Adapted from the hit stage musical, Norman Jewison’s film version of Fiddler on the Roof has established itself as a classic over and over again since its release in 1971.
“He loves her. Love, it’s a new style… On the other hand, our old ways were once new, weren’t they?” I’ll hardly be the first to write it, but the reason Fiddler on the Roof, a story about Jewish people and their culture, is so popular, is that its themes have universal appeal. In fact, in a way it hardly matters th…t the characters are Jewish. As we learn from a famous anecdote, when the first Japanese production of the stage musical opened, the show’s creators traveled to Japan to meet the producer. He said to them, “I don’t understand, I don’t know how this piece can work so well in New York. It’s so Japanese!”
The story is set in pre-revolutionary Russia, and centres around Tevye (Chaim Topol), a poor family man in a small, Jewish town. His three daughters, eldest Tzeitel (Rosalind Harris), middle Hodel (Michele Marsh) and youngest Chava (Neva Small), are either ready to marry or darn close. Following their tradition, that means marrying whomever the matchmaker finds and whom Tevye approves. For girls from a poor family unable to offer a dowry, their prospects are understandably slim. Either way, the girls rail against tradition, and want to choose their own matches, based on love. Herein lies the film’s universal theme of the conflicting relationship between parents and children, from generation to generation.
Simmering in the background is the Russian revolution, which is leading to oppression of Jews. Many are beginning to feel unwelcome in their villages, with some having already been forced out. This creates another of the film’s universal themes, which is people feeling out of place in their own environment, for reasons of oppression or even – back to the generation gap – just for not buying into their own cultural traditions.
There’s much more to story, of course, and each step of the way is punctuated by fantastic musical compositions. But I don’t want to spoil any more of the story for anyone who has yet to see this film or the stage version.
But we can discuss the music. With lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and music by Jerry Bock, the songs of Fiddler on the Roof are both magnificent and memorable. The dynamic duo of Bock and Harnick is renowned in Broadway history, having created five different show scores in seven years, including Fiorello, which won Broadway’s equivalent of the triple crown: the Tony Award, The New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. The pair’s compositions for Fiddler include the well-known songs, If I Were a Rich Man, Matchmaker, Matchmaker and Sunrise, Sunset. John Williams was responsible for adapting and conducting the music for the film version, and it’s obvious the score was safe in his capable hands.
Other major influences on the quality of this film include Oswald Morris (Oliver!), who won an Oscar for his cinematography, and the film’s talented cast, anchored around the pitch-perfect Topol, who was a bit of a controversial pick, given that it was multiple-Tony Award winner Zero Mostel who had created the Tevye role on Broadway.
So the film is a musical gem and well-deserving of a place in any film fan’s library. As for this Collector’s Edition DVD, the big question is whether it’s worth buying if you have one of the previous two releases, or even if you don’t.
Fiddler on the Roof (Collector’s Edition) is presented on two discs, with the feature film on disc one, in 2.35:1 widescreen format, and most of the special features on disc two. As far as I can tell, this is the same transfer used for the special edition release back in 2001. That’s not a bad thing because the restored film looks quite good, but it certainly doesn’t make the case for upgrading to this new edition.
In any case, it’s obvious that the film has received special treatment, as more than 30 years later it ranges from outright lovely to just ok in some of the darker scenes. Contrast and sharpness are mostly good, and the colours – though a bit washed out – appear natural. All in all, this is a solid example of how good a film from the early 70’s can look today.
The menus are animated, and scored.
There are several audio options on this release. For English, it’s a choice between Dolby Digital 5.1 and mono audio. Purists will likely steer away from the 5.1 mix, but I thought it sounded quite good, and more than did justice to the original master. Again, this appears to be the same audio available on the special edition release, so either one will net you a quality audio presentation, with clear dialogue, and a full sound on the score and most especially on the famous songs.
Mono audio is also available in French and Spanish, while subtitles are offered in English and Spanish.
So far Fiddler on the Roof – 2-disc Collector’s Edition appears to be merely a re-packaging of the special edition released in 2001. Finally, with the bonus material, we have some new content. That said, many of the most important special features are repeats from that special edition.
Here’s a quick list of the repeat material:
Audio commentary by director/producer Norman Jewison and actor Topol, deleted song: Any Day Now, “Norman Jewison, Filmmaker” documentary, Historical Background with Photographs by Ann Weis, Tevye’s Dream sequence in full colour, the Stories of Sholam Aleichem read by Norman Jewison, a production Photo Gallery with drawings, storyboards and more, and a collection of trailers.
As you might guess, that’s the bulk of the bonus material. While that list certainly does represent a treasure trove for Fiddler fans, what’s new for this collector’s edition release?
What’s new are five featurettes: Interview with John Williams: Creating a Musical Tradition, Interview with Tevye’s Daughters, Norman Jewison Looks Back, Set In Reality Production Design, and Songs of Fiddler on the Roof. All told, these new featurettes represent approximately one hour of new material.
Interview with John Williams: Creating a Musical Tradition runs about 12 minutes, and covers Williams’ experience working on the film, adapting and conducting the music. It includes interview clips from Williams, Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, and while it’s not very focused on John Williams’ efforts, it does get into the musical tradition part in some depth.
Tevye’s Daughters is next. At about 16 minutes, this featurette provides good background on how these women were cast, and includes individual interviews with each actress, in which they reminisce about their Fiddler experience. Definitely worth a look.
Set In Reality: Production Design features production designer Robert Boyle remembering his involvement with the film. While Boyle discusses the various aspects of developing “the soul of the film,” we see a mix of video footage, photographs and original design sketches. This is 10 minutes worth watching.
Norman Jewison Looks Back is a collection of interview clips. Here the director/producer speaks about five topics: On Directing, Strongest Memory, Biggest Challenge, On Casting and A Classic?. The titles are pretty self-explanatory, and it’s interesting to compare Jewison’s thoughts here to his comments from older footage in other features on this release. 35 years certainly provides a different perspective.
Finally, Songs of Fiddler on the Roof offers up 15 minutes on the working team of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. Here the pair discusses – in separate interviews – their inspiration for the songs, their goals in creating the Fiddler score, and most interestingly, how they worked together.
In light of these five new featurettes, I can happily report that this triple-dip collector’s edition release definitely does raise the bar over the 2001 special edition. At least in the bonus material department.
Fiddler on the Roof is widely considered to be among the finest movie musicals of all time. It’s presented here in a worthy DVD set, with excellent audio and video. Add to that the combination of all of the previous special edition’s bonus material and five all-new featurettes, and you’ve got yourself a definitive DVD release.