Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
I Wish I was a Rich Man
He's either out of his mind or he's crazy - Tevye
There are good musicals and great musicals but few musicals deserve the title of epic but "Fiddler on the Roof" deserves to be known as an epic musical. The sets, costumes, music, lyrics, characters and performances are all brilliant and the clever tonal shift of this drama makes it go from playful to dark. In a way it is sort of ironic when I say that the only thing which isn't epic is the storyline because whilst set against a back-drop or pre-revolutionary Russia it is a tale of a father having to deal with his daughters getting married and in doing so the breaking of tradition. But then whilst not the most epic of storylines it is a timeless one as through the character of Tevye we experience various aspects of change and the way to deal with them.
As milkman in the village of Anatevka Reb Tevye (Topol - For Your Eyes Only) likes his life and the village he lives where through years of keeping tradition there is harmony. But that all starts to change when the matchmaker proposes that his eldest daughter Tzeitel (Rosalind Harris - Mrs. Santa Claus) marries widower Lazar Wolf (Paul Mann) an idea which upsets Tzeitel as she has pledged herself to tailor Motel (Leonard Frey). Despite a break from tradition of the matchmaker arranging marriages Tevye accepts that Tzeitel and Motel are in love and gives them his permission. But Tevye is challenged again when his next daughter Hodel (Michele Marsh) falls for revolutionary student Perchik (Paul Michael Glaser) and together decide to marry, not asking for his permission but only his blessing. Again despite a break from tradition Tevye accepts it and whilst unhappy gives them his blessing. But when his next daughter Chava (Neva Small) wishes to marry Fyedka (Ray Lovelock) who is not a Jew it is a step too far.
So here is the thing the storyline to "Fiddler on the Roof" to me isn't epic, it maybe set against political unrest where Jews were being forced out of their villages but the focus is on the simple tale of Tevye and the changes he faces through his daughters marriages. But it is both a clever and timeless storyline as the themes of how Tevye deals with the changes and breaks in tradition are still true today with youngsters struggling to see what is so important about tradition whilst those use to it know it provides security to a way of living.
As such the cleverness really revolves around how Tevye deals with it, the change brought on by his eldest marrying a man she chooses is something he can accept and it doesn't disturb the balance. The reluctant acceptance of his next daughter marrying Perchik shows how whilst not happy about the change and break in tradition knows that trying to block it would be futile. And then we have the consequence of Tevye's reaction to his third daughter Chava wanting to break with tradition causing major problems which are out of his control. It's because the results of Tevye's actions are so clear that it makes "Fiddler on the Roof" still understandable now.
But the epic nature of "Fiddler on the Roof" comes very much from everything else with the whole team deserving so much praise for making a magnificent musical. The earthy look, the sets and costumes as well as the nice transition from being fun to dark make it a joy to watch. And the cleverness of the songs with their playful lyrics makes it unforgettable with so many songs staying embedded in your brain long after you finish watching.
But in truth, and this isn't taking anything away from the team, it is Topol who makes "Fiddler on the Roof" the memorable movie because he brings the character of Tevye to life. From being the simple man who enjoys life to the moaned at husband it Topol's reactions, his smile, the mischievous glint in his eye which makes him a character to warm to and when Topol breaks into song be it with a shoulder shimmy it is magnificent. But Topol doesn't just entertain, he gets across the story of dealing with change and how his choice of accepting or blocking change affects him.
What this all boils down to is that "Fiddler on the Roof" is an epic musical which is never dull despite being an impressive 181 minutes long. Everything about it works from the look, the songs to the actual clever yet simple story but it is Topol as Tevye who brings it all to life with an absolute fantastic performance.
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