The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Beauty & the Beast

Monday, March 31, 2014

Fiddler on the Roof

November 3, 1971   United Artists  179 minutes

I have always found my Russian heritage a source of discomfort. Tho Russian was my first tongue, my parents kept my ancestry from me thru my early years, calling us Yugoslavian--out of paranoia, which, at least in part translated to shame. Of course during the height of the Cold War, Russians were ceaselessly demonized in America. And as I was pointedly deprived of any cultural upbringing, I would hardly warm to the tropes of the Motherland on my own when dazzled by the American Pop right in front of my nose. Not all Russian immigration to America was Jewish. Both my parents were from Oryol--a thoroughly undistinguised city the size and dullness of Duluth or Bakersfield, 300 miles southwest of Moscow. They lived on opposite sides of town and never knew each other until later in Germany. It wasn't the pogroms of Czarist Russia that evicted them, but the German occupation of Oryol for two years (1941-43) that sent half the town packing with the Hun's retreat, knowing the returning Soviets would be merciless with those who had remained and "collaborated." My father's family, being vintners, were prosperous enuf to have their house occupied by German officers for the duration, which decided their fate thereafter; forced migration to Germany thru War's end, and eventual passage across the Atlantic on false papers--refugees instead of repatriates sent back to Stalin's whim. I knew next to nothing of all this, until Baba clued me in during my teens--much to my father's chagrin. Unlike him, his mother would never forget her roots, nor lose her nostalgia for "The Old Country." Which in fact was an early title for Fiddler on the Roof.

My DNA suggests this would be among my all-time favorites, so I feel almost guilty that it isn't--not that I don't like and respect the musical tremendously. It would be churlish not to. Such a glorious achievment; the crown and capstone of Jerome Robbins' career on Bway; the summit of Bock & Harnick's journey to carry forth the R&H mantle; the legendary largess of Zero Mostel. Even so, who would've thought that first fall when it opened in 1964 that it would outlast Dolly!, run longer than My Fair Lady and everything else in Bway history; that this modest Jewish folktale would have universal resonance in ways no one dared to imagine. While in tryout, as Fiddler was heading for NY, there was little hope of crossover appeal--this one was for the Tri-State Jews; perhaps a one or two season run, at most. Even more than She Loves Me, the show at first was perceived as too "special" until it suddenly became Special. But where Golden Age classics like Carousel  or Kiss Me Kate or My Fair Lady, even West Side Story, are first and foremost great scores, Fiddler's reputation rests on its production, its ceremonial tribute to a universal diaspora.

One Russian trait (and perhaps the only one) that I proudly embrace is a passion for music. Ruskies are serious drunkards, and intensely romantic when intoxicated, especially over music. Mother Russia has produced some of world's great composers (Danny Kaye sang a whole laundry list of them in Lady in the Dark's "Tchaikovsky") But the roots of the American musical and popular song, originated in great measure with the Slavic Jewish diaspora and its descendents: Kern, Berlin, Gershwin, Arlen, Rodgers & Hart. (Cole Porter was that rare Wasp exception). Here's where my roots kicked in--this music was in my blood, and I found it essentially on my own, early in my conscious life. I can't recall my father liking any music whatsoever, and mother seemed to go along with whatever was light and breezy. But Baba, tho her taste might've been plebian, was truly passionate (and even sans vodka--tho she brewed a killer cherry infusion), openly emotional over music. Many a time I'd see her sitting on her low divan, her eyes lost in space as she intently listened to Tchaikovsky, or anything suggesting Russian motifs: the soundtrack to Doctor Zhivago, pop songs like "Those Were the Days" and "Love is Blue," Fiddler.

