Saturday, August 14, 2010

The 100 Best Movies: #9

9. Fiddler On the Roof (1971)

This is a landmark Broadway musical that opened on Broadway at a time when the American musical was in transition from the traditional Rodgers and Hammerstein style book musicals to the darker and more non-linear plot structured musicals that featured new styles of music (ranging from Stephen Sondheim to Rock and Roll). Coincidentally, this film version of the phenomenal stage hit came at a time when American cinema was becoming more groundbreaking and lighthearted movie-musicals were beginning to look old-fashioned. The days of the MGM musicals and the great musicals of early 1960's were now a thing of the past with few fantastic exceptions. This movie is among the greatest of those exceptions. I remember when my parents showed me this film at a young age and just loving every minute of it (especially the musical numbers like "Matchmaker, Matchmaker" and "Sunrise, Sunset"). It also gave me my first taste of old world Jewish culture (like it did for many others who saw the musical or the film). It has a sweeping sophistication and a gorgeous style that is fitting to the narrative.

Sholem Aleicheim's stories about the dairyman and his family (5 daughters!) in the Ukrainian Jewish village of Anatevka at the beginning of the century have become literary classics in both Europe and the United States. When the composer-lyricist team of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick along with librettist Joseph Stein brought the idea of turning the stories into a musical to legendary producer Harold Prince, Prince stated there was only one director who could bring these tales to a musical life: director-choreographer Jerome Robbins. Robbins threw himself into the making of the musical (and worked his cast and crew notoriously hard). Not only did he oversee every scene, song and dance number within the show, but he was integral to the creation of three key moments within the musical (the opening number, the colorful "Dream" sequence and the dances at the wedding). The show opened at the Imperial Theatre in September of 1964 starring Zero Mostel in the role of Tevye, the dairyman. It was a great success, with both audiences and critics, winning several Tony Awards (including Best Musical, Best Actor for Mostel, Best Director and Best Choreographer both for Robbins). The musical's original production ran for 8 years with over 3,000 performances come closing night. With such great success on Broadway, it was inevitable a film version was soon to follow.

United Artists in association with the Mirisch Brothers (who had produced the film version of Robbins' landmark musical West Side Story, but more on that later!) purchased the film rights to the musical and tapped the up-and-coming Canadian director Norman Jewison to direct the movie. Jewison had begun his career working as a production assistant and eventual director on television variety shows before he hit it big with critically acclaimed films like The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming and In the Heat of the Night (the latter won the Best Picture Oscar in 1967). After a long casting process, Jewison (who both produced and directed the film) and Joseph Stein (who adapted his Broadway libretto into the screenplay) chose Israeli actor Topol to play the role of Tevye (Topol had played Tevye in the London production of the show directed and choreographed by Robbins in 1966). Topol, with his imposing physique, was a very strong Tevye with a booming voice and charming comic style. He delivers the iconic "If I Were a Rich Man" song with a giant's power. The supporting cast are all fantastic especially Norma Crane as Tevye's wife, Molly Picon as the matchmaker and Leonard Frey as the tailor who marries Tevye's eldest daughter. Robbins' masterful choreography is perfectly recreated for the film (the legendary "Bottle Dance" in the wedding scene and the Russian dances during the song "To Life" are delightful musical highlights). It is a powerful movie-musical that was a special part of my life and is enjoyed by several people the world over (including almost my entire family!).

Next Post: #8

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