Sunday 15 December 2019

Up on the roof: "Fiddler: a Miracle of Miracles"

Fiddler: a Miracle of Miracles, Max Lewkowicz's docu-celebration of Fiddler on the Roof in all its incarnations, errs a little on the literal side: opening with footage of an actual fiddler on an actual Manhattan roof, it goes on to revisit this story's transition from book to stage to screen to high-school production using the broadly familiar methodology of interspersing archive footage with talking heads. What's interesting and oddly engaging about it is that everybody Lewkowicz calls to testify - ranging from original lyricist Sheldon Harnick to current king of Broadway Lin-Manuel Miranda - is caught trying to figure out how such a niche item (an evocation of shtetl life amid the pogroms of the early 20th century) became so successful and enduring. In the play - first staged on Broadway in 1964 - the fiddler on the roof is cited as an absurd image, one that makes no sense; some of that absurdity continues to hang over United Artists' 1971 film with Topol, directed by a goy (the misleadingly named Norman Jewison), which made its money back at the moment of the New American Cinema, where other lavish late-period studio musicals (Doctor Dolittle, Camelot, Paint Your Wagon) did not. (Truly, it was the chosen one.) The argument the film builds is that Sholem Aleichem's original material existed at the intersection of tradition (or "Tradition!") and modernity, allowing very different audiences to see very different things in it: what preserved a memory of Jewish family life for any onlooking greyhairs was also seized upon as a lightly irreverent celebration of outsiderdom by the longhairs who'd turned out for Hair a few years before. Equally, though, it could just be as one of Hollywood's smartest Jews put it: nobody knows anything.

What Lewkowicz's film makes a substantial case for, however, is that this phenomenon would have been nothing - a novelty hit at best - were it not for the support of committed, capable artists with a deep-rooted connection to this material. Jerome Robbins (born Rabinowitz), director-choreographer of the original staging, only took on the gig after visiting his ancestors' village in Eastern Europe, and seeing firsthand how extensively the Jewish population was wiped out over the century's first decades. Is the play's Jewishness, then, the key to understanding its success? One theory floated here is that Fiddler served as a counterhistory, returning to the front and centre of a stage in late 20th century America everything that the Russians and Nazis purged; that its joyful, l'chaim-ing song-and-dance was meant as a fuck-you to any oppressors still lurking out there. (Could the fiddler on the roof not also be an image of defiance?) That doesn't quite explain why the musical found its way into the high-school repertoire, though - nor why it took off in Tokyo as it did. Maybe it's just Harnick and co-writer Jerry Bock's songs, good enough to have been covered by the Temptations in their late 60s prime, bouncy enough to have been covered by the Australian thrash metal band Yidcore, familiar enough to have been pastiched by Half Man Half Biscuit ("If I were a linesman/I would execute defenders who applauded my offsides"). This viewer would still take the kinkier Yentl over Fiddler, and it's a shame some enterprising distributor hasn't reissued Jewison's movie (last observed in UK cinemas back in 2001) by way of a reference point, but Lewkowicz does a better job of scholarship than might initially be expected from his prosaic framing: you emerge from Fiddler: a Miracle of Miracles convinced a film once thought of as Bank Holiday schedule filler contains almost as many insights and mysteries as the Talmud.

Fiddler: a Miracle of Miracles is now playing in selected cinemas.

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