100 Essential Albums: #91 — Fiddler on the Roof by Original Broadway Cast (1964)
Traditions, traditions! Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as… as… as a fiddler on the roof!
Imagine being tasked with writing a lively Broadway musical-comedy about the historical recount of terrible acts of anti-Semitism which took place in Tsarist Russia at the start of the 20th Century. Sounds joyous, no?
How exactly does one go from pogroms to: “Daidle, deedle, daidle, daidle, daidle, deedle, daidle, dumb?”
Fiddler on the Roof, the widely-beloved and bold musical statement that debuted on Broadway in 1964, was nominated for ten Tony Awards — winning nine. It was made into a hit movie in 1971, earning eight Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. It was the highest-grossing movie at the box office that same year, even surpassing The French Connection, Dirty Harry, and Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Predictably, a combination of critical acclaim and nightly sell-outs on Broadway spawned an album filled with the classic songs which have become essential among any serious collection of popular music.
Despite its entire focus on rural Jewish life inside Imperial Russia, generations of people of all faiths and no particular religion at all have come to cherish the indelible story of a poor peasant farmer named Tevye who struggles to raise his five teenage daughters (and to his constant chagrin — no sons) in the village of Anatevka, thought to be in what’s now the Ukraine. Even more stressful, Tevye strains to come to terms a world around him that’s rapidly changing, and in ways not always for the better.
Fiddler on the Roof‘s timeless appeal can be attributed to its brilliant grasp and reflection of duality in life and culture. The story and lyrics reflect tradition versus change that’s inevitable, faith versus secular, love versus hate, and right versus wrong. However, despite trying to teach us all valuable lessons, many of which still haven’t been learned, the story does not sermonize. Traditionalists are bound to empathize with new ways of gazing upon the future. And younger, more modern audiences may very well gain a much broader perspective as to why elders think the way they do and things are the way they are. Throughout the journey, Fiddler on the Roof remains a joyous experience.
Credit Jerry Brock for composing music that’s consistently catchy, moving, and memorable, and partner Sheldon Harnick for writing lyrics which are clever and evocative of something far more deeply profound. There’s also a decipherable authenticity to many original compositions which often seem to copy Jewish folk songs in the Klezmer style, which had origins in Eastern Europe at the time Fiddler is supposed to take place. These modern distillations playfully expressed in clarinets and flutes and the fiddler’s violin are deeply rooted in old world customs, but sprinkled here with an updated theatrical flair.
High praise also goes to producer Harold Prince and director Harold Robbins for gifting mass audiences just the right delicate balance of subject matter which is both complex and potentially alienating, but then somehow delivers something which is easy to grasp and inclusive to everyone. In short, expressed in politically incorrect terms, it’s certainly Jewish, but then not “too Jewish.”
Creative decisions aside, the musical’s and subsequent album’s success was largely driven by the ideal casting of Zero Mostel in the starring role as our beloved Tevye. In what must have been shocking for its day, Mostel plays a Russian Jew with an unapologetic wisecracking New York City accent, obviously a smash decision with its core audience packing seats on Broadway. Faking a foreign dialect wouldn’t have been nearly as funny, nor as endearing. Here, Mostel, who became better known for his starring role in the 1968 film, The Producers, was given the role he was born to play.
Accordingly, the stunning decision to replace Mostel in the film version directed by Norman Jewison which was made just six years later by Israeli actor Chaim Topol was quite controversial. In retrospect, it’s plain to see, Topol was the much better choice, at least in part because he was 20 years younger and far more believable as a father to teenage daughters. Topol is marvelous to watch onscreen, just as Mostel was superb to listen to on the album.
The album’s compilation of 13 songs includes a vast spectrum of emotions which demand inquisitiveness and empathy. Virtually every song has become popularly known throughout the world, even today, some five decades later. “Tradition” is the musical opener. Then comes “Matchmaker.” That’s followed up by one of the most memorable songs in Broadway history, “If I Were a Rich Man.” It’s performed wonderfully here by Topol in the 1971 movie:
Side One continues with “To Life” and “Sunrise, Sunset.”
Side Two is interspersed with multiple orchestral compositions that will be familiar to those with a love of musical theatre. But the standout song is the beautiful duo between Tevye and Golde, his wife of 25 years, titled “Do You Love Me?” She’s played by Norma Crane, from El Paso, Texas (really — look it up). Sadly, Crane died of breast cancer about 18 months after the movie was released. Here’s the rendition. It’s as simple as it is stunning to watch:
A few more interesting side notes: Bert Convey, who later became a television actor of some note, appears on the album as one of the male suitors. The pivotal role of the Matchmaker was played on Broadway by Beatrice Authur, best known a decade later as Maude (and one of The Golden Girls). Arthur’s song doesn’t appear on all the original albums (it was cut from some versions) but was included in the remasters issued more recently. I haven’t had the chance to hear the remasters yet. My experiences stem from wearing out a copy of the original album many years ago. How many times did I listen? Answer: I can still sing most of the lyrics by heart.
Fiddler on the Roof remains an exquisite collection of music that evokes a gambit of human aspirations and frailties, including love, anger, empathy, reverence, passion, and joy. It’s both a sanitized means of escape as well as a palpable excursion into real events which actually took place when millions of people were threatened, terrorized, and ultimately displaced entirely for one reason — because of their identity.
Unfortunately, given more recent events in the modern world, this all makes Fiddler on the Roof just as relevant now, as then.
Note: This is the latest segment in a series of reviews and retrospectives of my “100 Essential Albums,” which will be posted here regularly on my website over the next year, or so. Check out my previous selections and retrospectives on each album here:
#97: Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back — by Frank Sinatra (1973)
#96: The Doors — by The Doors (1967)
#95: Ellington at Newport — by Duke Ellington (1956)
#93: Teatro — by Willie Nelson (1998)
#92: Sail Away — by Randy Newman (1972)
#91: Fiddler on the Roof — by Original Broadway Cast (1964)