A perfect match: `Fiddler,' holiday

November 30, 2007|By Michael Sragow

The attempt to establish a movie as a "Hanukkah perennial" brings up bad memories of Jewish-American farces - Adam Sandler's Eight Crazy Nights or Adam Goldberg's The Hebrew Hammer. But the Senator Theatre has a better idea. Starting Tuesday, Hanukkah's first night, Baltimore's premier movie palace will present a collector's print of Fiddler on the Roof in four-track stereo, complete with a celebrity menorah-lighting before each evening show throughout the holiday. (An added attraction for movie lovers: This print was struck with the luxurious old Technicolor process known as dye imbibition.)

Norman Jewison's 1971 film of Jerome Robbins' legendary stage production is one of the great screen musicals and one of the most rousing of all American movies. And it's great in ways rare to our musicals, which have usually been best when they are playfully artificial, whether the mood is as carefree as Astaire and Rogers or as doom-laden as that of Cabaret. It's easier for performers to soar when their songs or dances are frankly launched as "numbers," whether it's Jennifer Hudson on a nightclub stage in Dreamgirls or Nikki Blonsky on the TV dance floor in Hairspray.

But Fiddler on the Roof relies smartly on its stirring realistic narrative. This musical's songs and dances simply twist the key emotions to their peaks.

Fiddler on the Roof is based on Sholom Aleichem's Tevye stories, about a Jewish dairyman in the Russian village of Anatevka, blessed with five daughters and not one son. That's a lot of dowries coming out with none coming in. Such a predicament could be played for local color: for a sort of chaste, Yiddish Tobacco Road effect.

Yet underlying the Tevye saga is "nothing less than the breakup of an entire culture." (The words are Ruth Wisse's, from the collection The Best of Sholom Aleichem, edited by her and Irving Howe.) The opening song may celebrate "Tradition" as the only force holding Tevye's life together, but one by one his daughters stray from it - the oldest marries for love instead of social standing and security; the next weds a radical and leads a political rather than religious life; the third marries out of the faith altogether. (The other two in this version are too young to make trouble.) The songs of celebration are as poignant as the movie's threnodies, because what they celebrate is disappearing.

Throughout, Tevye half-haggles, half-sweet-talks his God - he can't believe he'd let all this happen. But why antagonize him? He just might be listening in.

The persistence of religious faith for its own sake, the breaking up of a solid community, the attempt of a decent man to keep his sane good humor despite the disruption of his house - these are heavy themes for a musical. But Jewison's movie is robust without being clunky, much like Tevye himself.

As played by the Israeli star Topol, this dairyman doesn't dispense the milk of human kindness - he's no idealized peasant. He's good and flawed, sometimes proud in his attempt to hold, and hold onto, his own. He treats Paul Mann's Anatevka butcher, who almost marries Tevye's daughter, with rabbinical condescension. But the swagger of Topol's Tevye rests on his honest, level temper. We believe he'd be the one Jewish villager whom Gentiles would warn of an impending pogrom. He has a giant appetite for the joys all humans hold in common. This Tevye is great shakes. When he whirls his arms in an impromptu dance, he beats up a wind. His inexhaustible ability to joke with anyone is a sign of his best quality: sympathy.

In its initial release, this Fiddler may have suffered partly because the stage production was extraordinarily popular and Zero Mostel's portrayal of Tevye - "the original stand-up comic," to quote Wisse - became fixed in the public memory. I never saw Mostel in the role, but just hearing his delivery on the original-cast album impressed me with the difference between his and Topol's interpretations. Mostel is always playing to us as well as God; when he first asks his wife whether she loves him (a matchmaker brought them together 25 years earlier), she replies, "I'm your wife" - and he says, "I know with all the suffering of the ages." Topol is gentler with her; he really wants to know. We believe he is the mainstay of his family. And he's still quite funny. He has sly eyes in his handsome, open face.

Robbins' staging of the Broadway show was a masterpiece of suggestion and compression; it strongly influenced producer Harold Prince's directing career. Yet if I remember the play for its staggering set pieces (I saw it with Herschel Bernardi in the lead role), I remember this mammoth film for the actors - from the windmilling Topol to Neva Small (as his third daughter), who looks incongruously like a baby chick as she sings of marriage. Jewison's triumph is to preserve the human drama despite the titanic scale of the production. When he starts a long wedding sequence with a lyrical candlelit procession, he seems to illuminate Anatevka's main street with the warmth of the moment. Thirty-six years after its premiere (in November 1971), this movie still gives off a glow.

"Fiddler on the Roof" will play daily at the Senator (5904 York Road near Northern Parkway) starting Tuesday, at noon, 3:45 p.m. and 7:45 p.m., throughout Hanukkah. Information: senator.com.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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