by Brad Nelson
Turn if off! Turn it off!!! I can’t get the song “If I Were a Rich Man” out of my head. Help!
Generally, I’m bored by musicals that launch into a song every five minutes. Just speak the darn words. Don’t try to make a song out of “I’d like to make a sandwich today, hurrah!” But Fiddler on the Roof makes this work. This is no doubt helped along by the charm of Topol, who plays the lead character, and the fact that many of these songs double as an inside look at his thought processes rather than just being a song for a song’s sake. That is, the songs are generally very well integrated into the story rather than an interruption of the story.
And that story is about a man and wife with five daughters (oy veh!) living in a poor Jewish community in pre-revolutionary Russia. In such a community, one’s religion and traditions are as one’s two lungs; they are the breath of life.
Modern man tends to see tradition and religious rules as stifling rather than meaningful. But modern man is an aberration, and if Europe is any example, such an aberration will not be long-lived. We need a sense of identity in order to maintain ourselves and our societies.
Certainly central to Fiddler on the Roof is immersion (as much as one can from a movie) into Jewish culture. That culture is front-and-center and adds much of the spice. It needs to because the plot itself is not overly complicated: Various young men want Tevye’s daughters for marriage. Tevye doesn’t always agree. Rinse and repeat. This happens three times with three different daughters, all with different results. And at the very end, the two youngest daughters (mere girls) are betrothed to a couple boys, almost at random.
As well as the courtship problems, an ominous backdrop is the prejudice and violence that has constantly hounded the Jews throughout time. And even to this day a world turns against Israel as the villain (although it is a peaceful democracy) and sides with Hamas (a hate-filled anti-Semitic terrorist group). Things never change much for the Jews. And in Fiddler on the Roof you see the persecution of Jews roll out of the hills like a storm, like an act of nature that could come crashing down at any time.
It’s interesting to see Paul Michael Glaser (Starsky) play the young idealistic revolutionary. I think the movie would have improved if it had delved more into the politics of that era, but it is content to leave it as an undefined backdrop of inevitable change that is coming. And inevitable and unpredictable change is a central theme to this movie as Tevye, and the Jewish community itself, are blown around like leaves in the wind, no matter how anchored they are in their traditions.
All in all it was a splendid movie with superb cinematography and an Oscar-winning score adaptation by John Williams. But this movie ultimately lives and dies on the character of Tevye. And that character is believable, engaging, and quite charming. This is another classic that lives up to its name. I give it 3.7 unwed daughters out of 5.
. . . if I were a rich man . . . ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum….all day long I’d biddy biddy bum, if I were a wealthy man . . . • (2882 views)