Fiddler on the Roof: All for traditions!



Some films have names of their lead actors so strongly attached to them, that it becomes very difficult to separate the two. ‘Patton’ (1970) and ‘The Godfather’ (1972) are such films, which have been immortalised by George C Scott and Marlon Brando, respectively. ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ (1971) is another film in this category, which cannot be separated from its lead actor, Topol, the legendary  Israeli theatrical and film performer, singer, actor, comedian, voice artist, writer and producer.

‘Fiddler on the Roof’, a musical comedy-drama film, is an adaptation of the 1964 Broadway musical of the same name, whose story centres on Tevye, a Jewish milkman and father of five daughters, and his attempts to maintain his Jewish religious and cultural traditions as outside influences encroach upon the family’s lives. Tevye, living in the town of Anatevka, in the Russian Empire, in 1905, must cope both with the strong-willed actions of his three older daughters, who wish to marry for love – each one’s choice of a husband moves further away from the customs of his faith – and with the edict of the Czar that evicts the Jews from their village.

The original Broadway production of this play had the first musical theatre run in history to surpass 3,000 performances. It held the record for the longest-running Broadway musical for almost 10 years until ‘Grease’ surpassed its run. The play, which had actor, Zero Mostel playing Tevye won nine Tony Awards. The original London West End production of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ opened on February 16, 1967, at Her Majesty’s Theatre and played for 2,030 performances. It starred Topol as Tevye, a role he had previously played in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Film producer, Ross Hunter and stage producer, Harold Prince considered producing ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ for Universal Studios. By 1966, United Artists was in the process of buying the rights to this play, under the stipulation that the film should not be released until 1971, in order to avoid interfering with the play’s profits. In 1968, producer/director, Norman Jewison announced that he would be producing and directing the film version of the play – his first foray into the musical genre – which would be produced by his Simkoe Productions along with producer, Walter Mirisch for United Artists. At that time it was expected that either Mostel or Topol would play the lead in the film. Jewison felt that Mostel’s more comical ‘over the top’ approach would not translate well to the film and he desired a first or second generation Russian Jew in that role. Finally, Topol, who was only in his mid-thirties when he performed the role of an older Tevye, was signed for the film, drawing much controversy.

Incidentally, Orson Welles, Anthony Quinn, and Marlon Brando were among the many actors who were considered and had turned down the role of Tevye, while Frank Sinatra and Danny Kaye both wanted the role and were passed over.

Music for the film was pre-recorded in May 1970, before principal shooting began, using a double playback system. Although the tempo of the music was set at that time, the performance of each song could be altered and re-recorded over the orchestral accompaniment during the shooting of the scene. The choreography for the film was taken ‘mostly intact’ from Jerome Robbins’ choreography for the 1964 stage version.

The principal photography of the film was done at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire, England, while most of the exterior shots were done in Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, specifically in Mala Gorica, Lekenik, and Zagreb within the Yugoslav constituent Republic of Croatia. The buildings for the Anatevka town were constructed out of wood from dilapidated houses in the area that would have existed at the time of the film’s setting. Production designer, Robert Boyle studied over 100 plans of synagogues from the Ukraine to ensure the set’s authenticity.

Jewison got cinematographer, Oswald Morris, who was famous for shooting colour films in unusual styles, to shoot the entire ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ with a woman’s nylon stocking placed over the camera lens “to give a kind of umber, earth-toned quality” to the production. Morris also shot the musical number, “Tevye’s Dream” in sepia rather than in full colour. No primary colours were used in the picture except for the red flag in the revolutionary scene in Kiev.

As in the stage version, the film was originally shown with an intermission and entr’acte music. The script, too, is almost verbatim of the stage play, however, some sequences were added to the screen version. Nevertheless, the film contained more elaborate realism than the play.

‘Fiddler on the Roof’ had a one-performance charity premiere in Amsterdam on October 21, 1971. When released, the film, produced at the budget of $9 million was a big hit, earning United Artists profits of $6.1 million, plus distribution profits of $8 million. The total box office collection of the film was $83.3 million.

The film was nominated for Academy Award in the Best Picture category, losing to ‘The French Connection’ (1971). Topol was nominated for Best Actor, Leonard Frey for Best Supporting Actor, and Jewison for Best Director. John Williams won his first Academy Award for Best Scoring. Gordon K McCallum and David Hildyard won Best Sound and Oswald Morris won Best Cinematography. The film also received a nomination for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, but lost to ‘Nicholas and Alexandria’ (1971).

When the film was telecast for the first time on US television, it garnered record 40 million viewers.