Theatre: Fiddler on the Roof

"A fiddler on the roof... Sounds crazy, no? But here in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck."

Fiddler on the Roof is a popular musical from the 1960s, based on a set of stories by Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem (pen name for Solomon Rabinovich).

Set in the shtetl of Anatevka, in the Pale of Settlement of the Russian Empire, just before the Revolution of 1905, it tells the story of Tevye, a milkman with five daughters: Tzeitel, Hodel, Chava, Schprintze, and Bielke. The plot centers on Tevye and Golde's efforts to find husbands for their daughters, but their daughters break tradition by marrying for love rather than having their marriages arranged by Yente, the town matchmaker.

The original Broadway production starred Zero Mostel in the role that would make him famous, but producer-director Norman Jewison refused to cast him in the movie, feeling that his performance was too over the top, and chose Chaim Topol, star of the London production, instead. Mostel was so pissed off at the rejection, that when Jewison later cast his son, Josh Mostel, as King Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar, Mostel reportedly retorted, "You should have told him to hire Topol's son, instead." The movie was released in 1971. Originally, Jerome Robbins, the director-choreographer of the original musical, had shown an interest in directing the film as well, but the production company, Mirisch Pictures, refused to even consider the idea, due to the difficulties they had when Robbins was assigned to co-direct and choreograph West Side Story. (Robbins had spent so much time shooting and re-shooting scenes in his quest for perfection, that by the time he had completed about 60% of the picture, the film had gone $1,000,000 over budget and six months behind schedule. He was summarily fired from the film shoot and producer and co-director Robert Wise completed the film alone.)

Fiddler on the Roof remains a popular choice for high schools to this day.

It provides examples of:

  • Actually Pretty Funny: The rabbi's son cracks up when Tevye jokes that the Jews' constant migrations is "why we never take off our hats."
  • Adaptation Distillation: In the original books, Tevye had seven daughters, and many aspects of his life (such as his journey from abject poverty to respectable milk farmer, earning him the "Reb Tevye" moniker, and the suicide of one of his daughters) were cut out.
  • All Issues Are Political Issues: Perchik says this when he is trying to propose to Hodel.
  • All Jews Are Ashkenazi: Justifed, given that it takes place within the Pale of Settlement, the heartland of Ashkenazi culture.
  • Anti-Villain: The constable, while slightly demeaning toward Jews, doesn't despise them, and has a lot of respect for Tevye. His attacks on them are orders he follows from anti-semitic authorities, and he knows if he doesn't do it, the authorities would hire someone who would.
  • Appeal to Tradition: There's a whole song about it!
  • Arranged Marriage: To life!note 
  • As the Good Book Says: Probably Trope Namer. Tevye is always saying this to everyone, including the audience.
    • And he tries to tell God "As the Good Book says ..." before realizing that God already knows what the Good Book says.
    • Subverted in that he makes up most of the quotes or gets them wrong.
      Yes, well, somewhere, it says something about a chicken.
  • Awesome Mc Cool Name: Lazar Wolf.
    • Entirely by accident — in the 1900s, it was just another Jewish name.
    • Also sounds cooler in the film than in real life. In Russian language, the first a is pronounced as a long ah.
  • Aww, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: Tevye and Golde, who after nearly 30 years of bickering, child bearing, and drudgery, realize that they really do love each other.
  • Being Good Sucks: The story starts off with his mule injuring its leg and Tevye's luck just goes downhill from there.
  • Bait and Switch: The "New Arrival" at Motel and Tzeitel's that everyone is goo-gooing over is...a sewing machine. And done immediately in reverse when Tzeitel walks in with a newborn baby.
  • Berserk Button: Do not tell Grandma Tzeitel that her great-granddaughter is marrying Lazar Wolf.
    • Don't mention it to Fruma Sarah, either. Also, don't take Fruma Sarah's pearls.
    • In a rare heartwarming example, Motel finally grows a pair and stands up to Tevye when he calls him a poor tailor.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Jews of Anatevka may have been forced to leave Russia entirely, but at least they got out alive, and in time to avoid World War One and the Russian Civil War. Apart from those eight years of warfare wrecking the economy and killing a tenth of a population of the entire Empire, the latter was known for its even more violent progroms against Russian Jews committed by the the Reds and Whites (the Greens opposed them, but were too weak to stop them happening). On the other hand, those of them who went to Poland not only would've had the frontlines move through the country thrice (once in the World War, twice in the Polish-Soviet War), but later, well... Anyhow, Tevye also got all his daughters married (not in the way he expected, though), and the fiddler follows them away, as does the traditions it symbolizes.note 
  • Brawn Hilda: Fruma Sarah, Lazar Wolf's deceased wife, is sometimes depicted as one of these.
  • Brick Joke: In the opening, Tevye mentions that one of their traditions is always wearing hats. In the end, Tevye speculates that maybe the reason hats are constantly worn is because historically Jews/Hebrews have been forced out of a number of places at a moments notice.
  • Category Traitor: Tevye considers Chava to have passed the Moral Event Horizon for wanting to marry a guy who isn't Jewish, effectively telling her I Have No Daughter when she comes asking for his acceptance of her marriage. This is both Truth in Television and Values Dissonance, as the fragility and small numbers of the Jewish faith - especially in the film's setting of pre-revolutionary Russia, where Jewish communities (as seen in the musical) were under constant threat of attack from the Christian majority - means that each marriage is an important part of the preservation of the religion. Marrying out of the faith for even many modern Orthodox Jews would be the ultimate betrayal.
  • Childhood Marriage Promise: Motel and Tzeitel.
  • Child Marriage Veto: Tzeitel refuses to marry Lazar when Tevye tells her of the match. Granted, Tevye does relent after realizing how much she doesn't want to marry Lazar; Tzeitel might have gone along with it if he had continued to force the issue.
  • Compliment Backfire: TWO right after the other. Tevye tells the constable it's a shame he's not a Jew. The constable laughs it off, and tells Tevye he likes his joking. Both of them, however, realize what the other was saying, and look pretty miffed afterward.
  • Cosmic Plaything: Tevye seems to see himself, and the Jewish people as a whole, as this at times.
    Tevye: I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can't You choose someone else?
  • Creepy Shadowed Undereyes: Played for Laughs in Tevye's "dream" sequence.
  • Dark Reprise: "Tradition" after Tevye disowns Chava. No words, but the chorus dancing in the back... dancing like they're trapped and can never escape...
  • Dead Guy Junior: Tevye's oldest daughter Tzeitel is named for her great-grandma, dead thirty years.
  • It Will Never Catch On: An inverted example. Motel brags after getting his sewing machine that he'll no longer make any hand-made clothes. (At the time the movie was made and a century later, people are paying big bucks for hand-made clothes.)
  • "I Want" Song: "Matchmaker, Matchmaker" for the three eldest girls (Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava); "If I Were A Rich Man" for Tevye
  • Jewish Complaining: Tevye has many things to complain about, and even uses it to save face in the last act.
  • Jews Love to Argue:
    • Invoked in the opening when Tevye happily informs the viewer that amongst the Jews in the village everyone gets along. Then he casually goes over to a pair bartering over a horse and instigates a loud, angry argument, that appears to involve all of the Jewish characters in the market.
      Group 1 at Group 2: HORSE!
      Group 2 at Group 1: MULE!
      Group 1 at Group 2: HORSE!
      Group 2 at Group 1: MULE!
    • In the film, Tevye starts a huge argument between two groups arguing about whether Neighbor 1 sold Neighbor 2 a six-year-old or twelve-year-old horse. The whole village seems to get in on it.
