Music Man and Fiddler on the Roof

by Steve Lancaster11/18/18
The American Broadway musical is seldom taken as serious drama. However, even within the confines of the musical, serious themes can be explored. In spite of energetic songs and music the musical has real people in real situations. The music sets a quality for the actor’s dialogue and contributes to the story.

Two musicals, worlds apart and seemingly not related except for format. The Music Man (1962), set in the American Midwest of Iowa in 1912. Fiddler on the Roof, (1971), set in the Jewish Pale of Czarist Russia of about the same time. River City Iowa is a thriving American farming community. The other town is Anatevka, a farming community of Jews and Christians in Russian Ukraine. The two communities thousands of miles apart, yet the ideals that form them are going to be challenged in ways that they never contemplated. Tradition is an ongoing theme in both communities.

River City Iowa is a symbol for the America we wish existed, perhaps it never did, except on Main Street, Disneyland. Into this community comes a change agent, Professor Harold Hill. Hill is a traveling salesman whose history is every preconception of the traveling salesman. What used to be called a flim-flam man, with police searching for him in other states.

The movie opens with a group of salesmen on a train leaving Illinois and heading into Iowa. The opening song, you’ve got to know the territory is syncopated to the rhythm of the train:

cash for the merchandise, cash for the buttonhooks,
cash for the soft goods, cash for the hard goods
cash for the fancy goods, cash for the noggins, and the piggins and the firkins
cash for the hogshead, cask and demijohns
cash for the crackers, and the pickles, and the flypaper

Harold Hill, (Robert Preston) decides to give Iowa a try. This leads to other songs and Hill’s effort to persuade the residents of River City they have a problem, corrupting their children and the only solution is a boy’s band:

Pockets that mark the difference
Between a gentlemen and a bum,
With a capital “B,”
And that rhymes with “P” and that stands for pool!
And all week long your River City
Youth’ll be frittern away,
I say your young men’ll be frittern!
Frittern away their noontime, suppertime, choretime too!
Get the ball in the pocket,
Never mind gittin’ Dandelions pulled
Or the screen door patched or the beefsteak pounded.
Never mind pumpin’ any water
‘Til your parents are caught with the Cistern empty
On a Saturday night and that’s trouble,
Oh, yes we got lots and lots a’ trouble

On the other side of the world, a dairyman Tevye, (Topal) is making his deliveries just before sabbath in his village of Anatevka and explains who the Jews are and why they live the way they do:

Tradition, tradition! Tradition!
Tradition, tradition! Tradition!

Who, day and night, must scramble for a living,
Feed a wife and children, say his daily prayers?
And who has the right, as master of the house,
To have the final word at home?

The Papa, the Papa! Tradition.
The Papa, the Papa! Tradition.

The Tradition song leads directly into Tevye’s daughters chatting about marriage in one of the best-known songs, Matchmaker:

Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match.
Find me a find, catch me a catch.
Matchmaker, matchmaker, look through your book
And make me a perfect match.

Tevye has five daughters, three are of marriageable age. The men they are to marry shape the themes of the Jewish existence in the Pale. All of them will marry for love, the tradition of arranged marriage is over. The eldest, Tzeltal, (Rosalind Harris) will marry within the traditional culture to a tailor, the next will marry a reformer but still a Jew. He will be sent to Siberia and she joins him there. The scene at the train station will break your heart.

“Hodel, God alone knows when we will see each other again”
“Tevye, then we will leave it in His hands”.

The third daughter, Chava (Neva Small) marries a Christian. Tevye has found he can bend only so far and treats his daughter as dead.

In River City, Hill cozies up to the music teacher and librarian, Marion (Shirley Jones) prompting the song and dance, Marion the Librarian. Hill is waiting for the band instruments to arrive and the town council is trying to get his credentials, of course he has none. Hill discovers they have harmonious voices, (The Buffalo Bills) and from this moment on they never part company.  Hill is recognized by an old accomplice, Marcellinus Washburn (Buddy Hackett), who has settled into the good life in River City. The instruments come in and Hill attempts to teach the boys to learn by not playing their instruments and thinking about the Minute in G.

In Anatevka Tevye makes a deal with Lazar Wolf (Paul Mann) to marry Tzeltal and seals the deal with a drink bringing on a song that expresses the core of Jewish life, L’chaim.

To life, L’chaim!
L’chaim, L’chaim, to life!
A gift we seldom are wise enough
Ever to prize enough,
Drink L’chaim, to life!

God would like us to be joyful
Even though our hearts lie panting on the floor;
How much more can we be joyful,
When there’s really something
To be joyful for!

