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Doc Corner: 'Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles'

By Glenn Dunks

Music documentaries are a dime-a-dozen these days, and musicals have been a Hollywood staple for as long as there has been sound to go alongside the flickering images of movies. But it hadn’t really dawned on me until I watched Max Lewkowicz’s Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles that documentaries about Broadway shows are surprisingly rare.

Among this rare subgenre The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened will probably find a lasting cultural place thanks to Richard Linklaker’s latest long-form cinematic folly of Merrily We Roll Along. It's a surprise that Show Business: The Road to Broadway has not already become a staple thanks to its amazing line-up of big Broadway hitters. There are also shows like  Every Little Step, The Heat is On: The Making of Miss Saigon and Life After Tomorrow, which offer a glimpse back stage to what it is like to put on a Broadway show. But I can’t actually recall a documentary that took a single show like Lewkowicz does with Fiddler on The Roof and examine it all the way from its inception through to its lasting legacy. Perhaps it will inspire some more – I certainly hope so, for A Miracle of Miracles is a delight of a documentary that educated me and made me into a bigger fan of the show...

Now, I have to admit that I have never actually seen a live production of Fiddler on the Roof. And I only watched Norman Jewison’s 1971 film adaptation the day before I watched this documentary. Last weekend. I was immediately smitten, but I am glad that A Miracle of Miracles was there afterwards; a chaser of historical exploration that took me deeper into the world of Czarist Russia in the early 20th century. The new doc features a variety of talking heads from those involved in the original production (composer Jerry Bock, producer Hal Prince), its revivals and adaptations (Harvey Feirstein, Jessica Hecht and Topol through archive footage) and many others whose relationship to the show is strictly of the heart (Lin-Manuel Miranda, Fran Lebowitz, Stephen Sondheim). Miracle of Miracles covers not just one production, but rather an entire string of them.

It is this that is Lewkowicz’s smartest decision. Across its zippy 90-minute runtime, the movie tracks several narratives, all intertwined and designed to reflect upon one another in unique and often surprisingly affecting ways. The documentary charts the story’s history from the original Yiddish tales of Sholem Aleichem. It then also covers its initial productions from the disastrous Detroit previews and eventual Broadway run in 1964 (Variety remarked that Fiddler had 'no memorable songs' – yikes!) on through to Jewison’s film and other productions including international versions and the current stage iteration performed entirely in Yiddish. That’s one timeline, and then there is that of its song-by-song structure, deciphering the history and the context and the pleasures of its most famous songs like “If I Were a Rich Man”, “Sunrise, Sunset” and “To Life”. While doing this, it also adds the important element of the show’s existence through time – for instance, the emergence of the Vietnam War between the Broadway premiere and the film version, something that greatly affects the place a show such as this holds in the hearts and minds of its audiences, not to mention the ever-relevant themes that arise out of it.

If it sounds like a lot to juggle, then it’s to editor Joseph Borruso’s credit that he is able to weave each of the strands together without making for a cluttered viewing experience. Each individual thread, each moment of time as told through the creation of a song that held a specific significance and how it has been interpreted over time, is fluid and easy to navigate. And its wise, too, incorporating a variety of productions rather than just the one the most people have seen. This only amplifies the themes of universality and continued relevance. This multi-pronged way of dissecting the show’s history and importance elevates it beyond mere linear history lesson and is A Miracle of Miracles’ most impressive element that it can claim as all its own (those remarkably catchy songs, of course, have been around for a while so Lewkowicz can’t take that credit).

With wonderful animations that do much more than just fill in the storytelling blanks, and a wealth of anecdotes from its ever-fascinating subjects, Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles is a perfect companion to a viewing of Fiddler on the Roof and far from another dry bout of fan service.

Release: Roadside Attractions will continue to expand the film which is currently on 28 screens in the US (with a healthy $166k box office tally in its first two weekends). Presumably cities with strong Jewish populations will be first in line.
Oscar chances: Sadly, it won't have the same luck as the 1971 film. The Academy just simply don't go for these sort of documentaries anymore. Extrapolate from that as you wish.

Zero Mostel and the original Broadway cast

Previously on Doc Corner 
Currently playing in select cities in the US


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Reader Comments (7)

i was eager to see this. Now, even moreso. I wish we could get this sort of thing about several musicals actually.

September 4, 2019 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Truly, how have they been sleeping on this idea! My gosh, a West Side Story one would be amazing. At the very least!

September 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

So sad Zero isn't in the movie (which I love and love Topol with all respect). He created that character and is great in movies as on stage.

September 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterGwen

Gwen, the story goes (as told in the film) that he was too theatrical for the concept that Norman Jewison was going for.

September 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

Glenn, I am eager to hear your thoughts on the upcoming Linda Ronstadt doc.I am stunned that such a great artist has been largely forgotten, and I hope this film repairs that travesty.

September 5, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

When anyone in my family is asked about our family history or background, we tend to say "Have you seen Fiddler on the Roof?"

September 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah Lipp

Brookesboy, coming soon!

Deborah, with singing I hope.

September 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

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