clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Movie review: Insightful new doc ‘Miracle of Miracles’ puts ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ in historical context

Maria Karnilova, from left, Tanya Everett, Zero Mostel, Julia Migenes, and Joanna Merlin backstage on the opening night of the Broadway production of “Fiddler on the Roof” on Sept. 22, 1964.
AP photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Samuel Goldwyn Films

“FIDDLER: A MIRACLE OF MIRACLES” — 3 stars — PG-13 (some thematic elements and disturbing images); in select theaters; running time: 92 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Max Lewkowicz’s documentary “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles” will be a happy stroll down memory lane for longtime fans of the Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof.” But it also has insights for audiences less familiar with the production.

It’s been almost 55 years to the day since the 1964 premiere of “Fiddler on the Roof,” and “Miracle of Miracles” is an effort to contextualize and celebrate the global impact of the production, which also became a feature film in 1971.

Lewkowicz’s film tells a chronological story, following a montage of talking head praise and reflection with a deep dive into the musical’s roots. Here we learn about the writings of Sholom Aleichem, which heavily influenced Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, “Fiddler’s” respective lyricist and composer. Fortunately, many of the original people involved are still alive today — including Harnick and Bock — and are able to provide insight on the musical’s development.

Over its 92-minute run time, “Miracle of Miracles” explores various aspects of the production and its history. We learn about the musical’s initial run on Broadway, and how negative reviews in Detroit led to important changes early on, including the cutting of original finale number “When Messiah Comes.” We learn about the personalities behind the production, like choreographer Jerome Robbins, and Zero Mostel, who first played the lead role of Tevye. And of course we also spend lots of time with “Fiddler’s” music, where early private recordings give us access to the creative process Harnick and Bock used to produce memorable songs like “If I Were a Rich Man” and “Sunrise, Sunset.”

Jerome Robbins, choreographer for the original production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Philippe Halsman, Magnum Photos

Mostly, though, “Miracle of Miracles” explores “Fiddler’s” story and how the tale of a humble Jewish father and his five daughters has resonated across cultures, and provided a unique look at, as one interviewee puts it, the transition from tradition to modernity.

Tradition is at the heart of “Fiddler,” of course, and Lewkowicz’s film is astute at its examination of the different characters and storylines that, though set at the turn of the 20th century, are still relevant today. It’s also fun to see how different — and at times, unexpected — cultures latch onto “Fiddler’s” tenets, and feel compelled to produce the musical themselves.

“Miracle of Miracles” draws from a wealth of interviews, including director Norman Jewison — who directed the ’71 film — Chaim Topol, who played Tevye in the movie, and other notables, including violinist Itzhak Perlman, Stephen Sondheim, and some of the actors and actresses who have performed in more recent productions.

For audiences who may not have been around for the musical’s early run, it’s especially interesting to see Lewkowicz’s film try to place “Fiddler” in its 1960s context. Overall, “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles” will be best appreciated by fans of the musical, but Lewkowicz’s effort, like the musical itself, should carry an appeal that will be relatable outside of Broadway circles.

Rating explained: “Fiddler: Miracle of Miracles” is rated a soft PG-13 for some adult themes and some violent historic images.