I first heard the album sometime over the summer of '66, when I was allowed the rare privilege of checking out records from the downtown LA library, and scooped it up (along with Funny Girl, and Hello, Dolly!) The score, tho not without its joys, always felt a bit thin to me. After a platter of riches in the first act, the second has nothing of prime caliber--not to mention a mood that deepens in gloom, racing toward evisceration and exodus. Is there a more mournful 11 o'clock number than "Anatevka"? Undeniably, that's what the story calls for, but as one who holds Jerry Bock in the highest regard, I can't help but feel "Miracle of Miracles," "Now I Have Everything," and "Far From the Home I Love" are subpar compared to songs from his less successful musicals, Tenderloin, The Apple Tree, The Rothschilds. "Do You Love Me," is one of those "knowing" senior duets, like Gigi's "I Remember it Well," that numb you with obvious cutesinesss. The astute critic, Walter Kerr, one of the show's few detractors, thought, "It might be an altogether charming musical if only the people of Anatevka did not pause every now and then to give their regrards to Broadway, with remembrances to Herald Square." If that seems a bit unfair, a song like "Matchmaker, Matchmaker" could be Exhibit A--a broom-sweep of a waltz, it became an unlikely crossover hit, with the elimination of its middle section ("Hodel, oh Hodel, have I made a match for you...") It also deserves mention as Bette Midler's first song on a NY stage (she played Tzeitel for 3 years from Feb '67 to Feb '70). Tevye's soliloquoy, "If I Were a Rich Man" enjoyed a life outside the show as well--understandably so, it's a masterful performance piece. But the score's farthest-reaching contribution is the peerless wedding song, "Sunrise, Sunset" a sentimental waltz with bittersweet shading (exotic enuf to be used, and unironically, in an Addams Family movie); a model of simplicity that defies cliche. Like their "Till Tomorrow" from Fiorello! this Bock & Harnick tune stands up to the best of Rodgers or Berlin. Aside from Robbins' bottle dance and wedding festivities, the show's one true bit of exuberance is "To Life/"L'Chaim"--the kind of Russian rodeo that would set Baba's heart afire. And truth to tell, mine as well. Aside from these the musical's highlights are more of Robbins' set pieces. The seminal opening, "Tradition," which brilliantly conveys theme, character and exposition in a tight circle-of-life. "The Tailor, Motel Kamzoil" (better known as "Teyve's Dream" is more dramatic playlet than musical number; a series of motifs rarther than song, it's first & foremost a coup de theatre--executed to perfection. With Fiddler it's the telling more than the tale that makes the show exalted.

The show's success let producer Hal Prince hold off on a film sale for several years. Now that the long-established, unwritten rule dictating a Bway closing before a Hlwd opening was broken by Hello Dolly!--with no discernible damage to its still-running stage version--Fiddler followed suit, again with no particular drain to the Bway company. Both play and pic ran simultaneously within two blocks of each other on Broadway for a good eight months. The stage show (after setting a new record Bway run) gave up first, leaving the movie at the Rivoli for another half year --a Roadshow run of 57 weeks, recalling the glory days or yore. But it was the end of the line for the format. A few more flops in '72, and the Roadshow was officially dead; the movie musical barely breathing. But Fiddler was impervious to these trends. A musical whose emotional connection to audiences transcended any cheap sentimentality or parochialism. United Artists was one studio that didn't go crazy after Sound of Music set Hlwd in a tizzy, nor even to follow up their own breakthru success, West Side Story. Their only other musical purchases of the '60s were the two big comedy hits, How to Succeed and Forum--neither of which were inflated for the screen or given Roadshow release. Producer Walter Mirsich (who fielded West Side Story and How to Succeed to UA) fell in love with Fiddler and outbid all others. But he wasn't going to chance working with Jerome Robbins again. Robert Wise might have been an obvious choice for director, but a fallback for Mirisch was Norman Jewison, who had put an Oscar in Mirisch's hands for In the Heat of the Night, and gave him hits with The Russians Are Coming and The Thomas Crown Affair. But like many before him, Jewison had never made a musical before. (Tho he thinks having helmed some TV variety shows was experience enuf.) Working with original librettist, Joseph Stein, Jewison (who despite his name, was goyishe) took a naturalistic approach, toning down the show's humor, its vaudeville nature, its choreographed cohesion--none of which suited his vision. It's a darker, more serious Fiddler than the Bway musical, looking for depth more in dramatic scenes than musical sequences., or comic moments worthy of Sholom Aleichem's original tales.

