Filichia Features: Fiddler Gets a New Film

Filichia Features: Fiddler Gets a New Film

By Peter Filichia on August 22, 2019

"I thought we'd be out of work in a couple of months," says Austin Pendleton.

He's recalling the August, 1964 Detroit tryout of the musical in which he played The Tailor Motel Kamzoil. It looked as shaky as - as a fiddler on the roof.

No, Pendleton had steady work for the next 12 months in Fiddler on the Roof. Once he left, subsequent Tailor Motel Kamzoils collected weekly salaries for the next 81 months as Fiddler set a record as Broadway's longest-running production.

Pendleton's interview - and many others -- are included in the marvelous new film documentary Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles . Writers Max Lewkowicz and Valerie Thomas - the former directed as well -- have expertly told the story of this musical that was initially thought to be "too Jewish."

Really? Fiddler was eventually produced on almost every continent. (Antarctica? Oh, please!) Between now and August 2020, the world will see 89 mounting and 24 Jr. ones.

"Because," says Joel Grey, who brilliantly directed the current off-Broadway Yiddish-language revival, "everybody thinks it's about them."

"I don't think there's a show that makes more of a connection to more people," says Jessica Hecht, who played Golde in the 2015 Broadway revival. Another Golde -- an African-American girl who portrayed her in middle school -- earnestly says that the character "will always be a part of me."

So much for "too Jewish."

The film begins with Sheldon Harnick, now Fiddler's only surviving major creator after producer Hal Prince's death last month. The lyricist is seen actually playing a fiddle on the roof of his Central Park West home.

True, Harnick, librettist Joseph Stein and composer Jerry Bock did set out to write a Jewish show: a musical based on Sholem Aleichem's Wandering Stars, about a traveling Yiddish theater troupe. Eventually they turned their attention to the same author's Tevye and His Daughters.

"I hope people don't read Sholem Aleichem too much," says Harnick, "because I stole a lot from him."

Prince's choice of Jerome Robbins as director-choreographer was wise. Stein relates that when they attended an Orthodox Jewish wedding and saw a man dancing with a bottle on his head, he thought it was "interesting" - but Robbins saw more in it and created "The Bottle Dance." Have you ever seen a production where the audience doesn't break into applause seconds after it starts?

Prince explains why: "They didn't dance just because it was time to do a number."

Yet, as Stein recalls, Robbins could drive a person crazy. He told the writer that he liked the scene he'd written and in the next sentence demanded he rewrite it. After Stein did, Robbins said that the new scene was very good -- but he liked the original one better.

Under these circumstances, Pendleton was understandably discouraged when the show stalled in Motown - even after Robbins promised "refinements and 10 cuts a day."

(You'll hear some snippets of cut songs, including: "The Little Town Where Poppa Came From" which didn't even make it to Detroit.)

There was an important addition: "Do You Love Me?" Although Fiddler mostly deals with the three daughters' courtships and marriages, this song between Tevye and Golde is its most romantic moment. Laments Harnick, "I used to wish that my mother and father had this type of relationship."

As we know, it all worked out -- to the point where The Temptations, now represented on Broadway by Ain't Too Proud, recorded "If I Were a Rich Man."

That plea to God resonated with Harvey Fierstein, who played Tevye on Broadway in 2005. "He's the only man in Tevye's life and they talk all the time," Fierstein observes. "Tevye regards God as his best friend."

Details about the 1971 Oscar-nominated film are included. Norman Jewison was chosen as director partly because his last name suggested he is Jewish. (He isn't.) Topol reports that "Far from the Home I Love" was the last scene shot and that "It stayed in my heart for years." He also remembers that he had a terrible toothache during all three days of filming "If I Were a Rich Man."

The film is up to date. Witness how Lin-Manuel Miranda's wedding merges with Fiddler. See what Anatevka looks like today. Attend a violin concert at the Sholem Aleichem Museum in Kiev. Note, too, the weathervane on the roof doesn't have the usual rooster but - yes! - a fiddler with violin in hand.

This week, Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles opens in 41 cities. If you're not in one of them, it's worth the trip.

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at and each Friday at He can be heard most weeks of the year on


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