Stage To Screen: Fiddler On the Roof


This really ought to be a “Page To Stage To Screen” look, because Fiddler On the Roof is based on a collection of short stories entitled Tevye And His Daughters, or Tevye the Dairyman, written by Sholem Aleichem, whose real name was Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich. First published in Yiddish in 1894, they are set in the Ukranian village of Boyarka and follow the life of a poor dairyman, Tevye.

Life in Boyarka is straightforward. Everyone’s roles are spelled out, and the word, birds, is “Tradition!”. Women cook, clean, and raise children. Men work to support the family and are the last word in each household. Boys go to Hebrew school and take up vocations. Girls learn to keep house. Marriages are arranged by the parents with the help of a matchmaker. Everyone strictly observes the Sabbath. And what would any self-respecting shtetl be without a beggar? That’s the way things are meant to be, because conformity means stability.

Sholem Aleichem. (Times of Israel)

Tevye has six daughters, three of which are of marriageable ages, and one by one they all pick their husbands. Unfortunately for tradition, though, their choices move farther and farther away from what’s always been done.

Tzeitel marries Motel, the tailor, who has been her friend since childhood, breaking the match Tevye made for her with Lazarwolf the butcher. Hodel becomes engaged to Perchik, a college graduate and revolutionary who sees a new, Communist future for Russia. He’s sent to a prison in Siberia, and Hovel goes there to be near him and wait for his release so they can marry. Chava moves farthest, marrying a Russian and converting to Orthodoxy. This last one is too much for Tevye to take, and he disowns her.

Zero Mostel, Jerome Robbins, and other cast members in rehearsal for Fiddler On the Roof. (New York Times)

Adding to Tevye’s distress is the growing strain between the Jews and their Gentile neighbors, resulting in pogroms and the Jewish people being expelled from their village. Tevye is at a loss what to do, as his wife has died and he doesn’t know where to go.

The stories have been adapted for the stage several times, but of course Fiddler On the Roof is the most well-known. Opening on Broadway in 1964, it ran for 3,242 performances in its first production. Zero Mostel, who was a huge star of stage and screen, was cast as Tevye.

Originally directed by Jerome Robbins, the book was written by Joseph Stein, with Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnik penning the music and lyrics, respectively. The show commences with what I opine is one of the most singable opening numbers in theatre history, because it has a way of staying in the head.

While the show sticks to Aleichem’s basic story elements, there are some details changed. Okay, a lot of details changed. Boyarka became Anatevka, Tevye had only five daughters in the musical, Golde was still alive at the end, as was Motel, and Tevye knows where to go and what to do when he’s suddenly displaced. Unlike in the stories, Tevye softens toward Chava and Fyedka, tacitly accepting their marriage.


All the while, through all the changes, Tevye has a running conversation with God. As his life becomes less and less recognizable to him, he seems to feel as if God isn’t as present with him. However, when he least expects it, the titular Fiddler is there, both on the roof and off. He never says a word, although he does grin and chortle now and then. Mostly he observes the goings-on and plays his fiddle. Sometimes Tevye enjoys having him around. Other times, he finds the Fiddler annoying. There is nothing Tevye can do to shake him off, though, as the Fiddler symbolizes both change and sameness in Tevye’s life. The Fiddler also represents the Jewish heritage that follows Tevye wherever he goes.

One of the biggest criticisms is that the show was too Americanized, with the United States as the Promised Land. Aleichem himself had emigrated to America, and he didn’t like it. Critics such as Irving Howe were rather merciless. Howe summed up Fiddler thusly: “Sholem Aleichem loses…Mostel, whose soul is split between {Aleichem and Robbins}, shows himself to be a superb performer but a shaky actor.”

Chaim Topol, Lex Goudsmit en Norman Jewison (1971)
Chaim Topol, Lex Goudsmidt, and Norman Jewison (Robert Croes/ Wikimedia)

The public didn’t agree, of course. Naturally, Hollywood started sniffing around, but the problem was that it was a time of transition, and the major studios were strapped for cash. Finally, the Mirisch-Carter companies bought the rights to it, with United Artists distributing. Norman Jewison was selected to direct, and the film was shot in England and Croatia. John Williams wrote extra score music for the film, but other than a few tweaks, the original soundtrack was left intact.

