Talk about a movie with a universal, timeless appeal! When Joseph Stein, writer of the show’s book visited Japan for its premiere, one of the Japanese producers asked him if it actually really worked in America. Taken aback, Stein told him that it did; it was written for an American audience. When asked why the producer thought it might not work in America, the answer was “Because it’s so Japanese.” The tension of modernity and change with tradition and culture is one that every country and society faces. As our main character and narrator explains during the first minutes, the precarious balance is the meaning of the title.
While I’m not one for all and sundry musicals, this is one of my favorites. The older I get, the better I understand Tevye and the continued sacrifices and compromises he makes on behalf of his wife and children. The joy in life and all its twists and turns is evident in the songs and various events. Even when beset by trouble and strife, the continuity with faith and tradition gives comfort and a path forward.
Tevye is wise enough to understand and take the measure of each of his daughters’ suitors. Ultimately he accedes to those that impress him with their commitment. Though he professes a desire for wealth, indeed he even has an entire song on the topic, his actions tell a different tale. On the surface it may seem like he’s nothing but the age-old anti-Semitic stereotype of the greedy Jew. Instead he shows care for his family, his animals, and the indigent and less fortunate than himself even to his own detriment and loss at times. He is charitable without being compelled by anything other than his conscience and sense of righteousness.
The sadness in the final note of the film is as one would expect for any story about Jews in Russia during the 19th century. It is easy to sympathize with their plight after spending a couple hours getting to know them. After all, they’re just as human as we are. But our risk is in identifying too closely and missing the important point that can skip by unnoticed as we sing along to the songs.
It’s easy enough to decry injustice when we are treated unjustly. The real strength of character comes from succeeding in the struggle to be bold enough to stand for others even when it costs us dearly. We are far more apt to be like the village constable instead of Fyedka. Too often we are the ones pleading to Tevye to understand that “I’m not doing this!” No, “please understand I don’t like it either!” But “I have no choice! Don’t you see that?” And perhaps there will be coercion, but like the constable we could have chosen virtue and taken the consequences.
This is a great work of art. Whatever minor factual inaccuracies it might contain, it is full of deep truth about life and humanity. You’ll laugh and think and cry and, if you take it to heart, come away a better person for the experience.