On October 21, 1971, Canadian director Norman Javison and 36-year-old Israeli actor Haim Topol arrived at the Toszynski Hall, the renowned Jewish cinema in Amsterdam, to see for the first time the pre-premiere screening of their new film “Fiddler on the Roof”. ”. “The two were received with stormy applause,” was described in Maariv on October 24, 1971. “Joison said that he chose Topol for Tuvia’s role, not only because he is Israeli, but also because he is an artist with an unwavering joy of life, like Tuvia himself. ”.
But the success in Amsterdam did not prepare the two for what was expected of them at the official premiere in the United States on November 3, 1971, exactly 50 years ago: Topol arrived at the reception at the Rivoli Theater in New York City as a shining new Hollywood star in the world. Incessant applause. After that premiere, the film was screened in many countries around the world and was a great success. “The film presents a universal story, which all the traditional cultures and societies that had to deal with the challenges of moving to the modern world – identified with it,” explains Dr. Yuval Rivlin, lecturer in film and history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “In ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ the camera does not rest, the editing is exemplary and the songs are presented as clips even before they know what clips are. The whole complex made the film eternal. “
“What is special about the film and made it a classic is the fact that it depicts a microcosm in a Jewish shtetl, where tradition and introduction collide,” explains actor Nathan Datner, who is expected to stage a new theatrical production for “Fiddler on the Roof” this June. “The film is about universal things. It does not matter if we are in 1890 or 2021 – every time this business is reworked. “Even in Japan, the film was successful, because the encounter between tradition and progress is what worries companies to this day.”
To understand the secret of the success of the film “Fiddler on the Roof”, we must go back to 1894, when the Jewish author Shalom Aleichem published the first chapter of the book “Tuvia the Milkman” (or in Yiddish “Tavia”), which included Yiddish stories about Tuvia the milk seller. Tuvia’s character is that of a hard-working Jew, living in a village near the town of Entebbe, a Jewish town in the seat of the Russian Empire in the late 19th century. For his livelihood, Tuvia is involved in milking and selling milk, butter and cheese to the residents of the area and provides for his wife Golda and his seven daughters. Alongside the frame story, the book also deals with Tuvia’s concerns about his daughters ’desire to marry white whites.
The book, which became a bestseller, was translated into many languages, including Hebrew in 1950, and translated into various film and theater productions based on various episodes: in 1939, the American film “Tuvia” directed and starring Maurice Schwartz was released in Yiddish, which was a great commercial success; In 1943, the play “Tuvia the Milkman” was staged at the Habima Theater; In 1957, an adaptation of a play called “Tibia and His Daughters” based on the book was staged at the Carnegie Theater in New York; In 1968, the film “Tuvia and His Seven Daughters” was released in Israel, directed by Menachem Golan, starring Shmuel Rudansky as Tuvia.
The turning point in making the play Yiddish book an international success among the general public, even non-Yiddish speakers, occurred in 1964, when the Jewish-American playwright Joseph Stein and composer Jerry Bock decided to adapt the story “Tuvia and his Daughters” into a musical, and chose to call it “Fiddler on The roof ”. In September 1964, the Broadway premiere of “Fiddler on the Roof” with Jewish-American film and theater actor Zero Mostel as Tuvia the Milkman.
“Shalom Aleichem’s story was acted in all sorts of variations and adaptations, but the idea of turning the play into a musical was an ingenious one, and the theatrical success is largely due to two Jews who came together: Jerome Robbins, the great 20th century choreographer who built choreography based on Mark’s paintings. Chagall, and Joseph Stein, who took this text and turned it into a musical, as they did with ‘Casablanca’ in Israel, “explains Habima Theater director Noam Semel. “Once you bring the most modern music with the most modern choreography, and the stories of Shalom Aleichem that are second to none – you have a successful recipe.”
