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Before the opening credits there is a prologue, set between dawn and dusk of the villagers' day, in which Topol as "Tevye" addresses the audience to explain the precarious existence of the Jews in pre-revolution Russia of the early 1900s. As the song "Tradition" commences, Tevye introduces several notable minor characters in order to illustrate village life, and the villagers-fathers, mothers, sons and daughters-sing about their specific roles within the traditional Jewish family. Emphasis is placed on how the children are trained for marriages that are arranged by the "Papa," who reigns supreme in the hierarchy of the family. Tevye explains that, because of the long-held traditions that govern what they eat and wear and how they are to behave, people in the Jewish community know their place and what God expects of them. He concludes by saying that without their traditions their "lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof."
In the opening credits that follow, Harold Prince's onscreen credit reads: "Produced on the New York stage by Harold Prince." Jerome Robbins' opening onscreen credit reads: "Entire stage production directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins." Chaim Topol is credited onscreen and most reviews simply as "Topol." The actor Michael Glaser, who portrayed "Perchik," was credited later in his career as "Paul Michael Glaser." The ending credits conclude with an acknowledgment to the people of the villages of Lekenic and Mala Gorica and the city of Zagreb, Yugoslavia.
During the opening credits, the fiddler, a symbolic character who appears intermittently throughout the story in response to Tevye's thoughts, plays a passionate violin solo while standing on the rooftop of a small wooden house. The actor portraying the fiddler, Tutte Lemkow, was dubbed by the famous violinist Isaac Stern. Several times throughout the film, when Tevye must choose between tradition and his daughters' happiness, all action except for Tevye's is frozen, a device used in the original stage play written by Joseph Stein, who also wrote the screenplay. Brief flashbacks occur during the songs "Far From the Home I Love" and "Little Bird, Little Chavela." During the latter, a dance commences during the song and is performed by Tevye's three eldest daughters, their suitors and the Fiddler, while the camera moves between Tevye and the dance.
The film and stage play of Fiddler on the Roof were based on stories by Sholem (or Sholom) Yakov Rabinowitz (1859-1916), who wrote under the pseudonym, Sholem Aleichem, which is also a common greeting meaning "peace be with you." Born into a poor Jewish family near Kiev in the Ukraine, Aleichem became a prolific writer of stories in Russian and Hebrew, languages used by the learned Russian Jews. After 1883, he also wrote in vernacular Yiddish, and was the first to write children's literature in that language. Because of the pogroms in Russia, Aleichem and his family emigrated first to Switzerland and, in 1914, to New York City, where his unusual pen name and the style of his stories prompted his reputation as the "Jewish Mark Twain."
His stories about Jewish shtetl life were beloved and translated into many languages. His posthumously produced play Tevye the Milkman (1917) and several other of his stories featured many of the characters that would later appear in Fiddler on the Roof. Despite initial fears prior to the 1964 opening of the stage version that the story of Fiddler on the Roof would interest only a limited, ethnic audience, the Broadway production, starring Zero Mostel as Tevye, was universally acclaimed, and became the first commercially successful English-language play about Eastern European Jewish life. It ran continuously until 1972, well after the film's release. Remounted several times, it is considered by many a masterwork of the theater.
According to a November 1964 Daily Variety news item, Ross Hunter and Harold Prince were considering producing Fiddler on the Roof for Universal. In January 1966, Los Angeles Times reported that United Artists was in the process of buying the rights to the play, under the stipulation that the film not be released until 1971, in order to avoid interfering with the play's profits. A July 1968 Variety article reported that Norman Jewison would produce and direct the film version, which would be produced by his Simkoe Productions and Walter Mirisch for United Artists release. At that time it was expected that either Mostel or Israeli actor Topol, who performed the role in 1967 on the London stage, would play the lead. According to modern sources, Jewison felt that Mostel's more comedic approach would not translate well to the film and he wanted a first or second generation Russian Jew in that role. According to a November 1971 The Citizen Newspapers, Rosalind Harris, who played "Tzeitel," was an understudy for that role in the New York stage version at that time.