The first casualty of this approach was Zero Mostel. Regarded as a towering presence, initially he seemed bigger than the show itself. (He himself predicted the grosses would plummet once he left. To everyone's surprise they were SRO for another two years.) Mostel capped his career with this role, much as Rex Harrision had with Higgins. But like Carol Channing, he was always larger than life. It worked for his role as Psuedolus in Forum--his rubber-faced conniptions suited the pace and style of the movie. But not here, with Jewison's vision of "realism"--subtlety wasn't in Zero's playbook. You could see why Danny Thomas thought to make a bid for the role on vaguely ethnic grounds--which might also apply to Walter Matthau. But Richard Burton? Rod Steiger? Sinatra? Wiser heads prevailed. And happily we were also spared Danny Kaye's Hans Teyve Andersen.

My personal choice would've been Herschel Bernardi, who is Sheldon Harnick's stated favorite Tevye as well. Bernardi had starred on Bway in Bajour and Zorba, as well as two years ('65-'67), as Tevye, following Mostel and Luther Adler. He had command, personality, a little sex appeal and was also funny--without the largess of Mostel--but with as much vocal range and character. Passed over, he signed for a CBS sitcom, Arnie, which kept him busy from 1970-72. (Full disclosure: a show I watched and enjoyed,) In the end Mirisch & Jewison chose their Tevye from the London company, a 35 year-old Israeli actor, Chaim Topol.
Fiddler was too communal, too archetypal a show to be owned by any one actor. Zero was sui generis, but Tevye is everyman--he needn't be a Star--and more often than not isn't played by one. (Not to mention how many 14 year old boys have had a turn at Jewish Youth camps). Topol first made notice in a popular Israeli movie, Sallah (nominated for Best Foreign Film at the '65 Oscars), in which at age 28 he played a fifty-something patriarch. On the basis of this performance he was summoned to audition for Tevye in London, shocking everyone with his youth. But with the evidence on screen they were convinced he would convince, and so he did--down the line thru auditions for the movie. If he is now the primary (if not definitive) actor identified with Tevye, it's not merely from the film but the many tours and revivals he toplined from 1967-2009. (He even got a Tony nom for a '91 Bway revival.) As Teyve's original vis a vis, Maria Karnilova wasn't considered for the film any more than Zero. Long a Jerome Robbins dancer, she was a Bway baby, and Fiddler gave her acting status, a Tony, and led to a bigger starring role in Zorba. But her sole movie appearance as a painted harlot in The Unsinkable Molly Brown wasn't much of a screen audition. For the sharp-tongued Golde to play off Topol's Tevye they considered Anne Jackson, Colleen Dewhurst, Geraldine Page, Claire Bloom and initially Anne Bancroft, who thought the role too subservient. In the end they hired Norma Crane--an actress with minor TV credits, unknown to most but with a clear similiarity to Bancroft, in looks and delivery. Which is to say, like most of the women above, lacking any genuine Semetic qualities. As if to compensate, Jewison cast Yente with Yiddish theater icon, Molly Picon--then in her mid-70s, and sadly missing the mark, despite her ethnic authenticity. Picon plays Yente like a mouse instead of the crocodile Bea Arthur made of her on Bway. As for the daughters, there's so little physical similarity, you gotta wonder about Golde's fidelity. As Tzeitel, Rosalind Harris is anything but goyishe (tho what a shame Bette Midler didn't get the role), but apple-cheeked Michele Marsh, playing Hodel, looks neither Russian nor Jewish, and even less like her sisters. The youngest two, as always, barely register. (Quick, what are their character names?)
Only Neva Small's Chava has any real screen presence, albeit of a very untypical kind: freckled-faced and slightly dorky in a Fanny Brice manner. Small's appearance was a bit of a thrill for me, having long been enamored of her vocals on Henry, Sweet, Henry--plaintive and soaring, not quite like Alice Playten, but special in her own way. (Bob Merrill liked her enuf to star her opposite Robert Preston in his failed '78 musical, The Prince of Grand Street) But I liked her mostly because she was like the Jewish girls I knew in school. And she's rather adorable.