The gamble to turn the play into a musical was successful, as the Broadway production won nine Tony Awards and became one of the greatest classics in the history of theater. While “Fiddler on the Roof” made waves in the United States, here in Israel, 29-year-old actor Haim Topol, of Polish descent, was chosen to play the character of a 50-year-old Oriental man named Saleh Shabati in Ephraim Kishon’s film.
In 1965, when he was only 30 years old and was already considered one of the most successful actors in Israel, Topol went on a visit to New York. Between work meetings and trips to the city, he took the opportunity to Broadway to watch the musical in question, “Fiddler on the Roof.” “I was not so connected to the matter of the Jew in exile,” he told me in an interview with him in 2013.
On June 1, 1965, producer Giora Godik decided to stage the Hebrew version of the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” at the Alhambra Theater with translations by Dan Almagor and musical direction by Zico Graziani. Translated by Almagor, the song from the musical If I Were A Rich Man became “If I Were Rothschild”. “Dan Almagor is a genius in translation,” notes Sergeant. “Dan invented the idea ‘if I were Rothschild’.”
The one who was chosen to play “Tuvia the Milkman” in the local production was Bomba Tzur, who participated in the show for about a year and a half until he was replaced by Shmuel Rudansky. “Bomba did it well, but when I saw Rudansky play Tuvia, I realized I was in love with this role,” Topol told me in the same interview. “When Rudansky fell ill, I was invited to replace him.”
Two months later, when he first entered the role of Tuvia the Milkman in Godik’s Israeli production, Topol received a phone call from London to audition for the theater for a British production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” “I did not know English at the time, and when I arrived the examiners were shocked because they did not think that I, a 30-year-old young man, played Saleh, my elderly daughter,” he said. “I auditioned, sang the songs and was accepted. “All this time I was sure that they saw me play Tuvia in a production of Godik, but it turns out that they did not know about it, but accepted me because of the role of Saleh Shabati.”
In the years 1967 – 1968 Topol played “Tuvia the Milkman” in London at a rate of 400 plays a year, when the last play was attended by director Norman Joyson, who told him that he wanted to cast him as Tuvia the Milkman in the future Hollywood film “Fiddler on the Roof”. . “I thought he was just telling me stories, but he kept his word,” Topol told me at the time.
“Once the musical hits Broadway, it drives all the wheels of cinema,” explains Sergeant. “Because what do the producers in Hollywood say? “If it went well in the theater, then it can go well in cinema as well.”
At the end of 1969, Joyson began directing and producing the film. “In 1968, I was invited to a secret meeting in New York with the top performers at United Artists and they were unwilling to tell me what the meeting was about,” Joyson said in a television interview in 2001. “They offered me to direct and produce ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ I was completely overwhelmed. I thought: ‘Alas, they offered me the job because they think I am Jewish. How can I explain to them that I am not a Jew? ‘. Then I told them the truth, and I saw that they turned pale and were in shock, until one of them said, ‘Why do you think we offered you to direct the film? We do not want another Yiddish film. ‘ and so it was”.
The plot of the film, similar to Shalom Aleichem’s book, takes us to the Jewish town of Entebbe and to the character of Tuvia the Milkman. In the film, Tuvia and his wife Golda have five daughters, the three largest of whom present him with a dilemma: Zeitel falls in love with the poor and young tailor motel, Huddle falls in love with the socialist Parchik, who was arrested by the authorities and sent to Siberia, and Huhla falls in love with a Christian Russian gentile. While Tuvia agrees that the first two should be married, he refuses to go. She marries secretly, and he sever ties with her. During the film, he finds a deportation order against the town’s Jews, and Tuvia and his family immigrate to the United States.
