Fiddler On The Roof

Fiddler On The Roof (1971)
MGM Home Entertainment
Cast: Topol, Norma Crane, Leonard Frey, Molly Picon, Paul Mann
Extras: Commentary Track, Documentary, Deleted Song, “Tevye’s Dream”, Sholom Aleichem Stories, Historical Background, Storyboard to Film Comparisons

I never understood how some people willingly swallow images of spaceships careening around the cosmos or unquestioningly accept talking pigs but groan unbearably when someone spontaneously bursts into song. What caused the demise of the movie musical or at least fomented the popular conception of the genre as "corny" or "archaic?" Musicals never purported to be slices of life. As Hitchcock once described his films, they are slices of cake. Cakes can possess many layers, a multitude of flavors and satisfy with subtlety as well as robustness. They express the range of emotions and experiences as surely or as abstractly as any good western or thriller or epic. The only difference is that musicals use a different visual and aural language to communicate the same cultural or psychological concepts. Yet ask just about anyone and they decry musicals as "unrealistic" or "sentimental."

Well, I like musicals. Not all of them, but more than I should be willing to admit. Their stylized representations are no different that George Lucas’ mythological worlds or James Cameron’s action-packed diatribes against arrogant technology. (My literary criticism professor even argued that the elements of drama described in Aristotle’s "Poetics" – plot, catharsis, and spectacle – found modern voice in the American musical theater.) Is "The Wizard of Oz" any less a classic because the Scarecrow or Cowardly Lion convey their plights in melodic verse? Was Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory less inviting because he sang "Pure Imagination" to acclimate his guests (and the audience) into his strange world? The best musicals, however, are those that deftly balance the demands of the form with subject matter that seem unlikely for adaptation. Themes like prejudice, institutionalized poverty, and crisis of faith hardly classify as the trivial pap normally associated with the genre. "West Side Story" certainly qualifies as a musical with serious ideas wrapped in lyrics and choreography. The insidiousness of Nazism exposed through the nightclub numbers of "Cabaret" also comes to mind. "Fiddler on the Roof" definitely belongs in this class and Norman Jewison’s 1971 film adaptation proved a triumphant validation of the form as well as sadly marking the first death throes of the genre.

"Fiddler" has been released many times on video as well as a few laserdisc editions, even a previous DVD release that housed a few extras. However, the latest DVD incarnation from MGM Home Entertainment not only offers presents the film in <$PS,widescreen> (a must!) and 5.1 sound, but also ports many of the supplements from the excellent Image laserdisc special edition of a few years ago.

Right from the fade-in, Jewison redefines the play for film by "opening up the stage": we watch an actual sunrise on a small eastern European village. After a few establishing shots, the violin strains of the title song enter and we are introduced to the story’s protagonist and narrator: Tevye the Milkman. Tevye (Topol) describes himself, his home in Anatevka and his relationship to religion and God. Tradition guides the inhabitants of Anatevka – in what they believe, how they conduct themselves and how "outside" society views their culture. The matchmaker Yente matches sons and daughters as she has done for years, blacksmiths bicker with their customers about old transactions gone astray, and the revered rabbi dispenses insights from holy writ.

Yet the world that has allowed Tevye and the occupants of Anatevka to live in "détente" is about to collide with the winds of change…actually more like a hurricane. Eldest daughter Tzeitel (Rosalind Harris) has already been betrothed by matchmaker Yente (Molly Picon, a veteran of New York’s famed Yiddish theater) to the prosperous butcher Lazar Wolf (Paul Mann). However, Tzeitel must somehow tell her father that she is in love with the tailor Motel (Leonard Frey, reprising his stage role) and that they wish to be married. Hodel (Michele Marsh) falls in love with Perchik (Paul Michael Glaser), a student with revolution against the Czarist regime on his mind. Chava (Neva Small) draws closest to the flames of upheaval when she catches the eye of Fyedka (Raymond Lovelock), a Russian peasant and definitely not a local. Finally, rumblings from the newspapers and whispers amongst the villagers hint that the sanctity of their home and traditions might be threatened on a scale unimaginable.

The tribulations of Tevye marrying off his daughters seem light enough for a
musical, but Russian pogroms? Combining the stories of Sholom Aleichem, Jerry Bock’s tunes, Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics and Joseph Stein’s book (and screenplay), "Fiddler" manages to accomplish what the title suggests: setting a noteworthy story to music without losing balance. When Tevye bemoans his fiscal state in "If I Were a Rich Man," we are propelled by the song’s almost buoyant structure but also feel the character’s frustration. Topol’s performance, Jewison’s staging and the realistic barn setting musically dramatize his economic plight without trivializing it. "Sunrise, Sunset" covers vast emotional territory: a father letting go of a daughter, a village unifying in cultural celebration, and ultimately, a community on the verge of crumbling. Like the cliché says, a classic is a work that speaks something new with every visit. This time around, I was particularly moved with the "Do You Love Me?" scene, where Tevye and his wife Golde (Norma Crane) examine the imperishable core of their twenty-five year marriage. As I get older and we live our lives in an increasingly hostile world, the beauty of the characters’ affirmation echoes no less archetypal than Luke Skywalker reconciling his heritage or Babe winning over his barnyard peers.

