An exploration of our ideas

While most people who love Fiddler on the Roof may view it as a piece of popular entertainment that is endlessly fun to sing along to, the reason Fiddler on the Roof has persisted and continues to resonate with audiences today is because the themes at the heart of the show are universal to people around the world and throughout time.

Our film focuses on three time frames – 1905, 1964 and today, and explores a number of themes, all of which are present in each time frame. It is these timeless, ubiquitous themes which give Fiddler its power, for they shed light on what it means to be a human being in this world, whether you are a 19th century Russian dairyman or a young African-American girl in the 21st century.

Rather than use a narrator, the story is told primarily through a tapestry of interviews. One of the great assets of our film is Sheldon Harnick, the lyricist of Fiddler on the Roof, who is still vibrant and working at 95 years of age. Sheldon has bequeathed our film a treasure trove of stories that bring to life the tortuous, unlikely, thrillingly creative and exhausting process of creating this art.

Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, the music composer, worked differently than most creative teams. Rather than sit side by side at the piano, they worked separately, with Bock sending Harnick recorded tapes of his musical forays and commentary. Our production has acquired these original tapes, which are an incredible piece of archival material, and we utilize them throughout the film.

Changing Traditions

Loss of Foundations and Identity

Anti-Semitism, Racism and Xenophobia

Women's Rights

The Struggle for Survival

Refugees and Immigrants

Love, Family and Friendship

1905

This is the year in which the story takes place, a time of great political upheaval around the world. Czarist Russian forces fired into a defenseless group of demonstrators in St. Petersburg, beginning the Russian Revolution of 1905. In the US, Industrial Workers of the World was founded, creating the first major worker’s union, while Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was introduced to the world.

For Tevye, traditions from the past maintain a foundation for his family and his community, but there is a conflict that is coming to the surface. Each of his three daughters is choosing to go against the strong cultural and religious beliefs of their parents and of the community. They want to marry those whom they love, rather than those whom Tevye and Golde have chosen for them. The themes of religious piety, economic survival, and the rise of feminism all come into play.

In 1905, in the Pale of Settlement, pogroms were common. Mass immigration to the US through Ellis Island in 1905 mirrors the current plight of refugees and immigrants trying to look for a better life someplace else. The fact that the United States closed its door on Jewish immigrants during Hitler’s rise to power in the thirties, and is now intent on replaying that policy today, is one of the many parallels that have become evident.

1964

As in 1905, it was a time of tremendous political, social and cultural change around the world. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution heralded the beginnings of the Vietnam War. America was still shaken by the death of JFK, Bob Dylan released major social protest songs, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was founded.

1964 is only twenty years after the atrocities of the Holocaust, and the audiences of Fiddler on the Roof surely would have had these memories of horror in mind as they watched Anatevka being forcibly emptied of its life-long inhabitants, with many of them ending up in the death camps of Poland.

In June of 1964, three young civil rights workers, Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, were murdered in Mississippi. The Civil Rights Movement pushed against the barriers of traditional American racial prejudice, and the painful sacrifices were prevalent. And just as Tevye’s daughters strive to make a life for themselves on their own terms, so did women in 1964, who marched in the streets for equal rights.

Today

53 years after the opening of Fiddler on the Roof, all of these themes of human struggle addressed in the musical are sadly still part of our world…perhaps more so today than ever.

Powerful, violent right wing movements are sweeping across the continent of Europe and the United States, targeting the vulnerable and poor. Millions of refugees flee war-torn Syria and the Middle East. The Civil Rights Struggle continues with grassroots movements like Black Lives Matter. Anti-Semitic and Anti-Muslim rhetoric and action are spreading in all corners of the world. And the rights of the LGBTQ community are being fought for with a new generation of young activists.

Women’s rights are still being fought for in a country where misogyny is on an upswing – the Woman’s March on Washington involved more than 2 million people throughout the country. And the very survival of our planet, threatened by global warming, is in question.

Themes and Ideas | Fiddler Film