As the original Motel, the Tailor, Austin Pendleton was as unique a performer as Zero. To see him in full mettle, as he was allowed in the movie What's Up Doc? is to love him. As his understudy and eventual successor, Leonard Frey was one of only two Bway cast members to make the movie (the other is Zvee Scooler, who playes the ancient Rabbi). Frey has a sleepy, nebbishy manner that's all the more remarkable in contrast to his role in The Boys in the Band which came out the year before. where he plays the acid-tongued, highly affected queen, Harold--which I, in my idiotic teenage naïveté, thought was cool enuf to emulate for some weeks afterward. In Fiddler his dewy-eyed sincerity won him an Oscar nomination. Rounding out the cast was Paul Mann, an Actors Studio teacher as Lazar Wolf. Louis Zorich (Olympia Dukakis's hubby) as the village constable; and Michael Glaser as Perchik, the revolutionary student (played originally by Bert Convy); 
Glaser would add Paul as his first name and find greater fame several years later as the first-named cop in the TV series, Starsky & Hutch. Thus, a cast was assembled. Jewison had no interest in a studio-bound production and with Russia and the Eastern bloc mostly out of reach, he found stand-in Slavic villages in Yugoslavia, mainly untouched by 20th century progress. Tho technically behind the Iron Curtain, Yugoslavia, ruled by "benevolent dictator" Tito, was occasionally open for foreign film production. They arrived in summer and stayed into winter to capture the seasons.
Tradition! The famous key Robbins unlocked to give the show cohesion, thrust, universal appeal and an opening number is hardly lost on Jewison--he gets it, and makes sure we do too, having Topol bellow the word at the camera at frequent intervals. But there's a second key, equally as important to the structure and unity of Fiddler, and that is: community. It's striking how much Jewison fails to convey this. Robbins had his village circle on stage; each member having a defined role and place in the community. This didn't have the story-telling remove that Hal Prince later framed over Zorba, but told its tale as a collective effort. Jewison thinks he conveys the Russian landscape with a few brushstrokes of wide open fields or a patch of birch forest, but everyone feels so low to the ground in this movie, there's rarely even a sense of the sky. It's the antithesis of Doctor Zhivago. Even Oswald Morris's crane shots rise only to look sharply down to the ground, not to grasp a wider view. And a nylon stocking was stretched over the lens to lend a brown, dirt-encrusted veneer to everything including the sky--there isn't a true blue in the entire movie. (Naturally, Morris would win a Oscar for the cinematography). But there are bigger issues. There's no real sense of what Anatevka comprises, The visuals are not in the least orienting--shots well into the last reel are unfamiliar and don't match up to any previous locations. Unlike Music Man's River City or the Shoreditch of Oliver!, Anatevka fails to register any visual impression (which it should, despite Teyve's claim that people who've been thru, "don't even know they've been here"). Perhaps lack of visual continuity wouldn't matter if this indifference didn't extend as well to the townsfolk. Outside of Tevye's family, Lazar Wolf, Yente, and the Rabbi, there's nary a character or a face that makes anything more than fleeting impact or invites us into the tribe. Some of this could be attributed to the extras hired on location in Yugoslavia; none of them actors--few of them consistent thru the story. We should know them by film's end (as we do in River City) as familiar neighbors--especially in such a tight knit society. As if that weren't flaw enuf, Jewison then makes the fatal decision to film most of the ensemble numbers sans performance; vocal tracks laid over visuals. No one on screen sings, no one dances thru "Tradition" (except, absurdly, for our narrator, Tevye) and it curdles the whole experience. Instead of seeing the community in musical harmony, we're fed literal respresentations of the lyrics over pans of Jewish peasant faces, silent, staring, working. "Anatevka" is one long Ukrainian Walker Evans montage. 
Whatsmore the choral tracks sound blandly generic, reducing such wonderful numbers as "Sunrise, Sunset" and "Sabbath Prayer" to Hallmark moments, brought to you by the Mitch Miller singers. Just who are we to think is singing anyway? God's chorale? It's a mistake, and one which seriously damages the movie. On the DVD commentary, Jewison takes pride in the idea. He also admits to being stumped in the staging of other numbers; touting the lucky improvisation of "Miracle of Miracles"--running about in the woods. It's a lazy blueprint that gives little credence to his understanding of a musical. But this also demonstrates the indestructible commercial appeal of Fiddler. Predictably he's better working with the actors in book scenes. I have to admit the exchange between Tevye and Lazar Wolf, confusing his interest in Tzeitel for a dairy cow, had me laughing heartily out loud each time I watched it.