    • Tevye and some of the other men of the village when Perchik is first introduced.
  • Just Following Orders: The Constable's justification for allowing "a little unofficial demonstration" of anti-semitism. He also faces removal from his post if he doesn't carry out the pogrom. He knows someone would do it, and he would rather it be him instead of someone far worse.
  • Living Prop: It is INCREDIBLY easy to forget that Tevye has two little daughters as well as his three teenage ones.
  • Marriage Before Romance: The marriage of Tevye and Golde was arranged and they have been together for years, having already raised all their children to adulthood, but it isn't until one of their daughters wants to marry for love that they start thinking about romance with one another. Their duet 'Do You Love Me?' lampshades, describes and plays out the trope.
  • Marry for Love: Tevye's daughters want to do this.
  • Money Song: "If I Were A Rich Man"
  • My God, You Are Serious:
    Tevye: Thank you, your honor. You are a good man. If I may say so, it's too bad you're not a Jew.
    Constable: [laughs] That's what I like about you, Tevye. You're always joking.
    (Awkward silence ensues as the Constable realizes Tevye was not joking.)
  • Never Bareheaded: The characters are all Orthodox Jews, so this trope is naturally in play.
  • Nice Jewish Boy: Motel. Though in perhaps a bit of an aversion, Golde would prefer her daughter to marry a rich older man like Lazar Wolf.
  • Oh, Crap: Tevye gets one when he realises he has to tell his wife about their daughter's change in marriage plans.
    Golde! What am I going to tell Golde?!
  • One Dialogue, Two Conversations: Are Tevye and Lazar talking about a milk cow, or about Tzeitel?
  • Opening Chorus: "Traditiooooooon!"
  • Opinion-Changing Dream: Invoked by Tevye to persuade his wife to let Tzeitel marry Motel.
  • The Outside World: Russians are mostly the outside world to the Jews. Even if when Lazar Wolf buys for everyone to celebrate his wedding Russians are perfectly happy to get joyfully smashed alongside Jews.
  • Parental Marriage Veto: Tevye refuses to let his daughter marry outside the faith. When she insists, he disowns her.
  • Playing Gertrude: 36-year-old Topol to Rosalind Harris (who would later play Golde to his Tevye onstage).
  • Political Stereotype: Perchik, as the idealistic, left-wing university student.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: If the story's main theme is tradition vs. upheaval, the way the musical approaches that theme inverts the approach taken by its source material. Sholem Aleykhem's original stories, written for exclusively Jewish audiences around the turn of the (20th) century, stressed the importance of upholding tradition despite surrounding social change. The musical, which was intended for a more general audience, takes the position that change - both good and bad - is inevitable. (Which was pretty much the theme of The Sixties, if you think about it.)
  • The Presents Were Never from Santa: Golde changes her mind about Tzeitel marrying Motel instead of Lazar Wolf by Tevye's prophetic dream from her great-grandmother... which Tevye entirely made up. The dream never happened.
  • Proper Lady: Tzeitel. It's assumed Hodel would have become this had she not fallen in love with Perchik. She originally had a crush on the rabbi's son.
  • Punch Clock Villain: The Constable, and if "To Life" is any hint, possibly the rest of the Russian villagers. Except for the fact that there is a very obviously implied tension when the Russian Villagers join the dancing. It recedes, jumps up when Tevye bumps into one, and recedes again, but is always there.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!:
    • "Now I have piece of advice for you: This. Is still. My land. Get. Off. My. Land."
  • Refuge in Audacity: Possibly the only reason why Tevye can make the "dream" about Fruma Sarah into a plausible excuse for marrying Tzeitel off to Motel. Even more clever and devious: Fruma Sarah's objection is the motivation; Grandma Tzeitel's is the excuse.
  • Rule of Three: Three girls, three marriages that undo their father's expectations. They have more girls than that, of course, but only three have plot-important roles; the others are not yet of marriageable age. And in the stories, Tevye has seven daughters.
  • Russian Guy Suffers Most: Or, if you're already in Russia, Jewish Guy does.
  • Small Reference Pools: In Hollywood, mentioning this play is a good way to establish that a character is a Jewish person even if the character hasn't actually mentioned having Jewish heritage.
  • Smite Me, O Mighty Smiter
    Perchik: Money is the curse of the world.
    Tevye [shouting to the Heavens]: May God Smite me with it! AND MAY I NEVER RECOVER!
  • Stealth Insult:
    • "Is there a proper blessing for the tsar?" "Yes. 'May God bless and keep the tsar... far away from us!'"
    • Yente comes to one of the fathers telling him she has a match for his son, the shoemaker's daughter. The father protests, since the shoemaker's daughter is almost blind. Yente explains this IS why it is such a perfect match, as a blind girl should have no worries about whether her husband is ugly.
  • Stout Strength: Tevye is often portrayed as going a bit soft about the belly with middle age. He's also shown hauling his loaded milk cart around after his horse injures its leg.
  • That Wasn't a Request: When Perchik and Hodel tell Tevye (Hodel's father) of their engagement and he blusters that he won't allow it:
    Hodel: You don't understand, Papa.
    Tevye: I understand, I understand, because I said yes to Motel and Tzietel you feel you also have the right, but my answer is still no.
    Perchik: No, Reb Tevye. You don't understand. We're not asking for your permission.
  • Title Drop: "You might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof."
  • Troubled Sympathetic Bigot: Tevye is constantly struggling with his belief in tradition versus his three daughters' yearning for liberation. He manages to accept the first two of them (who want to chose their own husbands, but within their own ethnic group), but draws the line with the third (who falls in love with a Christian). With this daughter, Tevye is shown to be on the edge of committing Honor-Related Abuse: but he never carries it out, making him a failed patriarch but keeping him from becoming a failed human beingnote .

Alternative Title(s):

Fiddler On The Roof