Compared to the Image <$PS,widescreen> laserdisc, the 2.35 <$16x9,anamorphic> transfer looks better, but still suffers some limitations. The first thing I noticed is that the DVD image is far more stable than the LD. On laser, the opening wide shot of Anatevka exhibited so much aliasing it registered a 6 on the Richter scale! Here, fine details are nice and steady. The source print shows a few blemishes, same as the LD. Grain also crops up, especially in low-light scenes and in "Tevye’s Dream," but again I accuse the source, not the messenger. Colors and blacks are solid but sometimes details and textures get lost in the shadows and even in a few daylight scenes. Fleshtones run slightly brownish. Having said that, short of an all out restoration this is the best I have seen the film on video and will likely be so for a while.

The <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 contains a fair amount of dynamic range for a thirty-year-old soundtrack. John Williams’ lush orchestrations (he won his first Oscar for his adaptation) get a full five-speaker workout during the musical numbers. Alas, the subwoofer takes a breather as most of the audio stays within in the mid to upper range. Dialogue sounded crisp without hiss and the remastered audio infuses the sound effects, music and dialogue with a surprisingly high degree of fidelity.

The first side of the DVD-14 houses the feature and <$commentary,commentary track>. Side two contains the bulk of the supplemental materials. On the feature length commentary by Jewison and Topol, both seem to run out of steam every so often and then pick up an interesting anecdote or hindsight observation two scenes later. Actually, I found the most interesting cluster of comments during the "Tevye’s Dream" sequence, where Jewison says he finds the number "old fashioned" now or Topol explaining the universal themes of Sholom Aleichem and how "Fiddler" wisely followed Aleichem’s model of finding "the funny side of things." The remaining extra on side one is a theatrical trailer, presented in <$PS,widescreen> and okay mono sound.

"Norman Jewison, Filmmaker" kicks off the flip side. Produced by the National Film Board of Canada around the same time as "Fiddler," the hour-long retrospective showcases the headaches Jewison encountered during the production, the difficulties and joys of shooting in (then) Yugoslavia and some of the hand-wringing by the studio brass walking the actors through their lines paints an honest portrait of Jewison’s dedication to his craft and the material.

Running about ten minutes, "Norman Jewison Looks Back" offers five fresh video sound bites with Jewison. He jokingly remembers about how he shocked the studio heads with his cultural "persuasion" ("What would you say if I told you I was a goy?") and how the production constantly fought the weather on location, as well as his thoughts to the standard "what makes a classic" query. The comments are chapter marked and, interestingly, the video is presented in <$PS,widescreen>.

"Tevye’s Dream" shows the sequence in full color, along with a video introduction by Jewison. He explains the original concept for the scene, how cinematographer Oswald Morris talked him into shooting it in color and then desaturating it for the final version. Options provide for watching it in its entirety and a split screen version for comparison. "Any Day Now" is a deleted song that was recorded but never shot. Introductory notes by lyricist Sheldon Harnick outline the history of the tune, followed by production stills of Perchik (singing the song) and Hodel accompanying the playback.

In "The Stories of Sholom Aleichem," Jewison reads two excerpts from the stories that inspired "Fiddler." In one instance, Jewison appears on video reading the tract; while on the other pre-production sketches are on screen. (Check out the "Easter Eggs" section of the website to find out how to access the hidden feature on the disc; it’s connected with the "Stories" section.) The mood turns more matter of fact during the "Historical Background" section, where Jewison recounts the social and civic circumstances that are reflected in the fictional story.

Extensive production extras include galleries for production sketches, storyboards, a storyboards-to-film comparison, poster artwork and promotional materials (the animated souvenir program is a nice touch) and call sheets for cast, make-up and shooting schedule. Three theatrical trailers from the original release and 1979 Dolby-ized reissue, along with two TV spots wrap up the $20 investment.

True, the transfer has some issues, but overall this is the most thorough visit to "Fiddler on the Roof" yet. Almost. There is one extra that I wish made the transition: the laserdisc featured a snippet of Tevye singing "Tradition" in German. Too bad. Other than that, MGM’s new special edition DVD of this classic musical deserves praise for what it has, rather than kvetching about what it didn’t or couldn’t have. If only all of life’s problems could be solved by scratching out a simple, pleasant tune without breaking our neck.