As noted in the Variety review, the choreography for the film was taken "mostly intact" from Jerome Robbins' choreography for the 1964 stage version. As in the stage version, the film was originally shown with an intermission and entr'acte music. The script, too, is almost verbatim of the stage play, but some sequences were added, such as Perchik's capture and arrest in Kiev, Golde's visit to the Orthodox Church, and conversations between the constable and his superior, a character who did not appear in the stage version. Shots of the countryside and village, which were only implied in the stage play, were explicit in the film.
As noted in the New York Times review, the movie contained more elaborate realism than the stage play, a complaint the reviewer made of "most stage to screen stories," in which there is an attempt "to enlarge the physical frame of the show" rather than tamper with the text. According to a December 1971 The Times (London) article, Jewison "had known from the beginning that realism would be one of his main problems." Jewison noted that Fiddler on the Roof "is closer to being a folk opera than it is a musical," and that to "infuse the music into the piece without stopping the story" he had to take out some of the dance and chorus. He also omitted from the film the song "Rumor," which depicted how information in a letter from Perchik to Hodel is relayed around the village and changed, as well as Perchik's song, "Now I Have Everything." Although a new song, "Any Day Now," was written to be sung by Perchik, it was cut from the released film. The director presented songs as voice-overs to keep the story moving.
According to the The Times article, the music was prerecorded in May 1970, before principal shooting began, using a double playback system. Although the tempo of the music was set at that time, the performance of each song could be altered and re-recorded over the orchestral accompaniment during the shooting of the scene.
To achieve the feeling of Tevye's intimacy with God during his conversations with the deity, Topol focused his eyes on a Star of David that was attached to a stick carried behind the camera by Jewison, according to The Times article. The article also stated that Jewison shot the film through a piece of silk stocking "to give a kind of umber, earth-toned quality." He noted that no primary colors were used in the picture except for the red flag in the revolutionary scene in Kiev.
Hollywood Reporter production charts reported that the film was shot in Yugoslavia and London. A written statement before the closing credits states that technical facilities were furnished by Jadran Film in Zagreb, Yugoslavia and Pinewood Studios in London, England. According to the Variety review, the fictional village of Anatevka was filmed at Lekenik, Yugoslavia, located twenty-five miles from Zagreb. Studio production notes stated that Jewison felt that the Lekenik and Mala Gorica had an "inherent Chagall-like style that blended with the design of the film and the intent of Sholom Aleichem." The buildings for the town were built out of wood from dilapidated houses in the area that would have existed at the time of the film's setting. Production designer Robert Boyle studied over 100 plans of synagogues from the Ukraine to ensure the set's authenticity.
According to the studio notes, the main rehearsals were held at Pinewood Studios, although others were held on London's Floral Street and in a synagogue in Soho. Modern sources add Nigel Kingsley and Kenneth Walker to the cast. According to an October 1971 Variety, Fiddler on the Roof had a one-performance charity premiere in Amsterdam on October 21, 1971. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, losing to The French Connection (see below). Topol was nominated for Best Actor, Leonard Frey for Best Supporting Actor, and Jewison for Best Director. John Williams won his first Academy Award for Best Scoring. Gordon K. McCallum and David Hildyard won Best Sound and Oswald Morris won Best Cinematography. The film also received a nomination for Best Art Direction, but lost to Nicholas and Alexandria.
As reported in a 2001 Time Out (London) news item, the film was condemned by the military regime of Chile for sixteen years because of its alleged Marxist content until the government lifted the ban in 2001. Another film based on the work of Aleichem is The World of Sholom Aleichem, which was directed for television in 1959 and had in its cast Zero Mostel. Although a December 1965 Daily Variety news item reported that Arnold Perl, who owned the rights to the Aleichem properties and had written an English adaptation of one of the stories, had plans to produce a non-musical film based on the works as an independent film at Zagreb Studios in Belgrade, no further information was found about this project.