Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen is no ordinary behind-the-scenes documentary. For one thing, it chronicles the adaptation of a musical play that qualifies as a genuine phenomenon. Based on a story originally told in Yiddish, it has turned out to have universal resonance.
It even spoke to a Canadian director who, despite his surname, isn’t Jewish. Norman Jewison has many fine films to his credit but this one had special meaning for him. Finding the right cast and collaborators was as vital for him as securing the right location. How could he have known that his renowned production designer, Robert Boyle, would have a unique knowledge of Yiddish theater—and a collection of incredible photos documenting life in an Eastern European shtetl?
Musical director John Williams would be an asset to any filmmaker, but there was something special about his partnership with Jewison, as well. Williams explains the breadth of his job—rehearsing the actors and selecting the proper key for their vocals, creating a compatible setting for violin virtuoso Isaac Stern to perform his solos during a two-day break in his travel schedule, and so much more.
Unable to shoot on location in Russia, Jewison chose Yugoslavia (which would soon be wiped off the map, not unlike Anatevka). Boyle even hired peasant laborers to create the look and feel of an early 20th-century shtetl, including an authentic Orthodox synagogue, which was built from scratch.
Seeking a proper look for the film, British cinematographer Oswald Morris sent a crew member off to purchase women’s stockings, which he affixed to his lenses. This translucent touch helped create the gray-brown look the director was going for.
All of this is recounted with joy and affection by the film’s surviving creators (including cast members and 97-year old lyricist Sheldon Harnick) and an exquisitely moving John Williams. But Jewison “sells” the story behind his cinematic achievement because we can see for ourselves the kind of youthful enthusiasm that translated to commitment from his compatriots.
Filmmaker Daniel Raim and writer-researcher Michael Sragow can be proud of what they achieved here: a moving and meaningful tribute to a major American musical that has too often been taken for granted.
The film opens today at the Angelika Film Center and on May 5 at Laemmle’s Royal in Los Angeles.