Lazar Wolf is not the man Tzeltal wants and when Tevye learns of her desires the wedding is cancelled and Tzeltal’s engagement to Motel Kamsoil (Leonard Frey) is announced. The wedding is traditional with the one song that made the popular charts, Sunrise, Sunset,

Sunrise, sunset
Sunrise, sunset
Swiftly fly the years
One season following another
Laden with happiness and tears

The wedding celebration is marked with happiness and tears. The bottle dance is one of the best in modern musicals, however, the party is broken up by a pogrom. Reminding the viewer that there are serious issues at stake for Tevye and his entire community.

In River City Hill has been caught and is charged to produce a boy’s band or be tarred, feathered and run out of town on a rail. To the surprise of all the boys actually play the minuet in G (off key). This brings on the big production number, 76 Trombones.

Seventy-six trombones led the big parade
With a hundred and ten coronets close at hand.
They were followed by rows and rows
of the finest virtuosos,
the dream of ev’ry famous band.

Following the pogrom, the Jews of Anatevka are ordered out with the concluding song: Anatevka 

Anatevka, Anatevka.
Underfed, overworked Anatevka.
Where else could Sabbath be so sweet?
Anatevka, Anatevka.
Intimate, obstinate Anatevka,
Where I know everyone, I meet.
Soon I’ll be a stranger in a strange new place,
Searching for an old familiar face
From Anatevka.

Tevye makes amends with his daughter, Chava and the family sets out for America. One story ends in a parade down main street River City and the other the entire community tossed off their land and forced to move. The tragedy of the Jews of Anatevka cannot be diminished with song. The catastrophe happens 30 years later when the entire community of Eastern European Jewry is wiped out by the Soviets and the Nazis.

In River City the entire social order is shaken by Hill and his boy’s band. Men who actively dislike each other are now bound by a common love of song. Marion has found true love with Harold Hill and her younger brother, (Ron Howard, age about 7) has a father figure in his life. The local delinquent is now the leader of the band and his girl is the mayor’s daughter. We all know that change will come to River City. This moment in time is ephemeral. The River City of 1912 will be forever changed by technology, transportation, and communication. Just as Anatevka is changed by expelling the Jews.

Both communities experience rapid change. It is our responsibility to appreciate the power of change and the agents of change, whether a traveling salesman with a checkered past, or an edict from a Czar. Change will happen how we deal with it is more important than that it happens. • (36 views)

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4 Responses to Music Man and Fiddler on the Roof

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    Very interesting, though it definitely needed a lot of proofreading. The actor who plays Tevye in the movie is Topol. (Zero Mostel played the role on Broadway, though Topol did play it in London. I prefer Topol’s version.) Tevye’s oldest daughter is Tzeitel. I’m not sure he actually reconciles with Chava at the end, even though she and her husband also decide to leave because of the expulsion of the Jews from their home.

    I believe Rodgers and Hammerstein really got the idea that a musical should also tell a story, with the music integrated with it by either advancing the plot or aiding in character development. West Side Story is another musical that definitely deals with serious issues, though of course it’s not a comedy. Sweet Charity might qualify as well, though I’m not as familiar with it.

  2. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    “The Music Man” was on TV over the weekend. It has been years since I last saw it and this time it was, perhaps, even better than the last.

    This is a musical which has no weaknesses. Unlike some musicals, “The Music Man” is full of music and dancing. I don’t believe five minutes goes by without someone breaking out in song. This is what a musical is all about and I like it.

    The story is plausible and the music wonderful. The sets are excellent and the costumes beautiful.

    One expects good music from a musical, but doesn’t generally demand great acting, as well. But with Robert Preston the producers hit pay dirt. It is fascinating to watch his movements as he hypnotizes the denizens of River City. I found the way he moved his hands quite wonderful. I kept looking for the little shiny object or wand with which he was casting his spell.

    This is as good as it gets in music theater. I would include “The Music Man” in my short list of the best musicals ever written; “The Sound of Music” and “My Fair Lady” being the other two. And it is no coincidence that Preston’s Harold Hill is every bit as powerful as Julie Andrews’ Maria von Trapp and Rex Harrison’s Henry Higgins. That he is an American original makes it all the better.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Of course all 3 involve some sort of romance. Hill probably ends up marrying Marian (though he might need to use his real name), and of course Maria did marry Captain von Trapp (former Austro-Hungarian U-boat ace). Higgins also ends up with Eliza, though not exactly in a romantic relationship.

      Incidentally, the Military Book Club once offered up Captain von Trapp’s memoir of his service career. I didn’t get it, though.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I’ll be sure to watch this sometime before Christmas.

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