“Fiddler on the Roof” is one of the most beloved Broadway musicals and film adaptations of all time. Daniel Raim’s documentary, “Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen,” is an illuminating account of the myriad details and decisions that went into turning Sholom Aleichem’s stories about “Tevye the Dairyman” into a feature-length film in 1971. Interviews with director Norman Jewison, lyricist Sheldon Harnick, composer John Williams and the cast members who played Tevye’s three older daughters add to the Hollywood extravaganza’s magic.
Raim recently spoke to JewishBoston about the documentary, narrated by Jeff Goldblum, noting why Chaim Topol, rather than Zero Mostel, who played Tevye on Broadway in 1964, was cast in the film version. Raim also pointed out that the director grew up Protestant but had a lifelong affinity for Judaism—he noted Jewison’s dedication to authenticity in recreating the gritty pre-Holocaust world of European Jewry.
“Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen” premieres in Massachusetts on Friday, June 3, at Coolidge Corner Theatre.
Why did Norman Jewison, director of “Fiddler on the Roof,” cast Chaim Topol instead of Zero Mostel for the role of Tevye?
The film was made at the beginning of the New Hollywood era when things were beginning to be more gritty and real. Norman wanted to cast the movie with people who looked like they were from a shtetl. Topol was that kind of Tevye instead of Zero Mostel, who looked more like a Brooklyn Jew. It was just a question of how Norman wanted to connect with the audience.
Where did Jewison discover Topol?
Topol was playing Tevye in London’s West End, and Jerome Robbins, who had directed and choreographed the musical for Broadway, was also directing the London production. Norman knew he had found his Tevye in Topol for the film. Topol was very traditional, and Robbins said that he immediately saw that Norman had picked up on that.
In the documentary, Jewison talks about universalizing Sholom Aleichem’s stories. How did he achieve that?
Norman started with the creative work of the original Broadway production. Then he went back to the stories and looked at the scenes in terms of modernity versus tradition. What were the traditions of these families, and what were their universal tensions? Topol fit that model as a universal Tevye.
Marc Chagall’s artistry informs the film’s aesthetic and is then paired with Isaac Stern’s virtuoso playing. How did those choices distinguish the film version?
Jerome Robbins handpicked Chagall’s painting of a fiddler hovering over a roof in a shtetl not too far from Kiyv in Ukraine. Norman then incorporated Chagall’s surreal visual style into his realistic style. Norman bought a small watercolor of Chagall’s fiddler on the roof early in the filming. He had the painting on hand when Isaac Stern played. Norman made it clear that the fiddler represented the spirit of the Jewish people.
In the documentary, it’s clear that Jewison intended to create Jewish life in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust. How did he forge that world?
Norman was very interested in Roman Vishniac’s pre-Holocaust photographs of Jewish life in the shtetls of Eastern Europe. Those photographs were a unique window into that world. They sparked so many questions and informed the creation of the movie’s costumes and sets. Vishniac’s photos inspired the world-building of the movie’s production.
Norman also wanted to create a feeling of impermanence he saw in Vishniac’s photographs. The closest he could get to accomplishing that without access to filming in Russia was to go to Yugoslavia. At the time of filming, [Josip Broz] Tito, a dictator who had broken away from Russia, was in charge. Norman wanted to be authentic to the story, so he used local peasants as extras and constructed all the buildings for the movie in wood to match existing structures. It was a long, researched process. He reread Sholom Aleichem’s stories and filled his version of Anatevka with actors who would give it a feeling of verisimilitude.
Jewison made it a point to recreate the synagogue as authentically as possible. Why was that so important to him?
It was important to Norman to have a loving tribute to the way synagogues looked in Eastern Europe. The painted synagogues in Eastern Europe were destroyed during the Holocaust, and he had no reference to creating this space. Instead, it was all pieced together through research. One of the beautiful effects that Norman achieved in the movie was to have the light come in through the wooden slats of the synagogue. The structure was supposed to go to Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv when filming wrapped up, but it never made it there.
Throughout the documentary, Jewison expresses his affinity for Judaism. He even jokes that his last name had something to do with it. Was making “Fiddler on the Roof” a spiritual journey for him?
It was a spiritual journey for him. He talks about going with his Jewish friend to the synagogue when he was 6 and remembers the antisemitic bullies at his school where he grew up in Toronto. He has always searched for places to belong. He’s 95 now, and he remains spiritually and psychically open to other cultures and experiences. His openness is reflected in his movies. He made “In the Heat of the Night” after he witnessed segregation. That film won an Oscar for best picture. Then, after Robert Kennedy was assassinated, he knew he would make “Fiddler on the Roof.”
In the documentary, John Williams, the composer who wrote the opening musical sequence, said the violin is the instrument that is most like the human voice. Jewison noted that the fiddler represents the spirit of the Jewish people. Does “Fiddler” reflect their observations?
The movie, and I hope the documentary, is a snapshot of cinematic artistry. I also hope the documentary reflected how much Jewison’s actors and crew loved working with him. They were so happy to be part of his vision. He had this unique ability to make his collaborators feel comfortable and secure, especially in front of the cameras.
The movie version of “Fiddler on the Roof” transported audiences into Sholom Aleichem’s world. And the legacy of “Fiddler” is that it is one of the great masterworks of Hollywood musicals. I hope the documentary enriches the movie and shows how everyone on the set felt like a family.
Get tickets to “Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen” at Coolidge Corner Theatre beginning Friday, June 3. The June 5 screening will feature producer Sasha Berman in a live Q&A moderated by film critic and journalist Loren King. Find additional screenings here.