In the annals of musical theater history, there is no other musical that evokes joy quite like Fiddler on the Roof. Based on a series of short stories called Tevye and his Daughters written by “the Jewish Mark Twain,” Sholem Aleichem, this classic musical has graced the stages of Broadway since 1964 and is one of the longest-running shows ever produced. With nine Tony Awards under its belt, including Best Musical, this show proved its popularity by reaching international fame with a very successful film adaptation.
The title was taken from the painter called The Fiddler by Marc Chagall. The Fiddler stands upon a precarious perch on a roof, trying to make music without falling, and is (as mentioned in the musical) what the entire play is about. The lovely people in the village just want to live their lives in happiness and harmony in Anatevka, Russia, despite the apparent danger of the Russian army and their tsar evicting them.
Based on the historically oppressed and displaced Jews of the late 1800s, this musical is the Jewish musical of all Jewish musicals and has been entertaining people with its song and dance numbers, particularly the ever famous If I Were a Rich Man.
The overlaying theme the viewer encounters is tradition, both in keeping to the rules and thwarting said rules to accommodate the ever changing times. The main protagonist, Tevye is a poor milkman with a wife and five daughters and has his faith and beliefs tested by different situations. His eldest daughter falls in love with a poor tailor, his second daughter falls in love with a revolutionary who is eventually exiled to Siberia, and the third with a Christian that sends Tevye in to an apoplexy. Chaos ensues, but all is well in the end when everyone comes together and breaks into song.
Aside from tradition, love seems to be the central theme, and it is this classic storyline of acceptance and family makes this musical so enduring.
However, like all things popular, there is some controversy involving this play. Some claim cultural appropriation of Jews and the play making light of a terrible event and the eventual diaspora. Many see the Jewish culture assimilating into the mainstream and leaving their origins for a more modern and Western ideal. As for the older generation who actually experienced the pogrom and diaspora, the guilt of surviving those who suffered and their escape triggered painful memories. Others argue this opposition by saying that this just highlights how the Jews maintain their traditions in spite of adversity.
Despite the arguments, we cannot deny that Fiddler on the Roof is a beloved musical that gives us a glimpse of what joy is in the Jewish culture and how we can all learn from the optimism that pervades the general feeling of the musical.
In the fifty years that this play has been running, we all still feel grateful that this play was first conceived and hope that it will be enjoyed by generations to come in future adaptations.