Fiddler on the Roof

Fiddler on the Roof brought the shtetl--along with many memorable characters and unforgettable tunes--to the big screen.

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Supporting Cast

Tevye may be the story's central character (Joseph Stein's libretto and screenplay are based on a collection of Sholom Aleichem short stories called "Tevye and His Daugh­ters") but Fiddler on the Roof is peopled with a cast of likable char­acters played by talented pros, which gives the movie much of its charm. Leonard Frey plays the tai­lor with an infectious innocence, goodness, and earnestness that won him an Academy Award nomina­tion as best supporting actor. Norma Crane is a tough and ef­fective Golde. Yiddish stage star Molly Picon is an adorable and quirky Yente the Matchmaker.

But Tevye is the one who holds itall together more than anyone else. Stoic, warm, and wise, he is the only one who can get away with jabbing his finger at God and saying, "I'm not really complain­ing. After all, with your help, I'm starving to death."

The score, by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, effectively evokes the daily struggles of these life-loving Jews. Beginning with the opening ensemble number, "Tradi­tion," through "Matchmaker, Matchmaker," "Sabbath Prayer," "To Life," "Miracle of Miracles," "Do You Love Me?" "Far from the Home I Love," and others, each one seems hand-sewn to the characters to tell the story of their lives and their little village. (Thanks to the success of Fiddler on the Roof on stage and screen, every wedding band in the world knows "Sunrise, Sunset" backward and for­ward.) The dances by Tom Abbott, who was Jerome Robbins's assistant on the original Broadway production, are based on the stage play's choreography.

Directing

Jewison--whose body of work includes The Cincinnati Kid, In the Heat of the Night, and Moonstruck--is one of the most serious and insightful directors around, and as much as drama, musical comedy always benefits from insightful direction. So when Motel feels like a king for standing up to Tevye, the angle Jewison chooses, unlike any other angle in the film, almost literally shows how he feels 10 feet tall. And when Golde tells Tevye that their third daughter, Chava (Neva Small), has run away to marry the gentile Fyedka (Raymond Lovelock), the scene is set in a vast ex­panse of cold, barren landscape, as if all the beauty and familial comforts of their lives have been ripped mercilessly away from them. It's a chilling scene in more ways than one.

Fiddler on the Roof was the third most suc­cessful movie musical of the 1970s, the last decade in which movie musicals were brought to life to any great degree (among them were Cabaret, Funny Lady, A Star Is Born, Grease, Hair, and The Rose). In addi­tion to Frey's Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor, Fiddler on the Roof also received nominations for best picture and best actor, and though itlost both (to The French Connection and Gene Hackman), it won over many audiences that might oth­erwise never have learned how to make a toast "to life" by shouting l'chaim! [The film did win three Academy Awards, for music, cinematography, and sound.]

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Joel Samberg

Joel Samberg, a humor and opinion columnist, also is the author of The Jewish Book of Lists.