If Louis Armstrong could cross-promote Hello, Dolly! with a shamelessly anachronistic cameo, then why not get Isaac Stern for Anatevka's fiddler? He's not even needed in the flesh, suffice he's on the soundtrack. Musical director John Williams (still in his pre-Spielberg years) gave Stern some fancy violin solos, beginning with the opening credits. Bock's melodic line is well worthy of Stern's nimble fiddling. Otherwise the score is given the usual Hwld steroidal symphonic upgrade. This might be less annoying if the vocals were better. To ears accustomed to Zero Mostel's precise diction and comic timing, Topol sounds garbled, with inflections that consistently miss the mark. He doesn't hear the humor in the speech--something that apparently didn't bother Jewison, who went for a sadder, but wiser peasant. Topol is convincing enuf playing older, but he doesn't really have to stretch his age that much. Tevye could technically be as young as 40--tho he's often played by pensioners. You wouldn't know it but Norma Crane is seven years older than Topol, (She would die only two years later at age 44.)

Altho it was standard Roadshow practice, the film dispenses with an overture. No shots from way above to helicopter us down into the Ukranian plain, but rather dawn as seen at chicken coop eye-level; looking up on high to a fiddler on a (single-story) roof. Speaking directly into the camera, Tevye invites us into "Tradition," joined (off-screen) by the Johnny Williams singers; while scenes of village life slavishly illustrate the lyrics. (One real head-scratcher is why they rewrote Tevye's line, "...the time he sold him a horse but delivered a mule," to "...sold him a horse and told him it was six years old, when it was really twelve." Was that supposed to be an improvement? A clarification? Did it make more sense?) It's a rousing number aurally, but in the end Tevye is cavorting alone with his horse while the chorus blares on the soundtrack. Jewison thinks this is clever, even innovative. It's annoying. "Matchmaker" is better, a clothes-line waltz for three sisters that gives Neva Small to a chance to shine. 
Jewison has Topol working chores in his barn, thruout his soliloquoy, "If I Were a Rich Man" ending with him clomping down on horseshit. And why not? It was something Robbins couldn't do. (Many of the songs incorporate labor or some form of ceremony) Tevye's family (we never know their surname, do we?) actually sing the "Sabbath Prayer" but as the chorus builds and the camera moves thru other homes, why don't we see those people singing? It's inconsistent and irksome. "To Life" perks up the movie a good deal, not surprisingly, being the first vestige of Robbins' choreography (recreated by his assistants: Tom Abbott & Sammy Bayes). Even this is shot so low to the ground, at times angled thru the legs of a table, as if even high spirits aren't deserving of height. With the Russian cossacks joining in celebration, the number threatens to turn into a version of The Dance at the Gym, each side doing all but yelling, "Mambo!" A similar thing happens at the later wedding--Robbins likes these "challenge" ensembles--when they are justified--and so they are. 
"Tevye's Dream" also borrows heavily from Robbins, as well it should. Jewison moves the scene into a Chas Addams graveyard--one of the few artifical sets in the movie, as befits an imagined dream; moves into monochrome, and perhaps loses the nylon stocking filter. It's  creatively done and essentially the musical highlight of the film, tho a third-rate opera diva (Ruth Madoc) makes a weak Fruma Sarah. The first act is a beaut of construction and variety of score, culminating in a wedding--shattered by an act of violence. Essentially it's the whole story. What is there yet to learn in the second half? We already know Hodel will follow Perchik, Chava will stray from the tribe with Feydka; and everyone else will be forced from their homeland.

