Still beloved and routinely revived 55 years after its Broadway debut — including a Yiddish-language version now playing in New York — “Fiddler on the Roof” is a popular phenomenon that shows no sign of subsiding. Max Lewkowicz’s “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles” provides an entertaining if hardly exhaustive overview of how the unlikely success came to be. The story it tells might easily have filled an engrossing documentary twice the length of this competent, not-particularly-inspired one.
Someday, doubtless, we’ll get that deeper dive. Meanwhile, “Miracle” opens on multiple screens Aug. 23 in New York and Los Angeles, expanding to more U.S. cities the following week, and with a high likelihood of finding a readymade audience nearly everywhere it goes.
Dedicated to recently deceased producer Hal Prince, “Miracle” benefits from the fact that so many of the show’s original prime movers were still alive to be interviewed: not director Jerome Robbins or star Zero Mostel, but composer Jerry Bock, lyricist Sheldon Harnick and book author Joseph Stein, among others. (Stein and Bock both passed away in 2010, but are seen reminiscing in footage shot late enough that it blends seamlessly here.) It was Stein who steered Harnick and Bock towards Tevye the Milkman and his five daughters, when originally other, less musical-friendly Sholem Aleichem writings had been considered for adaptation.
Still, “Fiddler” (its title concept, as well as Boris Aronson’s set designs, inspired by Marc Chagall paintings) did not seem a Broadway natural at first. Backers were wary of a tuner about pogrom-persecuted Russian Jews. A Detroit tryout was poorly received, and even after extensive changes on the road resulted in great improvement, New York reviews weren’t stellar. (The Times considered it a “near-miss.”)
But it was an immediate, enormous popular success nonetheless, one that was duplicated when Norman Jewison (a goy, by the way) directed the 1971 film version. Less explicable, perhaps, is the show’s continuing ubiquity in places where one might expect its ethnic and historical specificity to be a real roadblock — Japan, for instance, where we see numerous clips from a recent production.
But as many point out here, tragicomedic “Fiddler” deals with universal themes of parenting, marriage, bigotry, faith, individual struggle and communal identity. While 1905 shtetl life may have an exotic appeal (and even the nostalgic allure of so-called simpler times), there has never been a moment since the 1965 premiere when the forced “ethnic cleansing” exodus Tevye and other denizens of Anatevka suffer hasn’t been replicated somewhere on the global political landscape.
We get insight from recent and past cast members (including the film’s Topol), as well as theater scholars, historians and prominent enthusiasts. There are brief, charming animations in a Chagall mode by Tess Martin. One major delight is hearing a couple songs cut before opening night — though had they stayed, they might easily have become as classic as everything else in a score that’s set up permanent residence in the pop-cultural bloodstream. Serious aficionados are unlikely to find much else that surprises here, as familiar anecdotes of the moody, bullying Robbins’ clashes with Mostel and everyone else are briefly rehashed.
“A Miracle of Miracles” feels less like a thorough screen history than a PBS-ready introduction to the “Fiddler” big picture for casual fans. Nothing wrong with that, although after all this time it’s hard not to expect something a tad deeper. The show has touched so many, in ways that go well beyond the surface entertainment value of later Broadway smashes like “Cats” or “Phantom,” that this doc’s brisk survey of talking points can’t help but seem superficial.
Still, there’s considerable pleasure to be had here, particularly in the interweaving of several decades’ performance clips in various staging styles and languages. They dominate a lively package that is never dull and, if anything, far too short. Seeing TV variety-show bits in which Danny Kaye introduces Topol to American audiences, or the Temptations cover “If I Were a Rich Man,” suggests that there’s a giant treasure trove of “Fiddler” errata out there whose surface this film barely scratches.