I am not typically a fan of musicals. I don’t particularly dislike them; in fact, there are some I like very much. I just don’t usually go out of my way to watch them. Thus, though I obviously have known of Fiddler on the Roof‘s status as a great film for some time, I never actually saw it until this past weekend, when my wife received it from Netflix. The film portrays the life of a mostly poor Jewish community in pre-revolutionary Russia, focusing particularly on the farmer Tevye (played masterfully by the actor Topol) and his relationship with his coming-of-age daughters. The basic plot sounded fine, but the whole setting-it-to-music thing made me somewhat apprehensive. I must say I was pleasantly surprised.

Part of the reason I don’t tend to watch musicals is because I get irritated and impatient with the constant interruption of the narrative to break into song (somewhat strange, considering I don’t mind opera, but I think that’s a case where I’m going to the artform more for the music than the story, whereas in musicals it’s usually vice-versa). I simply want the story to move along without the characters stopping every five minutes to reflect their emotions through music when it could just as easily be done through other devices. As I began to watch Fiddler, it appeared I might be in for a long night. It sucked me in, however. So much so that by the end, not only did I not mind the music, but I was thinking that this was one of the rare cases where I could say with certainty the film should be a musical – i.e., that trying to express its themes in some other fashion just wouldn’t work as well.

Indeed, Fiddler is a rather eloquent case of form following function. Much like the actual fiddler on the roof, the film’s status as a musical in spite of its overwhelmingly serious themes represents the Jewish community’s ability to be happy and flourish despite its precarious circumstances. As the film goes on, particularly as it nears the end, the saddening circumstances threatens to break it out of its musical genre and into a melancholy drama. fiddler.jpgWhile this can be interpreted literally in a couple of scenes (the Russians interrupting the Jewish song in the tavern, the wedding festivities being overrun by soldiers, etc.), it’s more of a response on the viewer’s part – drawn increasingly into the struggles of Tevye’s family and the surrounding community, as the situation deteriorates around them, one tends to forget that it’s a musical. Yet even towards the end, though the songs may be less frequent and definitely not as chipper, they still pop up occassionally to remind the viewer that he/she is, indeed, watching a musical. It’s a touching illustration of how a community can persevere and maintain its hope and heart even when under the most adverse circumstances. Thus, even when leaving his home for good, Tevye walks with the fiddler close behind him, continuing his tune and demonstrating the resiliency of the Jewish spirit.

I’ll be honest, I don’t know how often I can sit through a three-hour long musical, but in my opinion, there is simply no denying Fiddler on the Roof‘s status as a masterpiece. It may seem strange on the surface, given all its song-and-dance routines, but this film is so skillfully done that it seems every bit as moving and effective as the more serious treatments of Jewish history. I enjoyed it.