Fiddler on the Roof
One of those iconic musicals that most everyone has probably heard of. The soundtrack is fun (yes, that is the John Williams listed as the orchestrator; no, he did not compose the music). My high school did this musical the year before I entered. And the community theatre performed it fairly recently; my family went to see the performance because we knew the leading man. The story is set in the early twentieth century in Russia. We begin with a silhouetted fiddler playing on a roof. The story is narrated by Tevye, a Jewish peasant. He remarks that we are all like fiddlers on a roof, trying to scratch out a tune, without breaking our necks (when the high school did its production, they brought in a younger violinist; very good and easier to put on a set). The Jewish community in Anatevka is full of Traditions; each person in the family has a role to play; they know who they are and what God expects of them. The fathers are head of the house, mothers keep the house, sons learn a trade, and daughters learn from their mothers and will marry whomever their fathers decide. We also get a glimpse of their larger world; the Rabbi asks that God bless and keeps the Tsar far from them and the Jews don’t bother the Christians that live next to them and so far, the Christians don’t bother them.
At Tevye’s home, Yente the matchmaker visits with a match for the eldest daughter, Tzeitel. Tzeitel’s next younger sisters Hodel and Chava are eager for Tzeitel to marry so they may marry next. But Tzeitel points out the consequences of Matchmaker. They are poor girls with no dowry, they’ll be lucky for any man, not necessarily the perfect match. Tevye arrives home, tired from working and ponders If I Were a Rich Man (and everyone knows the dance for that!)
Changes are coming to Anatevka; a student from Kiev has arrived, Perchik, on top of news of Jews being evicted from their village. Perchik arranges to teach Tevye’s children, in exchange for room and food and accompanies Tevye home for the Sabbath. The tailor, Motel, a childhood friend of Tzeitel’s, also joins in the Sabbath. As the family prepares, Tevye’s wife, Golde, urges her husband to speak to the butcher, Lazar Wolf, who is interested in marrying Tzeitel. Meanwhile, Tzeitel argues with Motel; he needs to ask her father for her hand now, before an arrangement is made with Lazar Wolf; the young couple are in love. Motel is frightened by Tevye and remains silent during the Sabbath prayer.
Tevye visits Lazar Wolf and there is brief confusion on the nature of their conversation; soon cleared up and Tevye eventually agrees to the match. The men celebrate, drinking To Life, “l’chaim!” (This is a fun song!) At the bar, the Jewish men encounter the Russians and there is a back-and-forth between them, melding the dances at the end. [I love this dancing. When I was young, I was part of a Ukrainian dance troupe, friends of my mother’s. At one point, my brother could do some of those moves. The leader from the dance troupe taught the dances to the high school performers and members of the troupe danced during the community’s production.]
On his way out, Tevye is stopped by his friend, the Russian Constable. He warns Tevye that there will be an “unofficial demonstration” made. Come morning, Tevye tells Tzeitel of the arrangement. She cries and begs her father; is his agreement more important than her? Tevye won’t make Tzeitel marry Lazar Wolf. Motel comes by and Tzeitel nudges him to talk to Tevye. The nervous man grows a backbone and stands up to Tevye; the young couple had made each other a pledge; they love each other. Tevye debates (“on the one hand…on the other hand”) and agrees. They are thrilled and rush off. Motel believes that this was a Miracle of Miracles, equal to Daniel walking through the lion’s den. Now, Tevye has to tell Golde. He concocts a dream (this is a weird scene) that Golde’s grandmother visits to congratulate the family on Tzeitel’s (her namesake) marriage to Motel. Golde insists it’s Lazar Wolf. But Lazar Wolf’s first wife appears and vows to kill Tzeitel shortly after the wedding if she marries Lazar Wolf. Golde accepts the dream as a sign.
Tzietel’s sisters are finding men as well. The radical student Perchik charms Hodel and opens her eyes to changes in the world. In cities, men and women dance together. A Russian Christian, Fyetka comes to the aid of Chava when other men bother her. He has noticed she likes to read and offers a book to her; they can discuss it later.
