Traditions / Fiddler on the Roof

Traditions.

Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as… as… as a fiddler on the roof.

So said Tevye in the opening scene and opening song of Fiddler on the Roof. Now how was it that I watched this film, that was released 40 some years ago, on November 3rd, 1971, for the first time today? There are two reasons.

The first is probably because it was just a few days ago, on April 30th, that I listened to the National Public Radio show Fresh Air. In this area, I listen to NPR via WUSF  89.7 FM, Terry Gross, the host of the show, interviewed Sheldon Harnick, who celebrated his 90th birthday on the 30th. Which brings up another question. Who is Sheldon Harnick?

Sheldon Harnick (standing) and Jerry Bock (at the keyboard) back in the day

Sheldon Harnick (standing) and Jerry Bock (at the keyboard) back in the day

Sheldon Harnick is the lyricist for the music of Fiddler on the Roof. The music for the show (and the film) was written by Jerry Bock, who passed away on November 3rd, 2010. The show opened on Broadway on a September day in 1964, so this year marks the show’s 50th anniversary.

Bock and Harnick not too long ago

Bock and Harnick not too long ago

Harnick told us that they had written a different song to open the show. But the Director, Jerome Robbins,  thought the underlying theme of the show was about traditions. And so, the original opening song was replaced by the song Tradition.  And hearing those six words from the song – Tradition, tradition, tradition! Tradition, tradition, tradition! along with hearing Harnick talk about it on the radio, were enough of a reason for me to decide watch the film at the first opportunity.

Have a look and listen to Tradition from Fiddler. Click on You Tube (lower right) for a full screen image.

Yes, so I was hooked. But the setting of the film was a small town in tsarist Russia in 1906. The story is about Tevye a poor dairy farmer who has been married for 25 years and has five daughters; three of which were of an age to be married. In those days, and in that place, all marriages were not quite arranged, but were ‘selected by a matchmaker who would then seek the approval of the bride’s father. With that premise, we will see what happens when the daughters, individually seek to separate themselves from the tradition of how things were done. Of course there were problems that tested faith as well as family ties.

Rosalind Harris as Tzeitel, the oldest of Tevye's daughters. She had only two films in her acting career. This one and The Cotton Club.

Rosalind Harris as Tzeitel, the oldest of Tevye’s daughters. She had only two films in her acting career. This one and The Cotton Club.

Recognize this young man? Paul Michael Glaser who went from this film to fame on the TV Series Starsky and Hutch, four years later.

Recognize this young man? Paul Michael Glaser who went from this film to fame on the TV Series Starsky and Hutch, four years later.

Just as in my previous review of the Indian film 2 States, the boy and the girl tested their respective families. Parents in both films are tradition bound and children growing up in a newer and more modern world often seek to go their own way. To follow their own hearts. This is what happened in a small village in Russia in 1906, and what happened in two of India’s major cities in 2014.  So there you have the second reason – two stories about children, marriage, parental approval, and the conflict over traditions.

As for Fiddler on the Roof, the book for the Broadway show was written by Joseph Stein who adapted the story Tevye and his Daughters  from the works of author Sholem Alecheim. I find it very intriguing that a story written in 1894, and was relevant in its own time, would become a long running Broadway show 70 years later, and then a major film that was nominated for 8 Oscars and won three. 

The Fiddler by Marc Chagall

There are other interesting factors as well.  Artist Marc Chagall was a modernist who was born in Russia in 1887. He was in many ways a contemporary of Sholem Aleicheim. His painting The  Fiddler, completed in 1913 was intended as a universal symbol . No one will be the least bit surprised when we consider that music is always at the crossroads of our lives. Births, weddings, and even death are all ‘celebrated or either begin or end’ with music.

Orders from Tzar come down, and Tevye and his family must leave. Note the Fiddler trailing behind. Ever present.

Orders from Tzar come down, and Tevye and his family must leave. Note the Fiddler trailing behind. Ever present.

Consider the quote from the film near the top of this post – Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as… as… as a fiddler on the roof. Then think about this – as we saw in the video, it closed with a fiddler balancing precariously on a roof top. The Fiddler is a metaphor for survival, through tradition and joyfulness, in a life of uncertainty and imbalance.

Isn’t it that very imbalance, or lack of sureness or certainty that drives us forward?

But let’s not forget Mr. Harnick. I had not seen the film nor have I ever seen the Broadway show. Yet the some of the songs and music of Fiddler seems so familiar.

Matchmaker, matchmaker – make me a match, find me a find, catch me a catch….

Sunrise, sunset, swiftly flow the days. When did she get to be a beauty? When did he grow so tall? Wasn’t it yesterday when they were small?…

If I were a rich manYa ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum. All day long I’d biddy biddy bum. If I were a wealthy man.

Topol as Tevye telling us about traditions

Topol as Tevye telling us about traditions

And finally, isn’t it true, that as we drive forward, surrounded by modern machines, and newer ways to communicate, the traditions that were a part of our younger days, and of our parents, and their parents before them, still resonate within us. So yes, I watched Fiddler today, and it certainly struck a responsive chord within me.

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