The play opens with a number about the importance of tradition in their lives ("Tradition"), and segues into Golde's discussion with the town matchmaker. Tevye's three oldest daughters discuss what kind of husband they would like ("Matchmaker, Matchmaker"), but realize that they could end up with an awful husband. Meanwhile, Tevye considers what his life would be like if he were rich ("If I Were A Rich Man"), and then the family convenes for a traditional Sabbath dinner ("Sabbath Prayer").
Tevye and Lazar Wolf, the town butcher, make an agreement that Lazar will marry Tzeitel, sealing the bargain with drinks for the entire tavern ("L'Chaim (To Life)"). However...
Tzeitel has been in love with Motel, a tailor, since they were children, and while Tevye struggles at first to accept them as a couple, he eventually agrees to their marriage ("Miracle of Miracles"). After all, Motel is a good Jew with a steady job, and he lives in the same town. But first he has to convince Golde, which he does by inventing a dream where Lazar Wolf's dead first wife rises from her grave and threatens vengeance if Tzeitel marries Lazar ("The Dream"). At Tzeitel's wedding a few weeks later, Tevye and Golde reminisce about Tzeitel's childhood ("Sunrise, Sunset") and then it is time to celebrate ("The Bottle Dance"). But the Cossacks come and crash the wedding, much to the town's dismay.
He is tested further when Perchik, a revolutionary, comes to Anatevka just prior to Tzeitel's wedding. Tevye agrees to give him room and board in exchange for his services as a tutor. When he meets Hodel, sparks fly, and soon the two have fallen in love ("Now I Have Everything"). Meanwhile, Tevye, who married Golde thanks to an Arranged Marriage, asks her whether she loves him ("Do You Love Me?"). She agrees, eventually, that she does. Perchik asks Tevye for Hodel's hand, but then he leaves for Kiev, the city, to lead a demonstration and ends up being exiled to a settlement in Siberia. Hodel makes the heartbreaking choice to join him and marry him there, ("Far From The Home I Love"), soothing her father by saying, "Papa, I promise you, we will be married under a canopy."
Tevye reaches his breaking point, however, with Chava's choice of a husband: She has fallen in love with Fyedka, a Russian soldier, who noticed her at the local bookseller. Although Chava is shy and withdrawn, eventually she warms up to Fyedka and they begin to meet secretly. However, Fyedka is a Christian, and while Tevye has permitted his first two daughters to marry for love, he cannot allow an interfaith marriage. When Chava chooses to marry him anyway, he has no choice but to disown her ("Chavaleh").
Meanwhile, the Cossacks have been raiding nearby towns and villages, forcing their residents to flee to America. Eventually, the edict comes to Anatevka as well. Tevye, Golde, Motel, Tzeitel, their baby, Schprintze, and Bielke leave for the United States. Hodel remains in Siberia with Perchik, and Chava leaves with Fyedka for Krakow, since he is not happy either: "some are driven out by edicts; others by silence." Tevye unbends a little; he still can't look at Chava and Fyedka, but he does say "God go with you" as they separate, and that's a start. As the residents prepare to depart, they express their love for their town and their sadness at departing ("Anatevka"). The play ends with the residents of the town scattered to the four winds, hoping for a better life in the future... and the Fiddler himself follows, indicating that they will always have their faith.