Motel and Tzeitel marry; her parents reminisce to Sunrise, Sunset (a musical theme that appears throughout the film). There is a dance (again, love the music) and the men even perform a bottle dance. An argument erupts from the gifts between Lazar Wolf and Tevye; Perchik breaks it up by dancing with Hodel. Tevye supports his actions and dances with Golde, as well as Motel with Tzeitel. The Rabbi even joins, though he puts a kerchief between his hand and the lady’s. The evening ends on a sour note when Russian soldiers appear and break things. The Constable puts a quick stop to things; sadly, they only turn their attention to the town and smash and burn.
The second act opens with a reprise of Tradition. Some time has passed; it is now autumn and Tevye remarks to God that Motel and Tzeitel have been married for a while. Perchik tells Hodel he must leave, to support the students in Kiev. He, in a roundabout way, asks Hodel to marry him. She agrees. They then ask Tevye for his blessing, not his permission, contrary to tradition. Tevye debates and ultimately blesses their engagement and gives his permission. Perchik gives Tevye the idea to tell Golde he is visiting a rich uncle. The couple have given Tevye a thought; they love each other, so he asks Golde, Do You Love Me? After twenty-five years, they have come to love each other.
In winter, Perchik is arrested at the rally in Kiev and writes to Hodel. She decides to join him in Siberia and bids farewell to her father; her family will always be with her, even if she is Far From the Home I Love. Some happy news comes; Motel and Tzeitel have a new arrival; a sewing machine. Oh yes, and a baby boy as well. Fyetka tries to speak to Tevye, but is dismissed. Tevye warns Chava not to speak to him anymore; some things do not change. She should be interested in marrying a young man of her faith. She resists and tells her father that she wants to marry Fyetka. Tevye refuses. We next see Golde enter the Christian church and ask for the priest. She finds Tevye afterwards and informs him Chava and Fyetka have been married. Tevye tells his wife to go home to their other children (two more daughters); Chava is dead to them. He reminisces on his Little Bird (superimposed with a ballet). Chava finds him and begs her father’s acceptance. “There is no other hand!” Tevye cannot turn his back on his people, on his faith. Chava cries “Papa!”
More bad news comes. The rumors are true; verified by the arrival of the Constable; Anatevka is to empty of Jews in three days. The same thing is happening all over Russia. Tevye argues; they have always lived in this corner of the world, why should they leave? The Constable shouts, there is trouble in the world. Orders are orders! Tevye orders him off his land. One of the villagers asks the Rabbi, would now be a good time for the Messiah? The Rabbi responds, they will have to wait for him somewhere else. The villagers sing of their Anatevka; it wasn’t great, but it was home. Tevye and his family will go to America to family in New York. They hope that Tzeitel, Motel, and their son will be able to join them. Hodel and Perchik are still in Siberia. Chava stops by with Fyetka; they will not remain while the Jews cannot. Tzeitel speaks to her sister and passes on Tevye’s wish, “God be with you.” Chava promises to write. The last scene we see is the fiddler following Tevye’s family.
The first half of the show is far happier than the second half. When I watch the film, I focus on the first half; it holds more of the fun music. As I already mentioned, I enjoy the dancing in the show, having a bit of experience in it. And when you focus on the happy parts; Tevye being frustrated by his daughters choosing their own husbands, which to us is completely normal, it distracts from the historical significance of the story. Because those bad things happened and they happened a lot (and yeah…in a few decades, get worse). But hey, they have bottle dancing! And Tevye makes funny sounds talking to his animals! And three women daydream about their perfect husband! (They kind of get what they want, learned and interesting men, but not in the way they imagined and they all have to give something up, like financial security and family).
[Historical note: the term “pogrom” appears early in the show and refers to the persecution or massacre of an ethnic or religious group, mainly Jewish. A bit of foreshadowing in the show. I learned the term during my Honors’ Holocaust class in college.]
Next Time: Another iconic musical; Annie