traditions that he wants to follow”. 

Continuing, he adds, “All religions come with traditions, customs, tribal customs. The tribe is held together by these traditions, so the young people have to learn why the tradition is there, what is the meaning of it”. One of the most popular films of the year when it opened in Japan, Jewison received a phone call after it had premiered which told him of the packed out theatres and multiple sold-out shows. Explaining the success of the film in Japan, Jewison believes it has something to do with the themes of the film itself, stating, “The Japanese families and the population was going through a tremendous change after WWII, Shintoism Hindu, Muslim, Christianity. All religions, all forms of traditions go through changes, constantly”. 

Celebrating 50 years of the film’s existence, Fiddler on the Roof remains an iconic great of the genre as it speaks not just to a 20th-century truth, but a contemporary reality where traditions, moods and religions are constantly in flux.