You don’t have to be a Fiddler on the Roof superfan to enjoy Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles. You don’t even have to have seen it. Technically, the new documentary is about the fifty-year-old musical and its impact, but in reality, the film uses Fiddler on the Roof as a case study to illustrate the ways art reflects cultural and political issues and the way a story like this one can eventually become a part of a social history.
Opening in 1964, Fiddler on the Roof was adapted from early 20th century stories written by Sholem Aleichem, most notably Tevye and his Daughters. The music and lyrics for the show were done by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (respectively), and the book is by Joseph Stein. Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles director Max Lewkowicz uses interview footage of that early creative team (only Harnick is still living) to tell pieces of the origin story, but the documentary is more than an oral history. The enduring relatability and impact of the musical is front and center. In addition to first person narratives from those involved in the early days, Lewkowicz wisely brings on historians, actors like Harvey Fierstein and Jessica Hecht who have been involved in more recent revivals, and cultural icons like Itzhak Perlman to speak to Fiddler on the Roof’s broader cultural story.
The filmmakers were also smart – and perhaps fortunate – enough to bring in Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, almost certainly the best known Broadway star in a generation, who testifies throughout the documentary to the impact Fiddler on the Roof has had on him. But the way the presence of icons like Miranda is balanced out with everyday stories of students across the world performing the show is an example of Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles’s greatest strength: balance. Yes, people who live their day to day lives in the Broadway realm feel the influence of Fiddler on the Roof, but so do students in Thailand who may never set foot in New York City.
In an almost methodical fashion, the documentary ticks off the different social topics on which the musical touches – feminism and arranged marriage, religion and faith, love and romance, immigration and refugeeism – while also integrating the intriguing details of the story behind the story. From the way original director Jerome Robbin’s testimony in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee caused rifts among the cast to the shifting social context in the seven years between the debut of the musical on Broadway and the opening of film adaptation in 1971, the narrative of the film is deeply engaging.
Viewers looking for an exhaustive history may not be satisfied with 90 minutes worth of trivia and commentary, but most will find that this is the right level of depth and the right pace to make for a compelling story. Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles illustrates why this musical has connected with so many audiences in so many ways for over half a century: people connect with the story, they connect with the characters, they connect with the music, and they connect with the themes. This documentary acts as a conduit for those connections, providing the opportunity for all viewers – those who are new to Tevye and his family as well as those who could sing every word to “If I Were a Rich Man” – to experience the universal tragedy and comedy in a timeless story.