Naturally, a few very minor plot elements were changed for transition purposes. The story of Hodel and Perchik, for instance, was filled out some, as the film shows him getting arrested. Another change was the beggar couldn’t talk in the film, even though he could in the play. Yente was also a departure, because Bea Arthur, who played her in the original show, was unable to recreate her role for the film.


When it came to casting Tevye, the decision was made not to retain Zero Mostel, because it was felt that people would pay more attention to Zero than to his character. He’s not alone; Carol Channing was passed over for Hello, Dolly! for the same reason. That, and her style was too big for film.

Here is Mostel performing “If I Were A Rich Man” in the original production:

Don’t get me wrong, Mostel was a fantastic Tevye. He only created the character, after all, and he’s incredibly funny. However, he played it like Tevye came from Brooklyn, or the way Rodney Dangerfield would have approached the character. I have a feeling Jewison and the producers were looking for someone more continental.

So yeah, Mostel was out and a new Tevye was needed. It was a sought-after part in Hollywood, attracting such luminaries as Danny Kaye, Walter Matthau, and Frank Sinatra. So not kidding here. Jewison didn’t bite, though, and instead looked at London’s production of Fiddler, where Chaim Topol was performing Tevye. Jewison said in 2011 that Topol “breathed life” into the role.

Topol in 1967. (Larry Ellis, Getty Images UK)

I can attest to this, as I had the great honor of seeing Topol perform in the thirty-city tour of Fiddler On the Roof in 1989. It was at the Golden Gate Theater in San Francisco. While I was familiar with the film, nothing could have prepared me for Topol’s charisma in a live performance. Binoculars were not required to see this gentleman; his energy leapt off the stage, reaching everyone in that theater. It was something I’ll never forget (On a side note, my mom and I saw then-KTVU anchor, Leslie Griffith in the ladies’ room during intermission, and she’s way prettier in person. But I digress.).

Amazingly enough, Topol was only thirty-six when he was cast in the film, so for both stage and movie he was made up older and heavier than he really was. He also did what he called “locking his muscles” in order to imitate the fifty-six year old dairyman, and certainly pulled it off. Just for comparison’s sake, here’s Topol’s movie rendition of “If I Were A Rich Man”:

Naturally, Topol wasn’t the only cast member, as he has excellent support, not the least of which were Paul Michael Glaser as Perchik (yes, the Starsky and Hutch guy), as well as Leonard Frey as Motel the tailor, and Norma Crane as Golde. I especially enjoyed Topol’s chemistry with Crane. It’s hilarious, because he baits her but good and she snaps at it every time. Tevye’s relationship with his daughters is sweet, which makes their breaks from tradition that much harder for him later. And of course, the fiddler plays.

The film made $6.1 million in profits and was nominated for eight Oscars, winning three, and since then it’s never really died. Fiddler On the Roof has been revived four times on Broadway, performed around the United States and all over the world, and interpreted in various ways. One of the most creative so far is the 2016 American Sign Language production at the Lyric Theater in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma:

It’s been over fifty years, and this show still speaks to a lot of people–they see themselves in these characters. They see the passage of time, and the way families adapt to changes within and without. Fiddler On the Roof may be an Americanized shtetl, but it crosses cultures and decades.

All righty, thanks for reading, and hope to see you on Friday for the Joseph Cotten Blogathon! Till then, all…

This film is available on Amazon.

4 thoughts on “Stage To Screen: Fiddler On the Roof

  1. Im such a HUGE fan of Fiddler. It’s by far my fave musical and Ive seen it dozen of time birth on stage and one screen. Topol IS Tevye and no one else can do the role justice in my eyes.

    AS a Jew, I could relate and understand much of the story on a very personal level and it is always so exhilarating watching this film!

    Great job here Rebecca!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, Rebecca! Your review gives me more insight into fiddler on the roof.

    I have never seen any version of the story because I generally have problems with musicals from the 1960s and early 1970s. They often feel bloated and overdone. Still, this one may have to go on my list one day.


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