A brisk entr'acte, the closest to an overture Fiddler ever gets, is more lively than anything in the 68 minutes that follow. Perchick shyly proposes to Hodel, but Jewison cut his victorious moment, "Now I Have Everything," asking Bock & Harnick for a new song, more political in nature. "Any Day Now," (heard on the soundtrack reissue) tho on the surface a better song, proved less suited to the sentiment of the moment, and was cut before the film's release, leaving Glaser with no song of his own (which was no loss, if you hear his voice). "Do You Love Me?" is toned down from its stage vaudeville leanings, but Norma Crane's tempered characterization feels like a poorly studied idea of a Jewish mother by a Presbyterian communtiy theater actress. A new scene of Perchik protesting in Kiev, ending in violence is both unnecessary and unconvincing--it feels like padding. As does Golde's visit to an Orthodox church to learn about Chava's defiant marriage. Jewison does what he can with Robbins' impressionistic "Chava Ballet," a fuzzy memory of his daughters, bathed in orange, dancing on a hill. His choice of faith over family is crushing enuf, but now comes the final straw: eviction. Forced to sell all they own in three days (but to whom?) the Jews pack and depart over the long, dragged out last half hour, a musical whose music evaporates. "Anatevka" begins with the principles talk/singing the number, but then morphs into a montage of silent faces and stills even as the chorus swells. The inconsistency between what's visibly sung and what's sung on voice-over, as God's celestial soundtrack, is truly maddening. Stein's stage script has the littlest girls happily chirping, "We're going on a train, and a boat!" to which Golde snaps the final joke: "Behave yourself! We're not in America yet." A laugh to relieve the audience's mounting tears. But the movie drops this, lingering instead on the trudge thru mud and snow across the hardscrapple landscape (as if we didn't get the hardship of their exodus), until the final image of the orphan fiddler (the metaphoric souvenir of Anatevka) invited to join Teyve's party, on a bleak, colorless patch of rocky road. No sooner do his (Isaac Stern's) final notes land on the ear, the symphonic orchestra thunders on with some rousing exit music.
The movie premiered November 3rd at the Rivoli. And altho it was accessible to me in California, I didn't see it until the following September, with Baba (again) in New York. My lack of urgency must've been validated by my initial reception, for, improbable tho it seems, I've never watched the movie again until now. Undeniably the film was a big hit for United Artists--the last Roadshow smash, amassing $34,000,000 in film rentals over its several-year rollout--in its time among the top 20 all-time grossers. The pic also had an unusual International appeal for a musical, and was dubbed in at least half a dozen languages. Jewison says the most effective translation was in German--given that it sounds closest, by far, to Yiddish. But the musical lost none of its cachet on stage either. Three Bway revivals maintained, as does nearly every production, Jerome Robbins' original concept and staging. (These were each headlined by Zero Mostel, Herschel Bernardi and Topol). It wasn't until 2004 that permission was granted for a new approach. British director David Leveaux, eschewed the Chagall-like scenery of Boris Aronson for a lean, harsher look and cast a distinctly non-Semitic Alfred Molina and Randy Graff (later Andrea Martin) for the leads. The production was much criticized for draining much of the Jewish feeling of the piece, but nonetheless ran for two years. Amusingly, later replacements, Harvey Fierstein & Rosie O'Donnell--two blatantly gay actors--barely raised any eyebrows.

It seems just right that Fiddler should be the crowning achievment of the musical's Golden Age (tho not quite as white hot a phenom as My Fair Lady); a Jewish folk tale portraying the ancestry of those who came to define and dominate Bway and Hlwd. But no "Golden Age" ends at its peak. It must decline and fall, which is what happened to the Bway musical from '67 to '71, when deconstruction of the form served as metaphor in Follies. The final lap of the R&H era, '70-'71 was the second rare season where no Bway musicals caught Hlwd's fancy. Even plays were less tempting now. Only three seasons earlier Bway was still selling 8-10 plays a year for movie fodder. This year was a new low, just three: Sleuth, Lenny, and a dreary Neil Simon play The Gingerbread Lady (renamed Only When I Laugh). As it had been in the past, Bway product held a certain cachet. Two of these 3 films were Best Pic nominees, and no less than 7 actors got nods as well (tho none won.) The '71-'72 season on Bway left no doubt a new era (a Silver Age?) had begun: Jesus Christ Superstar, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death, Godspell--shows that would've been unthinkable entries five years earlier, now big hits. A corner had unmistakably been turned. Much as the Bway landscape was shifting, so too was Hlwd, with 1971 another transitional year. The Academy had one foot in the traditional, (curiously, two Russian-themed Roadshow epics--Fiddler and a rather flat Twilight-of-the-Czars, Nicholas & Alexandra), and one foot in the new wave: Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, Bogdanovich's Last Picture Show and Friedkin's The French Connection (the eventual victor). It was clear which way the tide was turning: Carnal Knowledge, The Hospital, Klute, McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Sunday Bloody Sunday were further evidence that this wasn't the '60s anymore. And tho Fiddler walked off with three statues, they were for technical achievments only.

