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The American musical, Fiddler on the Roof, tells the story of Tevye, an impoverished Jewish milkman with five daughters, living in Imperial Russia at the turn of the 20th century in the Pale of Settlement.
This was a western region of Russia, where Jewish people were permitted to reside. In the early 20th century, they were not allowed to live outside specific regions and life was very tough for people of the Jewish faith.
Tevye is struggling to maintain his cultural and religious traditions in an ever-changing world, as outside influences infringe on the family’s life. His three older daughters tell him they wish to marry for love, rather than having a traditional arranged marriage, with each prospective husband moving further away from the beliefs of his faith.
The film’s most famous song, If I Were a Rich Man, sung by Tevye, bemoans the fact his hard-earned money doesn’t buy his family the material comforts they deserve, as he imagines how different life would be if they were rich.
Fiddler on the Roof was originally a 1964 stage musical, based on Sholem Aleichem’s 1894 novel, Tevye and His Daughters. The stage show featured music by Jerry Bock, with lyrics by Sheldon Harnick.
The Broadway production was a huge success, becoming the first musical theatre show in history to run continually for more than 3,000 performances.
Reprising his stage role, the 1971 film starred Chaim Topol as Tevye – he performed the role more than 3,500 times in stage shows and revivals, from the late 1960s until 2009, when he was 74 years old.
He made the role his own and won a Golden Globe for best actor in a musical or comedy film. He was also nominated for an Academy Award as best actor.
Tevye the milkman believes 100% in tradition and is determined his five daughters are going to marry suitable Jewish husbands, chosen for them by a matchmaker. Tevye and his wife Golde, played by Norma Crane, realise they do love each other after their own arranged marriage and support the traditional way of finding a spouse.
However, their more forward-thinking daughters have other ideas and make it clear they intend to marry for love. Tevye endures an inner struggle as his desire to make his daughters happy conflicts with his beliefs that they should marry suitable husbands, regardless of whether they love them or not.
First, Tevye arranges for his oldest daughter, Tzeitel (Rosalind Harris), to marry older widowed butcher Lazar Wolf (Paul Mann). She rebels and eventually her father gives her his blessing to marry her true love, tailor Motel Kamzoil (Leonard Frey).
The same thing happens with his second-oldest daughter, Hodel (Michele Marsh), who wishes to marry a Bolshevik revolutionary, Perchik (Paul Michael Glaser). After much soul-searching, her father reluctantly agrees.
When his third daughter, Chava (Neva Small) falls in love with Fyedka (Raymond Lovelock), a Russian Orthodox Christian, it becomes too much for Tevye and he can’t accept she wishes to marry someone of a different faith. He disowns his daughter when she leaves to marry Fyedka anyway, against his express wishes.
Tevye’s attitude towards the marriages of his daughters emphasises the importance of tradition for some people, especially the fact he’s prepared to disown his own daughter because she wishes to marry for love, rather than marrying within her own faith.
When he sings If I Were a Rich Man, the film’s most famous song, it is a heartfelt lament about the family’s situation, as he thinks being rich might be the answer to all their prayers. In the first two verses, he imagines the luxuries he would buy if money was no object.
He dreams of an enormous house, full of unnecessary luxuries, staffed by servants so his wife wouldn’t have to work anymore, with wardrobes full of expensive clothes for her pleasure and so much food that none of them would ever go hungry again. He laments his station within the community as a lowly milkman and dreams of what will never be.
However, in the third and fourth verses, he thinks about the real reason he is dissatisfied, realising it’s mainly because he has to work such long hours that he can’t do the things he enjoys to satisfy himself as a person. He wants to go to the synagogue more often, but all his time is spent trying to make enough money to survive. The song ends with Tevye asking if it would spoil some “vast eternal plan” if he was to have money?
Fiddler on the Roof is hailed as one of the greatest films of all time. It was a massive hit with the public when it was released, making $83.3 million at the box office worldwide, when it was produced on a relatively low budget of $9 million. It was also loved by the critics, winning nine awards and being nominated for a further eleven.
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The film seemed to strike a chord with the general public, because it featured a family fighting to stay together and maintain tradition in an ever-changing world, while also struggling against poverty and wishing they could be rich. We’ve all wished we were rich at some point in our life, thinking it might be the answer to our problems.
In the real world, suddenly having a massive fortune is unlikely, unless we’re one of the lucky few who wins the national lottery. We must make wise purchasing decisions, because our hard-earned cash should be spent sensibly – we don’t have money to burn!
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