“The film manages to be a kind of monument to a Jewish world that was and is not,” explains Dr. Yuval Rivlin. “In a lot of parts of the film, there is a feeling that director Joyson wants to commemorate a company that was and is not. He shows us that not only Tuvia is leaving Russia, but we are all parting from the old world. “
Filming took place first in Yugoslavia, in the village of Laknik, which became the Jewish town in the film, and later in London. Among other things, Joison came to Israel to meet with Hasidic Jews and learn their customs. “It was important for me to create authenticity and credibility,” Joyson said in 2001. “I originally wanted to shoot in Russia, but the Russians feared that they would not do well in the film, because of the Soviet interest, so we chose Yugoslavia. In the end, the Russians admired the film themselves. “
Joyson, as mentioned, chose Topol for the lead role, although the seemingly natural choice was Zero Mostel, which provoked quite a bit of criticism at the time. “I chose Topol because I was afraid that the miraculous stage presence of Zero, which radiates on the stage of the theater, would overshadow the character of Tuvia the Milkman and miss its power,” Joyson previously explained. “In addition, I wanted to have a first-generation representation of a Jew of Russian descent, because I thought it would bring us closer to the originality and credibility of the story. There was tenderness and also a halo in Topol’s life. “
“Topol’s charisma in the film is unbelievable,” says Rivlin. “He flirts with the camera from the first moment of the film until the end. Even when his world crashes at the end of the film, there is a close-up on his eyes that shows he is aging prematurely. “One of his problems was that he got into this character so much that it was difficult to cast him for other things.”
“It was a gamble to take the Israeli Topol to play Tuvia the Milkman,” adds Semel. “In retrospect, this role came to him thanks to ‘Saleh Shabtai’, when he managed to play such an older man at such a young age.”
Outside the door
The violin pieces in the film were by the renowned Jewish-American violinist Isaac Stern, which Joison was determined to obtain at all costs. “I broke my head how I would convince him to play a movie,” he said in 2004. “When I stood outside his door, I heard him playing and I was afraid to disturb him and anger him so I waited. The problem was that he kept going and going. When there was a moment’s pause, I thought he had finished and rang the bell, but then it turned out he had not stopped, it was just a passage. He opened the door for me and kept playing, I told him who I was, and he talked to me while he played. The main difficulty was finding a time when he would be free on his busy schedule, and in the end we succeeded. ”
In November 1971, the 179-minute Fiddler on the Roof was released, became a sensation and grossed more than $ 83 million worldwide, winning three Academy Awards: Best Original Soundtrack, Best Cinematography and Best Sound Mix. He was also nominated in five other categories, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Topol) and Best Supporting Actor. For his role in the film, Topol also won the Golden Globe Award.
“Usually, moving from stage to stage is a challenge,” says Datner. “There were serious candidates for the position, from Danny Kay onwards, but Joyson chose Topol and Justice. In productions that took place before Topol took office, Tuvia represented the traditional exiled Jew, while Topol represented the Israeli Tuvia, Tuvia representing the new Jew. Topol shattered the concept of exile and made the character of Tuvia less exiled and more a character dealing with problems. It made Tuvia a more masculine, sexy and cool character and it’s thanks to Topol’s wonderful performance. “
In 1974, about three years after its release, the film made headlines when it was decided in Chile to suspend its screening for fear of Marxist inspiration. After testing, the film was again allowed for screening in Chile.
Topol leveraged the worldwide success of “Fiddler on the Roof” and later starred in international films (“The Public Eye”, “James Bond – For Your Eyes Only”, “Galileo” and “Flash Gordon”), hosted an entertainment program on the BBC and starred in a variety of plays Theater in Britain and the United States. In 1997, he once again played the character of Tuvia the Milkman in the Israeli production of “Fiddler on the Roof”.
After the success of “Fiddler on the Roof” at Godik’s Theater in the 1960s, it was staged in Israel in 1983, produced by Avraham Desha Peshanel, and in 2008 by the Cameri Theater, starring Nathan Datner, which has appeared more than 500 times.
In May 2020, it was reported that MGM had approached director Thomas Kyle with a proposal to direct and produce an updated version of “Fiddler on the Roof,” 50 years after the release of the original film. “The magic will always work and if they do ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ in a new version, they will do it differently, because you have to bring the version and the means of today, but the source will always be monumental,” Datner concludes.