As fate would have it, Fiddler was the first show I saw on Bway--tho it was then well in its 6th year. I'd previously seen a bus & truck company in Santa Monica, with my mother, on a rainy Saturday matinee sometime in '68. The house was cavernous and our seats too far back; the experience more melancholy than memorable. To be honest I don't recall much of the Bway outing either, other than my excitement at stepping into the Majestic Theater and walking thru Shubert Alley for the very first time. Tho she certainly knew about it, Baba hadn't yet seen the show, and loved it on a level I couldn't possibly conjure. That first, Bway-saturated, vacation was so fulfilling, I returned the next summer for an even longer stay. Baba was 71 then, and still working as a garment district seamstress, taking care of her legally-blind, feeble-minded sister, Vera, and another old Russian emigre--a real life Uncle Fester, who dwelled like a gopher in a pantry-sized room with a dingy lightwell view. Not only would she rush home each evening to cook us all dinner; she let my friend Bill stay for a few weeks each summer, as well. This was the year of Follies and No, No, Nanette! the yin and yang of musical comedy--the sweet embrace of exuberance and silliness; or the complex, deconstructive, intellectualism of show biz metaphors. I saw each three times. Follies was breathtaking, often electrifying--and just as often tedious in its central quartet's unrelatable problems. Tho less elaborate Nanette was an eyeful as well, and ultimately more satisfying: a true sugar high. I hightailed it over to the 46th St. Thea. on my arrival that June; got a standing room ticket in the back of the orchestra for the Wednesday matinee, and went to heaven. The audience tore the house apart--high on that rare perfume that wafts over a smash hit, intoxicated into giddiness. Follies had a different vibe: caviar for the general, food for the intellect; confusion, exhiliration--with an aftertaste of disappointment. It felt, in some ways, like the American Musical ripped apart. More than a celebration, it was also a requiem. Of course I couldn't see that then, or would I want to; not before I could be part of that world called "Broadway." It was all still so new to me, and unbearably exciting. On my last NY day that summer, I went back to Nanette--another Wednesday matinee. I had gotten into the habit of waiting outside stage doors on my first visit, and tho I was never interested in anyone's autograph, I enjoyed watching the performers emerge, whether the stars or the cute chorus boys rushing off to dinner or errands between shows. Nanette was especially fun, for the sheer number of stars; but the Palace (where Applause was playing--now with Anne Baxter) had a long alley off 47th St. And it was here that I was visited by an Angel. Of course I didn't know he was an Angel at the time; just another 18 year old stage-door denizen, like I, tho with curly blonde locks and long tanned forearms covered in golden peach-fuzz. We began a conversation (about theater, what else) and even after four hours neither was in a hurry to leave. It surprises me now that I made no effort to get his name or number--except that in some way I knew he was my ectoplasmic visitation, a divine-sent Angel to bring me a message I sorely needed to hear. On the plane home to San Francisco I decided to start my sophmore year by dropping Accounting (for which I had neither aptitude nor interst) and becoming a Theater major. I felt I was reborn. My dread of returning home evaporated; an unfamiliar excitement about school emerged. And as no one was going to change my mind on the subject, I saw no particular reason to tell my parents about it. They'd find out eventually--when it was too late to change it.

Next Up: The Boy Friend

Report Card:   Fiddler on the Roof
Overall Film:  B
Bway Fidelity:  A-
Songs from Bway: 12
Songs Cut from Bway: 2 
New Songs:  1: "Any Day Now" (cut)
Standout Numbers:  'Tevye's Dream"
               "To Life" "Wedding Dances"
Casting: Subdued, somewhat Anglicized
Standout Cast: Leonard Frey, Neva Small
Cast from Bway:  Leonard Frey, Zvee Scooler
Cast from London:  Topol
Sorethumb Cast:  Norma Crane
Direction:  Literal, heavy-handed, humorless
Choreography:  Reproduced Robbins
Ballet:  C   "Chava's Ballet"
Scenic Design: Gritty, anti-epic locations
Costumes: Peasant rags
Standout Set: Graveyard for Dream sequence
Titles: Following pre-credit sequence: fiddler
     silhoutted on roof against orange sunrise
Oscar noms: 8 -- Best Picture, Topol, Leonard
      Frey, Norman Jewison; Art Direction
      3 wins: Oswald Morris (cinematography)
      John Williams (scoring); Sound

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